Thoughtful Destruction

“Masters, be kind to the old house that must fall”
-Julia Randall

At the end of the road is a sparkling new building, good for students, a haven for learning, modern, marvelous, and built to be an art school. That road, however, is anything but smooth.

Winding, filled with potential potholes, and paved over sacred ground, the path to progress promises to try our souls.

In a little more than a year our current campus will swell with the sound of hammering, bulldozers, and a great moving of earth. Construction fencing will circle our school, and looking down at the commotion within those plywood and chain link walls, the birds that fly overhead will witness the destruction of our old and wonderful building and the construction of something new.

IMG_7105Our current home, formally CE Mason Elementary School and home to ACMA for the past quarter century, is covered with meaningful student art, regarded with well deserved affection, and packed with more vivid memories than a Terrence Malick film.

This June, as the last summer we’ll spend in this building arrives, feels like a time of calm before the emotional storm, a chance to take a deep breath before piloting this splendid old ship into the dock for the last time.

As we do, we’re in the opening stages of planning the new building. Our architects are presenting ideas to the staff, and meeting with teachers from programs in need of special infrastructure (where to put the kiln, what kind of acoustics we need in the recording studio, what we mean by a 21st century darkroom). Our Urban Design students have taken a field trip to the architects’ office, where they presented their own ideas about what our school needs. In a comic aside, I asked at our last meeting: “Did they include the place to stable the therapy llama?” and for a few seconds everyone at the table paused, considering that that might be something our ACMA students would suggest. It was marvelous.

And as the architects are capturing on paper as much creative vision as the budget will allow, we as a school community are doing our best to wrap our heads around the idea that in just over a year CE Mason will be gone.

IMG_3784If our building was only a building, that wouldn’t feel so wrenching, but CE Mason Elementary, home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, is more than a building; it’s home.

This building has seen decades of students pass through its doors, nervous sixth graders, confident graduates, extroverts, introverts, and an assortment of artists and those willing to see life artistically.

…and art students did to CE Mason what art students do: they filled it with art.

Art appears everywhere in our current building. Student murals from the twenty-six years ACMA has been in existence fill our hallways, peek around corners, and smile down on the students as they walk to classes.

IMG_6246Mona Lisa, in full ‘90s grunge uniform of flannel shirt and backward baseball cap, smiles enigmatically toward the north. A canine Mona Lisa looks south, her muzzle a doggy smile. And hidden in plain sight, a collection of images tucked brilliantly in a complicated corner near the main office provides a fantastic version of Da Vinci’s most famous portrait, a reminder that art can be as playful as it is refined, as clear as it is heartfelt.

Contemporary student art hangs alongside the installations from years past. Paintings, drawings, sculptures in wire and clay all turn our hallways into a living gallery. Without lockers interrupting sightlines, it’s possible to stroll from the library to the math classrooms on the far end of the building and see canvasses hung at eye level, untouched but never unappreciated, every day. It is astounding.

In a little more than a year, it will be gone.

And yet…

…it won’t.

IMG_3856You’ll hear some artists talk about the impermanence of art, Picasso’s line: “Every act of creation is first an act of destruction” and such, but truth be told, even if we admit that the comfort is cold. The images that fill ACMA’s hallways, whether they’ve been there for five years, ten, or twenty, are part of our collective soul, and aren’t easy to lose.

But, painted on sixty year old plaster, the murals can’t be cut out or peeled off. While we’ll be able to save some three dimensional pieces, we’ve got to be more creative about the others. More than a year out, we’re already working on it.

We know that how we approach this opportunity will help define us …and believe in the idea of thoughtful destruction.

So, we will save what we can, we will capture what we can’t in creative ways (film, high resolution photographs that we can enlarge and display, and a couple of other creative solutions) that allow it to live on, and we will celebrate everything.

IMG_7350We will remember what James Baldwin said of life and art: “Nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have.”
And we will be those witnesses to our past, active participants in our present, and creators of our future. We will celebrate the history of ACMA’s first home and build on the creative spirit that defines our school as we continue to create.

I’ve said before that ACMA could be ACMA in a circus tent. We are the people who fill our school, the magic of creativity, and the commitment to making art. More than any building or campus, ACMA is a state of mind. So over the course of the next school year we will mourn, make art, move forward together, embracing the process with the hearts of artists.

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Strange

There is a park that is known
For the face it attracts
Colorful people whose hair
On one side is swept back
The smile on their faces
It speaks of profound inner peace
Ask where they’re going
They’ll tell you nowhere
They’ve taken a lifetime lease
On Paisley Park

-Prince, Paisley Park

While we don’t have a school fight song at ACMA, I like to think that if we did it would be Prince’s “Paisley Park.” Artistic, independent, and confessedly quirky, students and staff at our little art school recognize the importance of seeing the world through the kaleidoscopic eyes of an artist. We paint, sculpt, act, and dance. We make music and make films. We write poetry and write scripts. We write the possibilities of our own futures.

To some, this looks strange.

But while the workaday world might look twice at what some of us wear, the color of our hair, or the glitter on our faces, ACMA’s colorful people are about more than just appearances. Our artistic souls run deep, and our capacity for seeing life in a way that might make a difference is profound.

If we were a superhero, we’d be Dr. Strange.

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…because ACMA is a place for magic. It is a world of wonder and wild creativity. Faced with challenges, artistic, academic, or social, our students respond cleverly, compassionately, and creatively. Where there isn’t yet an answer, our students are ready to go about making their own.

A student once told me: “Nobody’s weird here at ACMA, because everyone’s weird here at ACMA.” She meant this in a good way.

Diverse interests, diverse backgrounds, diverse attitudes all come together at our school under the transformative and unifying power of art. Painters, poets, photographers; dancing, drawing, and daring to do great things, it’s not strange to see students from one artistic pathway supporting peers from another, and even trying their hand in different medium as well. Our actors write, our musicians draw, every one of our sixth graders has a chance to dance.

Strange? Maybe. Or maybe strange is just a point of view.

ACMA contains a world not everyone sees, not technical, not linear, not gritty or cosmic, but something else, something unique.

It’s here that…

…plush ears, horns, and tails are a regular part of what students wear every day

…Mona Lisa is painted on our hallway walls, as a dog, a grunge rocker, and a surprising collage you have to look at twice to see her

…we have Back to School Night before the first day of classes

…students and staff pose for silly photos in the yearbook

…Rojo the therapy llama is a part of our school family

…our athletic complex is a single basketball hoop at a ¾ angle in the courtyard

…we don’t have a school mascot

…our hallways are a living gallery, filled with contemporary student art, not hidden behind glass

…LGBTQ is celebrated, not just accepted

…our summer theater program mounts a full scale musical in just a month

…our students doodle

…it’s not unusual to see a student on stilts, or a student in a top hat, or a staff member in a kilt

…tie-dye is the unofficial school color

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 11.40.36 AM…we have students who take math up through AP Calculus

…Halloween is a national holiday

…a giant painting of David Bowie hangs outside the main office

…staff compete in a giant Rock-Paper-Scissors competition

…we laugh a lot, we cry easily, and we surprise some who don’t know us with our strength

…we have a “Bat Cave”

…we love applause, we embrace creativity, and we care for each other

ACMA is a special place, and for those of us who get to spend time here every day, a transformational one. It’s here that we learn, create, a embrace being a little different.

To quote an unconventional superhero: “If you ask me, it’d be an awfully boring life if nothing was ever weird. It’s the weird ones who change the world.”

The Red Folder

Commencement. It’s a big deal for those of us in the education game, a day when we get to honor graduates and celebrate the accomplishment of students finishing more than a decade of learning. At some schools commencement is a solemn affair; other places it’s filled with silly string, flip flops, and decorated hats. A few universals seem to apply, and have for as long as most of us can remember: gowns and mortarboards, a podium for a speaker or two, and the promise of some kind of music.

My favorite ceremonies are those that bend expectations a bit, or even throw convention to the wind, smilingly of course. Here at ACMA those speeches, surprises, and smiles are gathered in a red folder on my desk.

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For the past few weeks all the plans for our ceremony have been piling up, and I’ve dutifully tucked them into that folder, where they’ve been arranged and rearranged for the greatest effect. We’re an art school after all, so we know that presentation matters, and where you put the jazz number, composed by an ACMA student, matters as much as who speaks first, in the middle, and last.

I’ve been looking at that folder all week, knowing that inside is magic. This weekend what’s there in black and white will burst out in technicolor. Like Dorothy arriving in Oz, everything becomes real.

At ACMA, real means leaving some expectations behind. You won’t find pomp and circumstance in the program, or a pronouncement by a board member. I’ve read the speeches, all free of quotations from Dr. Seuss or Winston Churchill. Heartfelt and relevant, these messages to graduates capture the true spirit of our school.

What is in that folder is a list of people and performances, of honors (“the burgundy cord represents…” etc.) and pathway endorsements. These matter much, and while a list is not a painting, a dance, or a film, they identify students who have made a lifetime of studying their passion.

Inside too there’s a copy of the program, where the names of graduates are lined up more systematically than our students have ever been in a fire drill. The painting of our PAC on the cover is lovely and professional, a far cry from the beloved Quonset Hut where the students will meet to put on their caps and gowns, but also an important reminder that as kooky as we sometimes can be, when we need to we can present ourselves in ways that will impress.

The formality of ACMA’s approach to commencement (I’ll wear a tie, the grads won’t decorate their caps) is reflected in the elegance of the program. That dichotomy is us as well; creative and professional, polished and bohemian.

In juxtaposition to that formality… the emotion of the day, the creative spirit of our school, and a couple of surprises (one for the teachers and one for the graduates) will shine through at our ceremony. For any imagining boredom, worry not: that human touch and artistic spirit that helps to define who we are as a school will more than make an appearance.

I’m excited about my first commencement ceremony as the principal of ACMA. I’ll miss the seniors very much in the days and years ahead, but to have this time to celebrate them with our ACMA family is precious beyond expression. We’ll bring all our hearts to that celebration, our songs, our poems, our sage advice too. And in the end I hope we leave our graduates with a sense of our appreciation, a measure of our love, and song in their hearts.

It’s all in that red folder right now. Saturday morning it will be on stage.

That’s a big deal.

Striking the Set

This summer, before classes began at ACMA, I watched students who were part of a summer theater program building sets for the full musical being staged in the performing arts center. Back in August I described it as:

Over my first weeks on the job I watched them move from planning to preparation to putting nails into boards. The ideas that they’d bandied about at the start of July manifested themselves in a nearly completed set within a few weeks, a set that was ready for actors to inhabit by August. Bit by bit they built the world on which the action of the production would take place. Their mindful work literally set the stage for the great things to come.”

techsI hoped then that my work as a principal might parallel theirs, these smiling students filled with ideas, hope, and energy.

Now, it’s June. The show has opened, had a terrific run, and over the next few weeks we will take our final bows of 2017-2018, pull the curtains, and strike the set.

To stretch this metaphor, it’s been a production of action and adventure, comedy, drama, improv and well rehearsed dialogue. Along the way many of us have flubbed a few lines, dropped a prop or two, and adapted as the reality of performing live provided us with surprises. We nailed some scenes too. We’ve grown into our characters, learned the give and take of actors sharing a stage, and done our best to practice that old theatrical idea of answering “yes …and” whenever possible.

Then, walking in to school this morning I spotted evidence of this passage of time behind the theater, remnants from that first set constructed for the summer musical. So alone there by the scene shop, that L of wood, colors faded some, but less than you’d expect, stood as a reminder of how far we’ve come.

IMG_7097Every June it’s tough to see the school year end, the seniors leave, and campus go dark between shows. For me at least, a bit of melancholy tints the sense of completion that comes with the end of the year. I know that whatever magic we experienced from August to June is going, never to be exactly the same. I know I’ll miss our graduates and the folks retiring from education. I’ll miss the parents of seniors, who I’ve come to adore and who I’ll see less starting in the fall. Each school year has its own personality, and as I see the teachers and students packing up props and costumes, I know that this run is coming to a close.

…and…

In the play that is education, opening night is never far away.

We’ll have a little cast party soon, we’ll take a few weeks off under the summer sun, and tuck the memories of this year into the pockets of our mind where we can find them in the times we need them. Then, we’ll take a deep breath, and return before the leaves turn red this fall to plan, prepare, and begin putting together the sets for a new run that promises to be filled with a music of its own.

It’s in the name of the school…

The first performance I saw was the dance show last June. My family had flown to Portland to look for a place to live and I got to take a day to hang out at ACMA, my new home to be, ending the evening in the performing arts center watching ridiculously talented dancers show the magnificent power of art.

“That was high school?” my wife asked me at the end of the night. “That was ACMA,” I answered.

bowieEarlier in the day I’d visited art classes, seen students glazing ceramics, making music, and working on the “Senior Painting,” a larger than life David Bowie that now hangs outside my office.

I’d done my best to follow Arts & Communication Magnet Academy online, peeking in on Art is My Voice and a few Senior Capstones, but still not sure just how much art drives everything we do here at ACMA. The truth, from The Ballpoint literary anthology to the spectacular productions in our PAC, from the packs of students carrying musical instruments through the hallways to flocks of dancers in leotards hurrying to studios after lunch, from the raw energy of Open Mic Night to the polished performances of Senior Capstones, ACMA lives up to the descriptors in its name ARTS & COMMUNICATION.

Screen Shot 2018-02-06 at 9.50.21 AMThis year, like so many in ACMA’s quarter century of existence, was an explosion of creativity, and I had the privilege of watching it from the best seat in the house, as ACMA’s principal.

All the hard work of rehearsing, revising, rebuilding, of trying and failing, failing and trying again, working hard and succeeding brilliantly, manifested itself across the artistic spectrum. One of the strengths of our little school, in addition to being a home to students from 6th to 12th grade, is that it is a place where creativity of all kinds finds a home.

Our actors stretch their craft to include everything from Shakespeare to silliness. This year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Aesop’s Falables, and The Spitfire Grill showed audiences what can happen when amazing students are given the opportunity and support to plan, produce, and perform challenging material. From costumes to sets, music to marvelous performances, ACMA thespians brought down the house.

spitfireSome of those same students joined other student authors at this year’s Pinwheel Writing Celebration, and published stories and poems in the ACMA anthology, The Ballpoint. Our writers don’t always step on stage, but in the spring a trio of intrepid authors joined professional storytellers for this year’s Story Slam. Our winner moved on to a second round in Portland on the same night as prom. She performed that night in her formal dress, another example of what it means when we say “So very ACMA.”

Photographers, painters, ceramicists and more filled the foyer gallery of the performing arts center with “very ACMA” work at this year’s Art Is My Voice, where the variety of art was mind boggling.

faceSome ACMA musicians played at Art Is My Voice, filling the gallery with a little Brubeck as the crowd walked past giant cardboard objects, a miniature gallery, and hundreds of framed drawings, paintings, photos, and prints. It was just another example of the way ACMA students support each other and each other’s art. Some of these same musicians were on stage the next week, visual artists in the audience, playing one of many shows that filled our school with music this year.

Those concerts ran the gamut from profound to profoundly playful, often juxtaposing those two ends of the spectrum in one set. This spring, when I brought my reluctant nine year old to hear a show, he told me as we walked into the PAC: “Dad, I’m not going to enjoy this unless they play Star Wars.” Cue the Cantina Theme. He looked at me as if I’d worked magic. It wasn’t me, but a couple of conductors who filled their show with Beethoven, Brubeck, and even a little Soft Cell. If you haven’t heard the orchestral version of Tainted Love, you haven’t visited ACMA.

dance copyFor some who haven’t yet visited ACMA, our students brought their passion on the road, and this year in addition to Art Day, a wonderful tradition of inviting elementary students to our school, they added Art Day …on the Go! Student artists, dancers, and musicians loaded up on busses and traveled to elementary schools where they led students in making art, learning to dance, and then performing with the high schoolers. Magic is the word to describe it. ACMAgic.

That exuberant magic, blended with a sense of purpose, was also on stage in this year’s Dance West concert, Walk with Me. Honoring ACMA alum Haruka Weiser, the show was an amalgam of heart and soul, highlighting the passion and professionalism of this dedicated group of artists. It was every bit as moving as the show I saw last spring, and for me maybe even more so this year; I knew these kids.

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On stage and page, through music and movement, student artists capture the uncapturable in the work they create. In many cases the immediacy of hearing an author read or a musician sing, see a sculptor talk about her work or a dancer express feelings in her craft is profound. For one group of ACMA artists, their calling is capturing this magic through the eye of a camera.

I have a fondness for film, because even though it was visual artists whose work I first saw on my visit last June, and dancers whose work wowed me and my family even before I arrived permanently on campus, my very first taste of ACMA’s creative spirit was a movie.

I remember sitting in my office, hundreds of miles away, and getting an email from ACMA’s fantastic film teacher. In addition to the most heartfelt welcome to our school I could have imagined, he shared some links to films made by ACMA students. One stood out to me, Time a moving reflection on family and love. When the credits rolled I knew that I was coming someplace special.

Funny. Heartbreaking. Glorious. Real. Art at ACMA is all that and more. For the students and the staff at our amazing school, art is a way of life.

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Rock, Paper, Scissors

RPSIn the interest of fun…

More descriptions of what educators do should begin with those five words. Teachers, counselors, classified staff, administrators… we work hard, care deeply, and sometimes wear our emotions on our sleeves. As busy as we are, it’s easy to forget to take time to laugh, a topic I’ve written about a bit lately, and something that the staff at my school has embraced changing.

Lately we’ve seen lightsaber fights and a crazy good game about culture lifted from the Peace Corps. We’ve eaten chocolate and sipped coffee, batted paper around like kids, and enjoyed a salsa cook off. Sometimes the activities that the staff came up with involved preparation or a trip to the store; today there was magic in the air as we boiled our collective activity to one word: fun.

Well, actually, our social studies department chose three words: Rock. Paper. Scissors.

Dimming the lights at the start of a staff meeting, they played the theme song to Rocky and brought up a video introducing the grand art of roshambo.

Anticipation rose.

Would we be pausing our discussion of Senior Capstones to pair up and play Rock-Paper-Scissors? Could the day have taken a cooler turn?

The lights came back on and our grinning history teachers brought out a work of art.

As they explained that over the next two weeks we’d have an opportunity to compete in the greatest Rock-Paper-Scissors competition every, two intrepid teachers rolled out a bracket that would put March Madness to shame.

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Every staff members’ name was on the huge rectangle of butcher paper, and as we leaned forward and squinted to see who we’d be matched up against, our organizers explained that every two days we’d report our winners and watch as staff moved through a sweet sixteen, elite eight, and final four on their way to a final showdown at our next staff meeting.

It was awesome.

Inevitable side conversations arose: Was it Rock-Paper-Scissors or Rock-Paper-Scissors-Shoot. (It’s Rock-Paper-Scissors.) How many rounds was each match? (Three. Duh.)

Two math teachers spotted that they were matched up, and we had our first victor on the bracket. A science teacher asked if when we got to the sweet sixteen we could pause and fill out our own brackets with predictions.

IMG_7043And as we laughed, a history teacher explained that behind this grand scheme was a hope that we would all get out of our rooms and talk with each other. At least for three rounds every couple of days we would leave our silos and find our friends, or those who may be our friends.

Without spending a dime this group of teachers spun gold.

We went on to our planned discussions at the meeting, and we’ll all come back tomorrow ready to do the hard and meaningful work of education, but even as we do, for the next two weeks we’ll all have one eye on the bracket, and be thinking about what a great group of teachers started today …in the interest of fun.

August Opinions and May Truths

I’ll confess to being one of those people who read more than one book at a time. Some books read faster than others, you see, so that collection of Raymond Carver short stories came and went from my nightstand faster than Conan Doyle’s The Edge of the Unknown, and a few slim volumes of poetry hurried through April, outpacing a book about John Milton I started back at the end of summer. I picked up that biography this week, opened it to find my page, and discovered that the bookmark was a business card, the same rectangle of card stock on which I’d written the notes for my opening speech at back to school night.

IMG_6921At ACMA we do back to school night on the week before students start classes. It’s an unconventional approach in keeping with the creative spirit of our school. Students are encouraged to join parents and guardians as they meet the teachers and see the classrooms where they’ll learn in the year ahead. It’s earlier than early, and it provides us all with a chance to connect before we start the wild rumpus that is a school year.

The principal’s welcoming remarks to the evening follow right after an ice cream social. “So very ACMA,” some might say. They’d be right.

So naturally I paused from my biography and read through my notes for the welcome speech. I’ve long been a person who would rather speak from the heart than be tethered to a script, but this had been my first speech at ACMA, and I remember scribbling out ideas I didn’t want to miss.

“Happy New Year,” the card read, and “Thanks.”

The start of a school year does warrant that celebratory exclamation, and one can never go wrong opening with an appreciation.

This was especially true for me this August, as I stepped into a school new to me, hoping to earn the respect and live up to the kindness ACMA’s school community had already shown me. In May that “Thanks” is heartfelt, said with real appreciation for an almost completed school year that has been filled with creativity, kindness, and more than a few surprises.

IMG_6918Present too were the to be expected challenges of being a part of something greater than oneself, participating in a community of diverse opinions, powerful perspectives, and creative souls.

“Challenges,” the card read beneath “Renewal” and “Fresh Start,” but “Challenges faced together.” I’ve long held that we should not try to avoid the difficult choice or crucial conversation, we should not hide from what is difficult, but face it collectively. Thinking about the hard work that has been a part of this school year, and of the amazing staff, students, and parents I get to work with, those three words carry a truth I’m proud to be a part of.

“Challenges
Faced Together”

And then a reason why, an articulation on the back of that business card of who we are as a school community. I knew, even in those first nervous notes, that ACMA is here to:

“Support our kids
Artistically
Academically
and as people.”

We do. We have. We will.

I closed that first speech by pointing to the heroes. Back to school nights are not about the principal’s welcome; they are about the professionals who have the greatest impact on our students’ lives: the teachers.

I remember standing there in August, in front of the ACMA community for the first time, and looking out at the parents and students, some still finishing their ice cream, and seeing teachers scattered throughout the crowd wearing their staff shirts, smiling. They were, and are, inspirations to me as much as they are to the kids.

That night I ended my remarks by glancing down at that wrinkled business card, now a bookmark, and saying proudly what I know was the most important part of the night. The teachers, who play a huge role in our students’ lives, are here, I said.

“Tonight you’ll meet them.”

Those teachers, so passionate and purposeful about the work they do with students, are more than just the best part of back to school night. Looking back at my notes scribbled on the back of that card, I recognize that anything I am as a principal is empty without all those truths behind it. The front of my metaphoric business card may be professional, but it matters because of the truths written behind it:

The optimism of “Happy New Year.”
The appreciation of “Thanks.”
The valuing of “Renewal” and “Fresh Starts.”
The acknowledgement that Challenges must be Faced Together.
The focus of Supporting our Kids in all ways.
And the understanding of the importance of those I work with every day.

It feels even truer now than it did in August.