Three Sparks of Joy

These past few weeks of sheltering at home I’ve felt the same sort of isolation that so many others have. I’m fortunate to be sequestered with a family I love and pets who keep things interesting. I’m in a neighborhood green with spring and the summer sun seems to be poised to make an appearance after the rainy cool weather than helps grass grow, but even so the reality of not being able to see friends and family, do the normal things (like take my son to the comic book store or eat falafel at our local kabobery) is disconcerting at best. That said, from time to time throughout this quarantine kind messages have found me from friends, art has sparked joy, and the powerful caring of my school’s artistic community has reminded me that hope is always just around the corner.

For anyone needing a bit of a boost today, I want to share three of those instances that brought me a bit of comfort and a smile to my face.

The first came by way of an email bcc’d me by a site administrator at my previous school. He reaches out to the departments he oversees every week (and sometimes shares those emails with me) and his messages of hope are always inspiring. I was pleasantly surprised to be quoted in this recent message, and then knocked off my feet by the video he shared of a poem that I didn’t know.

Good Morning, Folks:

Our former principal Bjorn Paige, himself a former English teacher, used to joke with me at the start of each school year by quoting Where the Wild Things Are. “Let the wild rumpus start!” he would say, as the first bell rang and the school year commenced. I bring this up because this past week, and the changes and challenges we have faced, felt just like that: a wild rumpus. While concerning, time-consuming, and a host of other adjectives, the week is over and the wild rumpus will go silent… at least until next Monday.

I hope this email finds you well… or as well as can be. Again, I turned to poetry this week with a poem I first encountered last night during my normal 2:00 am anxiety attack. I logged on to Twitter to find Andrew Scott, otherwise known as “Hot Priest” reading “Everything is Going To Be Alright” by Irish poet Derek Mahon. I must have listened to him read the poem three or four times and then read it four of five times more before I fell back asleep. I read it again this morning. It is moving. I share it because I share the sentiment. And Andrew Scott’s reading of the poem is fantastic. The text of the poem is below. Everything is going to be all right. I swear.

Everything Is Going to Be All Right

How should I not be glad to contemplate
the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window
and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?
There will be dying, there will be dying,
but there is no need to go into that.
The poems flow from the hand unbidden
and the hidden source is the watchful heart.
The sun rises in spite of everything
and the far cities are beautiful and bright.
I lie here in a riot of sunlight
watching the day break and the clouds flying.
Everything is going to be all right.
― Derek Mahon, Collected Poems

I miss you all. I hope you are well. I hope you are finding peace. Hang in there– we have just a few weeks left… and then the wild rumpus will go silent. For now.

I am here if you need anything. You will always find it here.

Cheers.”

This is an administrator who cares deeply, is willing to be vulnerable, and has a poetic spirit that can elevate those around him. I didn’t know the Mahon poem until I read his email, but am richer now for having read it, and even more for having Andrew Scott (that marvelous Moriarty) perform it.

Another flavor of performance that I’ve found myself turning to in this time of COVID-19 is music, and I realized when I was driving to the store this week that I’ve had one CD blaring in my car a lot lately: Swagger by the Irish band Flogging Molly. Admittedly, I like my rock and roll a bit more punk than pop, and song after song Swagger feels like the right balm on the wound that is Coronavirus. 

That said, it was a quieter Flogging Molly that I happened upon a few weeks ago, Dave and Bridget, two married members of the band, who are doing fireside sessions, two songs per week, from their home in County Wexford, Ireland.

Intimate, unplugged, and inspiring, these weekly reminders of the power of art have been something to look forward to. To hear a fiddle, pipe, and guitar played by two talented musicians, drinks on the table in front of them, fire in the hearth behind, is a reprieve from a world crazier than any of us could have expected. 

A little closer to home, and maybe a bit less Irish, a couple of weeks ago the staff at my little art school banded together (remotely) to put on a show for our students. Teachers, counselors, and classified staff sent in performances and messages for the kids, and we packaged it all under the title ACORN (Arts & Communication Online Revue Night). Just about every week we’ve tried to do some kind of all school activity, a scavenger hunt (for items in their houses), a Kahoot (about ACMA history and trivia), an open mic night for the students, and it felt right to have the adults in our students’ lives pick up the mic and perform. 

Screen Shot 2020-05-28 at 7.16.39 AMAnd perform they did: a math teacher who has been learning accordion over the quarantine, a science poem, a counselor with a tutorial on how to sew masks, some songs, juggling, photography, and a bit of performance art masquerading as a long story about pink ping pong balls. Along the way the heartfelt messages of love from everyone were reassuring, inspiring, and just what many of our students needed.

One of the happiest surprises during ACORN was a host of incoming students, who have yet to step foot on our campus, who joined us for the live viewing of the show. We know how disconcerting it can feel moving to a new school in the fall, particularly when what that fall will look like is still uncertain, but I like to believe that our playful ACORN gave these new to ACMA students a sense of who we are and some reassurance that coming to a new school will be okay (thanks in no small part to the awesome kindness of some of the comments from established ACMA students in the Zoom chat room). The incoming students even got to see that they’re not alone in their love of Gravity Falls, anime, or cosplay. As one of our juniors said in the chat: “We’re all a little weird here. Welcome!”

Art can spark joy. Homegrown or from Ireland, creativity can and does make a difference. It invites us, in the face of tragedy and stress, to contemplate “the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window / and a high tide reflected on the ceiling,” and even what might happen if we “ever leave this world alive.” Making art makes an even bigger impact, and as we allow our own creativity to be inspired (from an acorn grows an oak tree) we might even find that that joy is already within us.

I’m thankful for artists like Flogging Molly, Andrew Scott, and Derek Mahon, and to my friend Bobby for sharing his inspiration with me. I’m grateful for the creative spirits I get to work with, and to the art and kindness they share with our students, even across the miles during this time of sheltering at home.

At some point we’ll be back on campus preparing for the wild rumpus of school. Until then, inspired by art and by friends, I know in my heart that “everything will be all right.”

Three (nice) Surprises

It’s my job to look for silver linings. As a principal one of the most important things I do (along with working hard to help my school continue to improve, addressing concerns, and supporting teachers and students) is keep fixed in my mind a vision of my school at its very best. Some days that’s tougher than others, particularly in this strange COVID-19 spring, when the challenges seem to outweigh the celebrations, at least in my in-box. And… 

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Even though we can’t be together on campus (a place where magic is commonplace), this past week saw three very happy surprises, beacons of hope in these uncertain times. Sharing them here makes me happy, and I hope can be a modest reassurance that even though there is much to be stressed by in the world around us, there is always the chance that very, very soon we might just get an unexpected surprise that doesn’t involve coughing.

Surprise #1: We are a school that makes things. Music, paintings, poems, stories, ACMA is a creative cauldron where students and staff support each other, applaud often, and encourage artistic risk taking. We love the polished performances we see on stage, whether a dance recital, play, or concert, and we love gathering together to entertain each other at more casual affairs like Open Mic Night (or Open Mic Afternoon during this pandemic). This leads to a real challenge for some of our classes, and has seen our art teachers offering to bring paint and sketch books to students, our staff finding ways to get musical instruments to kids, and most recently one of our art teachers to go the extra mile to help a class work that really shouldn’t during this time of sheltering at home: Ceramics.

I came to campus last week to find our ceramics teacher cutting and bagging clay for her advanced ceramics students. She filled ziplock bags with clay, put student names on them, and placed them in the shade in the front of campus. She’d reached out to her students and every one who wanted to create with clay at home had a package waiting for them. It wasn’t something she had to do, but it was something she wanted to do for her students. Kind, inspiring, creative, a surprise provided by an amazing teacher.

Surprise #2: Once a month ACMA students gather at lunch for an ACMA Student Forum. A pair of students run the event, an open conversation about what’s happening on campus and what we all ought to do about it. I’ve written about ACMA’s Student Forum before (a new tradition at our school inspired by a longstanding student forum at a fabulously funky school a thousand miles south of here), and when we left campus in March I wondered if we were done for the year. We weren’t.

The two moderators reached out to me a couple of weeks ago and we set an online version of the ACMA Student Forum for Friday. Students from 6th to 12th grade showed up and talked art, coping with the separation from school, and things they were doing to stay sane. Kids shared ideas, and positive words, and afterward one moderator told me “This student forum was great! I am glad we got to hear from the younger grades, and looking at participation, an online format is almost better than when we had it in-person.” Now I will never discount the thousand benefits of being in the same room with students sharing their voices, but that moderator was right: this was a pretty great event.

Surprise #3: At our little art school we have a “Sixth Grade Wheel” where our youngest students get to sample a mix of creative pursuits from instrumental music to theater to art. Since we left campus before the final rotation of the wheel, some students only got three flavors of ACMA this year rather than the usual four, and one family reached out during one of my (online) coffees with the principal to ask if there was any way her student could get the syllabus for the fourth and final spoke of the wheel, visual art, that he’d be missing since we opted to keep students in their third quarter classes to minimize disruption and not ask them to meet a new teacher and subject only through Zoom. It was a fair request, and one we said we’d follow up on, so after an email to the art teacher I figured we were about done. I was wrong.

The art teacher, so student supportive that I want to burst with pride, wrote back: “I could send the syllabus but what would be more helpful for them is if they could maybe get access to the class on Canvas as an observer. That way they could access and do the assignments and activities.” She didn’t know how to do this, she went on, since she had never met the student, but she hoped we could help make the connection. Our Canvas master, a middle school science teacher, hopped on the challenge right away. He found a solution and talked us through how to add the student to the class, so the student could see more than a list of topics, but get some instruction if he wanted it, and participate as much as he’d like. 

In a world where some choose to do the very minimum, to see a student and parent reach out asking for the opportunity to learn, a teacher willing to support them, and another teacher quick to help out gave me hope that as rocky as sometimes things can be, we’re going to be all right.

Those are just three of the many good things that happened last week. More did, and more will this week as well. As we navigate these waters, the final four weeks of the school year, I encourage all of us to look for those nice surprises. Celebrate them. Don’t ignore the frustrations, or swallow the angst that has a natural place in this situation, but allow yourself to see beyond the stress, breathe in the positive, and appreciate when things happen that bring us a smile. We will get through this, and if we look for the good in the world we might just be surprised.

Real Seniors; Virtual School

They were a subdued bunch, my seniors, as we held an online meeting for the Class of 2020. Nearly all of them joined in, some asking follow up questions to the shared doc we’d started the week before when the governor sent out word that students would not be returning to campuses this school year and that seniors would receive grades of “Pass” rather than any particular letter.

They are an exceedingly talented group of young adults, creative, curious, and today, quiet.

When my dog, Luna, hopped onto my lap, caught a buzzing fly out of the air, ate it, and then licked my face, only a couple managed a chuckle. These are serious times.

Earlier in the day I’d gotten an email from a senior teacher. He told me that for his class he had “a discussion board up since the day after we were sent home. I asked for four thread responses from each participating student. The Senior thread has nearly 300 responses. This suggests that [nearly] the entire Sr class has responded.”

These are young people who want to be connected, and while state guidelines have now removed grades from senior transcripts, many of the students want to keep that tether to learning, classmates, teachers, and school. It’s not that all of them care about English or history or math or science (though many do), but many do want to stay a part of the larger community that is our school. 

Beyond classes, we know that staying connected is important.

A CNN article came out that same day suggesting that “in the time of coronavirus, traditional hallmarks of the high school experience have all but disappeared. And as everyone settles into new routines inside, at home, teens are feeling angry, anxious and reticent. Their identities are fracturing in isolation, and the people who love them, teach them and study them fear they’ll wear the effects of the pandemic for years to come.” 

We do worry about them, but that’s nothing new, and we understand the need to support all our students, particularly right now our seniors. 

The article goes on to say that “It’s hard enough being a teenager on a good day. But the conditions that accompany social distancing may exacerbate the painful parts of adolescence to the point of crisis. Adolescents typically have a heightened reactivity to stress, thought to be the result of hormonal fluctuations and changes in brain development.”

And these are times of stress.

We talked during that first senior meeting about some of the losses of the spring: prom, performances, and commencement. Particularly commencement.

With social distancing in place, a traditional graduation ceremony isn’t possible in June. We know that, we mourn it, and we have to find a way to carry on. As a district, a district determined to support our seniors, every high school originally agreed to do a virtual commencement in June and then some kind of senior celebration in July or early August, as soon as pandemic restrictions ease enough for us to get together in person. And…

The notion of graduating online was filled with frustration for many. Me included. We want so much to have that celebration together, and hearing it can’t happen in June is a rocket of disappointment in an already pockmarked battlefield of emotion.

A couple of follow up emails captured that emotion the next morning. They were passionate, honest, and thoughtful, and showed a maturity nestled in alongside the exuberance of youth. My response to one earnest message, as limited in comfort as it might be, was from the heart. I wrote:

I share your disappointment in not being able to have a traditional commencement ceremony in person in June. It feels frustrating that after all the class of 2020 has done to reach graduation we aren’t able to celebrate together …at least not yet. 

Our hope with the virtual commencement ceremony is not to replace an in person ceremony; we know we couldn’t. To do nothing, however, felt even more wrong, as it would deny seniors a chance to have some of the good things that come from a ceremony, like student performers, student speakers, and a message from one of the staff the class has chosen. That, I believe, is why every high school and option school in the district is committing to some online event for June, and then for some in person (or as in person as we are allowed by state social distancing rules) in July.

We have another senior meeting on 4/29 about how we can make an online event as positive as it can be, and if we know more about what the lay of the land might be in later summer we can talk about that as well. Pandemic allowing, July’s celebration of seniors might be one that can have more of a commencement feel, but right now, as you mentioned, it could be limited in how many could gather. As soon as we know more we’ll work with the seniors to develop what that in person activity could be.

And if July sees us all still at home, then we’ll figure out something for August. We want the students together on campus, we want to celebrate them robustly, and we are all a bit heartbroken right now as we see the semester and end of the year slip away from us without seeing their faces except through a computer screen.

I do appreciate you reaching out. I hope you and all your family are well. I’m sorry for the disappointment, and hope that it’s not an “or” but an “and” with regard to the end of the year celebrations: a virtual commencement as every other school is doing and a meaningful (and ACMA spirited) celebration as soon as we can all be back together.”

True, maybe, but even rereading it now, my response can only go so far in reassuring seniors in these strange days. 

Discussions continued at the district level; we have six big comprehensive high schools and four smaller options schools, like ACMA, and the desire was to have everyone on the same page. The merits of simply postponing  commencement to July were championed by more than a few: students want to be together, they want the experience of walking across the stage, they want that celebration that many of them have been thinking about since the realized what a graduation was all about.

We’d like that too, and…

I’d like to be 6’3 with a full head of hair. On a more serious note, I’d like to be saying good morning to my students every day at school. I’d like to be visiting classes, watching performances, hosting open mic nights, and all of the things that right now we just can’t do. This pandemic has brought disappointment to so many of us, as well as frustration, isolation, and a feeling of missing out.

We are missing out, and disappointment about that is natural and appropriate. So too is doing what we have to do to help protect those for whom disappointment is less a worry than falling ill to COVID-19. For the health care workers, the elderly, and people with compromising preexisting conditions, this pandemic is life threatening. Every day.

Social distancing measures aren’t meant to be an inconvenience; they are meant to save lives. As a school system, an organization where we see thousands of students shoulder to shoulder every day walking to classes, we know a thing or two about germs and viruses. We know too that as much as we’d like to be on campus together, the risks of that enterprise (right now) are great. So too, commencement. Right now.

And a reality, in these days when there seems to be no agreement on how or when social distancing will loosen, is that an in person commencement still might not be able to happen by July, or even August. Add to that that teachers aren’t working in July, and some (in what look to be difficult budget times) may not even be working in the district at all, and things get more complicated still. But challenges don’t define us as much as our response to them. This experience should help us understand that. So…

In the end a lot of discussion the district decision was to shift gears away from any virtual commencement and postpone graduation ceremonies until later in the summer, July or early August. There are lots of detail still to be figured out, but if we’re able the plan is that we’ll do something in person outside, under the summer sun.

When I told my seniors about that change at our meeting this week they seemed happy about the idea. Happy-ish, anyway. These are serious times.

They are such a great group and I want, like all of the adults at ACMA, to give them everything we can give them. Seeing their faces (so many of them on our video call) reminded me of how much these students mean to me, to our school, and how much they mean to each other.

Some of our performers even performed (bringing more smiles, even muted) than almost anything anyone who wasn’t in the Class of 2020 could have done.

These are unprecedented times and as a result the unsettled sense of uncertainty is great. And, to quote Robert Frost, we still have miles to go before we sleep, so…

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Over the next few weeks many of us adults at ACMA will do our best to connect with and support our seniors. Counselors are making calls now, teachers continue to reach out to students, and my admin team will host opportunities for the seniors to get together to talk.

We’ll collaborate with our seniors to make sense of a commencement of sorts, look ahead to the time we can be together again, and do our best to understand that it’s natural to be working through the stages of grief right now. 

We also have a few surprises we hope will bring them a smile, like the yard signs our staff delivered last week, and a senior awards not-quite-ceremony we’re plotting for June.

I wish I could give my seniors a prom in May, an in person graduation ceremony in June, and the normal joy of a normal spring. I can’t. And…

We will do what we can. We will do what we can together.

The conversation during our second senior class meeting suggests to me that “what we can” might just be really good.

I keep a copy of Shakespeare’s Henry V on my desk at work. It may be the corny former English teacher in me, but I refer to it far more than you’d suspect, particularly when I need a pinch of leadership inspiration. After our senior meeting I turned to act three, scene six and the line:

We would not seek a battle, as we are;
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it”

None of us would have chosen to do school from our kitchen tables. None of us prefer to wrestle with the emotions of crisis without the human contact of friends and school. None of us particularly want to be facing the situation as we are, but as we are, we will not shy away from the challenges. Together we will find our voices, our community, and our laughter again.

Three Kindnesses

In these times of stress, and even for those of us who are still working, like those we’re sheltering at home with, and are able to watch the blossoms opening for spring there is stress, last week brought three acts of kindness into my life that I am so thankful for I almost cried. They’re personal, so I’ll keep my descriptions brief and my nostalgia briefer still, but the emotion runs deep and the boost each of these three gifts of kindness was profound.

IMG_4511The first came in the mail, the US Postal Service, when an oversized envelope arrived at my door containing a quilt square with the design of a pirate. It was a marvelous (m-ARRRRRR-velous) gift from a generous colleague I’d worked with when I was a middle school principal. Robin ran the library, and not a day went by when after I’d tucked kids into classes after the opening bell I didn’t find myself leaning on her circulation counter having a conversation. It was a new building at the time, but I can imagine now that there are two grooves from the elbows of leaning teachers and kids worn into the top of that counter where countless others like me asked for advice, listened to wisdom, and laughed together as friends. 

It was at Diegueno that my staff, knowing I like pirates, surprised me one Halloween with an act that I will never forget and at that special little middle school that I left a piece of my heart. Reading the note that accompanied Robin’s gift brought back a flood of memories and a sense of gratitude that someone so kind would reach out to me. She explained that she started the project soon after I’d left the school, then life got in the way, and now quarantine gave her the time to finish. There is much to bring us down in times like these, but as Leonard Cohen sang “There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” And that quilted swashbuckling square was light indeed.

Screen Shot 2020-04-19 at 7.47.50 AMThe second act of kindness came in response to my advertisement for a (virtual) coffee with the principal. It would be my second of this quarantine, and I included a photo of myself in my backyard with a coffee mug given to me a lifetime ago by a ceramics teacher. The mug was familiar to a bundle of teachers I’d worked with in California, and not long after I posted it on Twitter I started seeing a string of responses.

One, from a gifted teacher I miss working with more than I can say, made me laugh aloud. “I just want to check in” he wrote, “to see this scene (slowly lifts mug and takes a sip, speaking with a steady, paternal tone) “all will be well, all will be well.” I could use that!” The comments from these Mavericks made a huge difference in the way I did everything last week. Yes, I believe that “all will be well” and I’ve been kidded for the phrase for decades (though it is true, honest), but even optimists need a little inspiration, and Jim, Danielle, Kari, and Gwen gave me that and more.

Then, Scott, another friend from a high school I’d worked at a thousand miles from here, actually showed up the morning of my coffee. He was on the Zoom, quietly smiling and wearing the baseball cap of my favorite team (not his own). Magic, that.

These COVID-19 restrictions have taken us away from our daily routines, our daily lives, our daily companions, but even as they have, at least at times they’ve brought some of us together in ways that might not have happened, or happened in the same way before.

The third act of kindness last week came from a more recent and local source. With campuses closed through the end of the school year we find ourselves needing to clean out student lockers and return belongings to the kids. I posted the date for students to pick up their stuff on Instagram (where the kids live) letting them know when they could pick up their notebooks and miscellany. A couple asked questions about art or dance gear, and then, tucked in the comments, was a response from a recent grad that melted my heart. “I left all my favorite teachers and principal there,” she wrote. “Can I come pick those up?”

IMG_4555Kindness.

And all three of these acts of kindness did inspire me. They inspired me to stay positive and look for the best in the world, and they inspire me now to find ways that I can show kindness to others. As we all wrestle with the emotions of being separated from so many who mean so much to us, I would encourage everyone to take inspiration from the little acts of kindness like this. And then, being the light that gets in, find ways to show kindness to those around us, both near and a thousand miles away.

Frodo and Gandalf and COVID-19

This seems like a good time to reread The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know what the next few weeks (or maybe next few months) will really look like, but with time at home and string of rainy days in the immediate future, the idea of an inspirational tale of reluctant heroes doing their best against a faceless villain seems more than a little appealing.

It’s week three away from school and my days are filling up with preparations to push learning online. I know from my role of dad of two, a high school freshman and a sixth grader, how welcome that tether to some kind of normal is for parents, and I can see in my own kids the stress of missing school, not just the classes, but friends, lunches, and activities. …and classes too.

So, like Frodo looking down at that magical ring, we’re all coming to grips with the new reality, a reality that we’ll be living with for a while, and like Frodo, we recognize that this isn’t what we expected. As the young hobbit says to the old wizard in the first book of the epic:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

So too for us.

Like Frodo and the gang, we’re looking out at the hills ahead, pushed to put our pleasant Shire aside (at least for a while) and preparing to take our first steps into an unknown world that spreads out before us. Crisis pushes us forward, and we hope (and have to believe) that we’re up to the challenges this adventure will bring.

I think we are, particularly at our little school, so filled with creative spirit and artistic souls.

Truth be told, as stressful as all this is, and it would be a fib to say it isn’t stressful, I’m looking forward to what our teachers will come up with. They’re planning now, and knowing the creativity that fills that group of wizards and elves, I’ll wager that there will be a bit of fun to this whole enterprise. 

And how will the students respond? I’m guessing with all the artistic, creative, and delightfully clever energy they bring to school every day.

How I miss that energy. The halls of ACMA are filled with magic. We’re not perfect, no place is, but this time away has me longing to be back on campus with the amazing students and staff who make our school what it is.

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That’s not to say that going online is how any of us want to do this. We recognize the challenges, particularly those for whom internet connectivity is difficult, students who have needs hard to meet remotely, and students whose homes may not provide the same space to learn as a classroom or library.

We understand as well that going to school means more than going to classes. Part of the joy of ACMA, a big part, are the students who fill our hallways, acting out scenes in theater class, filming and photographing, hurrying to dance class. From the opening music of the morning to the bustle of lunch, seeing students building our community one interaction at a time, often with applause, is a joy I think all of us are missing. At ACMA there is always artwork on the walls and we’re never more than a few days away from a concert, a performance, or an open mic night.

Right now, as we shelter in place, at hundreds of different places, we know that we’re more than a few days away from any of that. I know that for me that feeling of missing the students and adults of our ACMA family is profound. And…

The day will come when we’re together again.

When? Not soon enough, but then again, we weren’t asked if we wanted a pandemic. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

My vote that we do all that we do with patience, kindness, and creativity. We’ll know more when we know more. Like Frodo, we can imagine our quest’s end, even if we don’t know all the pitfalls and surprises along the way.

And like that Fellowship of the Ring, we can embark with hope, cautious optimism, and the belief that together we’ll live up to the challenge we’ve been called to face.

The Art Goes On…

Leave it to the filmmakers. Quietly, cleverly, consistently they chronicle life at ACMA and celebrate the imagination (sometimes both at once). They hammer out a steady drumbeat of creativity, make original content that captures our school and our world, and at the same time they are some of the kindest and most generous people I know. Today, sitting at home in week two of “social isolation” I had three reminders of how this group of artists will help us all through these uncertain times.

I sat down at my computer (my cats reminding me that I now share an office with them) and pulled up a video that ACMA students made for our ACMA Spectacular this winter. It was designed to show the transition from our original campus in the CE Mason Elementary building on Center Street, which was demolished over the summer to make way for our new campus on the same site, to our temporary home at the empty building that will be Timberland Middle School. Death and resurrection, ends and beginnings, it’s a soulful celebration of the creative spirit that lives in our school …not in our building, but in our students and staff, the real ACMA.

That video speaks to more than just CE Mason or Timberland these days. Watching it again I was struck by the message of resilience and optimism.

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As I did, I noticed that I’d been tagged in an instagram post by one of my filmmakers. “When the only thing to do during #quarantine is photoshop my principal @bjornpaige #ACMAzing,” he wrote alongside a flattering poster that I wish with all my heart was produced without irony; I do want so much to promote HOPE, particularly right now.

IMG_4155And then, still smiling from Efrem’s post, I opened an email from my film teacher. Thinking about the remote learning that is to come, he was already designing assignments the students could do at home. He wrote from the heart about supporting the kids, and ended with the beautiful closing: “Hope you, the fam, the dog and cats are well. The art goes on…”

And I thought, all of this before nine in the morning, that all will be well. I don’t yet know what the next few weeks or even months will look like, but I believe in the ACMA filmmakers’ vision of rebirth, I know that even in our relative isolation we can and will make art, and I join the creative souls that make up our school family in knowing that it is up to all of us to help provide the world and each other with hope.

Cut Flowers and Spring

It snowed on the first day of the extra week of spring break brought to the kids by the COVID-19 Coronavirus, a strange day after the strange day on which we found out that schools were closing for two weeks and middle school boys everywhere rejoiced in the idea of a fortnight of Fortnite. For the rest of us, particularly the adults who now are puzzling over how to navigate kids and social distancing, Friday was the start of an uncertain time. 

By the time I sat down to write this post on Sunday night more and more restrictions had come into play and others still were being mulled over by folks in government who mull over such things. I keep waiting for the centipede of uncertainty’s next shoe to drop.

That uncertainty, coupled with the challenge of being a principal on the edge of school closures beyond my control but within my responsibility to communicate has put this blog on hold for a week or so, and even now I wasn’t sure what I could say; anything newsworthy would seem to be outdated by the time I hit “post.” So…

I use this blog to tell stories, stories of pirates, and port-a-potties, and pies in the face, and while I might not have the answers right now, I thought I could at least tell two and a half stories of life on the ground here at school, and then end with a line from Neruda and I hope a pinch of hope.

Story 1: I was walking down the hallway Friday morning with one of my math teachers. A senior hurried alongside us and asked: “What are we doing today in statistics?” The teacher didn’t break stride. “Statistics,” he said with a smile.

Story 2: A mom, whose middle school son had been out with a cold, asked if she could come in and pick up some of his books from his locker before the school closed down for two weeks of spring break. I walked her down to his locker and as she tumbled the books, notebooks, and stray papers into a grocery bag the sliver of a note fluttered to the bottom of the locker. She picked it up and glanced at it to see if she ought to stuff it in with the rest. Then she paused, her mother’s eyes deciphering the writing. “This says ‘smooching,’” she said, looking up at me. I thought it was something like a surprised smile that crossed her face. “You could always leave it in the locker,” I suggested. This time the smile was apparent. “Oh no, this one’s going home.”

Story 2½: I waved goodbye to the mom and her note, thinking that the day couldn’t get much stranger, and looked down to realize that I was wearing a lab coat. About a thousand years ago, when I was an English teacher at a small school in Oregon, a good friend and I started “Lab Coat Mondays.” It must have begun when I was teaching Frankenstein or some such thing; costumes were always a part of my repertoire as a teacher, and once I realized the fun (and ample pockets) of a lab coat it was something too great not to do once a week. I’d mentioned Lab Coat Mondays to some colleagues here at ACMA and, with a wit and sense of whimsy that I’ve found to be a part of who we are as a school, it wasn’t long before a host of teachers were wearing lab coats once a week (we opted for Friday). While many of them chose a sleek black look, my old standby is a well worn white lab coat, and I wondered: did that mom think I was wearing this because of COVID-19?

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These are light and cough free stories of the Coronavirus and the weird whirlwind of closing school unexpectedly. I know that there are serious stories of hardship and illness out there as well, and that over the next few days and weeks we could see things turn again and again.

Our present reality caught us mid stride, and while we would like to keep doing what we’re doing (statistics or otherwise) and while we know that life goes on (smooching included, even if we know it could be a bad idea) those ways of being in the world that started with the best of intentions (lab coats on Friday, for instance) could need a bit of modification to make sense today.

There’s a line by Pablo Neruda that came to my mind as information continued to unfold: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Canceled classes, postponed events, and even stores without toilet paper and canned beans may make us feel like all of the flowers have been cut down, but spring will come, and as we support one another through these uncertain times, I believe that there are brighter days ahead. Even if we’re surprised by a snowy March morning or two.

Outside

We stood together in the February chill, rain threatening, clouds thick, the grass wet beneath our feet. From the expanse of field we regarded the east side of the school, a new building of sensible earth tone brick, and thought about the possibilities.

We’re living a new reality this year, our little art school hanging our collective hat (beret, fez, fedora, cat ears, horns, or beanie depending on the day) at a school without the big performance hall we’ll have when construction is done on our permanent campus and we return to Center Street in the fall of 2021. 

For the most part we’ve been able to adjust: our dance department turned an auxiliary gym into a fantastic performance venue, theater has chosen shows perfectly suited to our temporary home’s black box theater, and we’ve added monthly Open Mic Nights to fill the commons we’re in for these two years.

This flexibility and challenge to think beyond our usual venues or routines will translate to both a renewed appreciation of our Performing Arts Center (when we see it again) and a spirit of innovation that we’ll bring to our new campus.

And…

Graduation is too big for the black box, or aux gym, or the commons. It needs a grander venue than anything inside our temporary home, and is something intimate enough that we don’t want to just anywhere because it has enough seats.

So…

We got to thinking and began to entertain the notion of taking commencement outside.

Yes, I know, we live in Oregon, where a sunny day in June is as guaranteed as a first novel becoming a bestseller.

Still, the idea of gathering under the sun and celebrating our seniors in a way that has never been done before at our little school sounded about right.

Different? Sure. Unconventional? Maybe. An opportunity for creativity? As they say around our community: “So very ACMA.”

Back to that February rain.

It was me, my astounding secretary, and an intrepid senior who took a wet walk outdoors to allow ourselves to imagine.IMG_3224

We talked about seating, and photos, and where to put the band. We allowed ourselves to imagine a day sunny enough to warrant some pop ups for our visiting grandparents who would need the shade. And as we paced and photographed, suggested and saw in our mind’s eye what the ceremony might be, the idea of commencement on the east long began to look fantastic.

We hurried inside and got out an invitation to the seniors to meet in early March to walk out and offer suggestions. We know that creativity can be inspired through collaboration, and we want the graduates to have a hand in designing their day.

Education has a place for dreaming and for doing, for many voices and shared interests imagining in February what the world can look like in spring.

The Real Truth of It

We will sell tickets at the door, and last year it was wonderful walk-ups (alumni, parents, and curious community members) who brought in bucket loads of love and support. They, like all the audience, wanted a taste of the artistic spirit of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy who showed up in droves to see artists, actors, dancers, sculptors, poets, singers, and more than a few surprises light up ACMA. Their tickets helped to support arts education, and provided students with the kind of patronage that made a real difference.

Plus, and this is the real truth of it, the ACMA Spectacular was fun.

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This Friday and Saturday the most fun you can have is on 118th Avenue. Come to see our dancers perform The Carnival of the Animals (with costumes by our visual artists and music by our classical orchestra) and stay to see actors who will make you laugh, poets who will move you to tears, and musicians who will swing like a gate.

You’ll see fantastic films, hear astounding vocalists, and could even leave with a painting. 

Plus, and this is the real truth of it, your support of the ACMA Spectacular makes a profound difference in the artistic lives of kids.

The $45 ticket price goes right to the arts and artists of ACMA. With that contribution, that investment in art and artists and ACMA, you can change lives. Schools like ours are rare and the positive, life affirming impact ACMA makes, sometimes on students who might not find a home that fits anywhere else, is as astonishing as the art they create …when supporters like you help give them the chance.

And it is possible because our community supports us, as we hope you might this weekend. If you’re free on Friday or Saturday night, we hope you’ll come to campus to enjoy an evening of performance and positivity. The real truth of it is that we can’t do this without you.

 

You can find out more and purchase tickets through our PTO website. I hope to see you there and thank every person who helps to support out kids.

Welcome to the real (and spectacular) ACMA

Day to day, hour to hour, ACMA is a magical place. For those of us who get to be on campus during the school day, the sight of students singing in the hallway, applauding around a lunch table, or playing an impromptu piano concert in the commons is part of our usual ACMA experience. Our students carry portfolios and sculptures to class, ACMA filmmakers seem always to be shooting a scene, and during passing periods groups of dancers dash from studios to changing rooms like schools of colorful fish. What we see when we’re here from 7:30 in the morning until school lets out at 2:05 is striking both in artistic diversity (poets, painters, animators, actors, singers and set builders) and talent. To be immersed in ACMA is to live Neil Gaiman’s line: “The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”

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All too seldom do we have an opportunity to share this wild artistic abundance, and…

Once a year all of our disciplines pull together to do something spectacular. For a night or two audiences come to campus and have the opportunity to be immersed in art and surrounded by creative students doing what they love. 

This week, February 7th and 8th, our ACMA Spectacular gives the unsuspecting (well maybe suspecting) public a chance to see our dancers, actors, and musicians performing together. Those who buy a ticket for Friday or Saturday night hear poets, see photography and fine art, and are able to support our young artists in a thousand ways (including purchasing a piece of art they can take home). The Spectacular allows everyone to experience a sliver of what our students do, walking a hallway filled with creativity, energy, and passion, and then ducking in to see performances that span the creative spectrum. 

What to expect at the Spectacular? Everything. Anything. 

Come early for the Monster Drawing Rally. I plan on joining in on the creative fun, drawing right there with the audience and creating a piece or two that folks can purchase to support AMCA artists.

Spectacular_2020_PosterHear our musicians play while our dancers perform The Carnival of the Animals.

Have a seven minute portrait done of your kid, your parent, or yourself …suitable for framing!

See a show stopping number from Cabaret, witness poets collaborating with dancers and visual artists, and listen to our vocalists remind us that all we need is love.

If you like a silent auction, we’ll have that too, plus gift baskets, refreshments, and artistic surprises (like a cinema showing ACMA films and a few booths described to me, in “so very ACMA” style as “a renegade craft fair”).

This is a chance for the world to experience ACMA and support the arts and artists who make up our creative community. There is still time to buy a ticket for one of the two nights, a bargain at $45. All of the proceeds go directly to helping ACMA continue to provide a fantastic arts experience to our students.

I thank everyone for supporting our ACMA artists, and I look forward to seeing you at this magical place we call home.

 

You can find out more and purchase tickets for Friday (2/7) or Saturday (2/8) through our PTO website. I hope to see you there and thank every person who helps to support our kids.