Infectious Exuberance

This morning a group of students filled my office with their positive energy and vision for the year ahead. My first summer meeting with the elected officers is always a treat and this year it provided a jolt of excitement ahead of the run up to the start of school.

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For a couple of weeks I’ve been at my desk planning the opening days when teachers return, fine tuning the master calendar, and thinking about the first week with students. All of those plans, which look good on my computer screen, but feel a world away from the action that will arrive with students, paused as I listened to these fantastic student leaders talk me through the series of events, the schemes to support school spirit, and the vision for a fantastic ACMA that they’ve been working on all summer.

Like me, they’ve been planning, and as they gave voice to those plans it was inspiring to hear the passion behind their ideas and the dedication to bringing those ideas into action.

2018-2019 will see events focused on helping students tell their stories, make connections to the school and each other, and show pride in who they are and this special school we call home.

I’ll let the students introduce their plans themselves, but as I wrote notes on my calendar during our meeting I kept thinking: these students have a plan and the power to make our school a better place every month!

I was particularly happy to hear the students talking about opportunities for our sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students to share artwork, participate in events on campus, and contribute to the positive atmosphere of our school. I loved the focus on community, the celebration of all art forms, and the importance of play.

The students also talked about smart choices to best get information to students and share a window into our world with the broader community. Heck, this meeting made me consider getting on Instagram to be sure not to miss out on some of the fun.

With less than a month before teachers return to campus, spending the morning with students energized me more than anything else I’m likely to do this summer. Those same students will be the first voices my teachers hear when they come back this fall; they’ve agreed to lead our staff through a couple of activities designed to reinforce the importance of human connections between students and staff. I have no doubt that the staff will find them as inspiring as I did today.

As July turns into August it’s time to shift gears from the more relaxed pace of summer to the growing excitement of the start of school. There is no better time on campus than those sunny days of early fall, and I’m over the moon excited to be sharing this journey with such amazing students!

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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.”

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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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.

Sock it to Me

I’ve seen “drives” before, canned food, toys, that sort of thing. Holiday sharing, as it’s sometimes called at a school, can be a positive part of our students’ experience, reinforcing kindness, teaching empathy, and helping remind us that as important as learning is, caring matters just as much.

This year at ACMA a spirited counselor took the reigns of a Sock, Hat, and Glove Drive, rallying students to bring in so many warm things that they filled my office. She made witty and wonderful announcements over the PA, stood in front of the school before dawn to collect donations as parents dropped off their kids, and even enlisted an intrepid board member, and ACMA kindred spirit, to join her one morning.

Day by day the sock pile grew. Hats and gloves filled my windowsills. Wool hung from my bookshelves, and every morning more warm clothing arrived.

Giving is something that comes naturally to students, and the generosity of our kids was matched only by the glee with which they presented their gifts.

The difference with ACMA’s Sock, Hat, and Glove Drive this December, subtle as it was, came in the way it reflected the spirit of our students and our school.

In addition to mountains of functional woolen gear were Star Wars socks, rainbow gloves, and hats with ears. Just because someone needs a helping hand doesn’t mean she can’t look fabulous. It was a fact lost on me at first, covered by the sheer quantity of clothing, but then one morning as I walked into my office I saw the pile of socks, hats, and gloves looking back at me!

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This, I thought, is ACMA.

Also ACMA is the expression of delight on the faces of the students who came by my office every morning to deliver their donations. Student after student, sixth grade through senior, ACMA kids brought smiles as wide as Christmas to my door, leaning in, laughing, and tossing the socks, hats, and gloves onto the ever growing pile.

Over time, and at the invitation of that marvelously mischievous counselor, students were encouraged to throw their stuff at me if I was sitting at my desk. We even made a couple of short videos to promote it, and the playful joy on the students’ faces moved me beyond words.

Then, this morning, the last day of the drive, a student, a huge handful of lavender socks in her hands, said: “I can really throw this at you?”

“Yes,” I answered, “but if I catch it, I get to throw it back at you!” She grinned, threw, and ducked. ACMA magic.

The socks, hats, and gloves will find feet, heads, and hands this winter, and I the warmth our students feel from giving will last for a long, long time.

A Great Hall of Reflection

“Art … is a great hall of reflection where we can all meet and where everything under the sun can be examined and considered.”
                                  -Iris Murdoch

Just about every morning I take a walk. At 7:30 my amazing assistant, Margaret, and I cue up a song, turn on the PA, and let music fill ACMA. For the next five minutes, as students hurry to classes to the sound of Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald, Sharon Jones or David Bowie, Mozart or Edie Brickell and Steve Martin, I walk.

coffeeA cup of coffee in hand, I navigate the front hall by the main office, zigging around the trophy case filled with ceramics, dodging kids wrapped in fleece blankets (a thing at ACMA during these cold winter months) and turn the corner by the door of the dance studio at the mouth of ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice.

Every morning I see teachers standing at doorways greeting students, I see kids carrying projects (a canvas, a sculpture, the makings of a robotic hand), and I find myself surrounded not just by art on every wall, but by the creative student artists who make our school the work of art that it is.

Ours is a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. We are a place that exudes the creative spirit, a place where students create their identities as well as their art. At ACMA we laugh often, dream big, and are comfortable being just a little bit different. Seeing this creativity made manifest every morning is an inspiration.

To walk down ACMA’s hallways first thing in the morning, The Clash, The Bangles, or The Beatles filling the air, is to see hope.

At 7:30 in the morning students are focused on what’s ahead. They’re not performing; they’re preparing. As these artists, writers, dancers, and musicians move together through the hallways, nodding hellos to one another, smiling, and toting instruments, cameras, and portfolios, they seem to me less a disconnected collection of individuals and more the cohesive colors of a creative rainbow. They share a desire to make art and a poetic way of seeing the world.

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My walk takes me to the end of the hallway, past paintings and wire sculpture, past displays about LBGTQ pride and announcements for upcoming productions, beneath student murals reaching back for decades and temporary installations on kindness, body image, and environmental issues.

Each step, to the strains of Mendelssohn or the bounce of Billie Holiday, takes me through a sea of anticipation. The day is about to begin. In the next hours together students will dance, and sing, and draw, and sculpt. They will write, and act, and make films. They will discuss literature and math, debate history, experiment in science (and maybe artistically too). They will support one another, encourage one another, and help each other be the best artists (and people) they can be.

Well, once they’ve wiped the sleep from their eyes; 7:30 am is awfully early for artists.

To help them wake up we may cue up some Prince or Buckshot LeFonque, Pink Martini or Johnny Cash. Whatever the soundtrack for the morning, the feeling is the same: gratitude for being at ACMA, excitement for the creative process, and a belief that today great things may happen.

I never take that morning walk for granted. Never. It’s a time to connect with students and staff, absorb the inspiration of our vibrant school, and witness first hand the profound power of creativity.

Let’s Dance

Three cats,” he confirmed, looking up at me from across the ancient front desk of the motor lodge in Yreka.

“Yep.”

Tired from a full day’s drive that had started before sunrise, I hoped I didn’t sound rude. He nodded, squinted past me toward where I’d parked in the shade of the lobby overhang. “Twenty one dollars more.”

I smiled (as much as one can after twelve hours of driving) and got out my credit card wondering again how exactly they’d come up with $7 per cat. $7?

photoThe cats hadn’t been thrilled at the start of the drive when, needing to keep myself awake and inspired by the ACMA senior painting I’d seen when I visited campus in June, the soundtrack for our journey began with David Bowie.

This shapeshifting singer, always changing, always true to his artistic spirit, struck me as a nice image for coming to ACMA, a place of creativity, artistic daring, and openness, a school community where Ziggy Stardust is as welcome as the fellow in the suit who sang “Modern Love.”

So with “Let’s Dance” filling the car, the cats and I pulled out of the driveway and into the night. Driving north beneath the serious moonlight, I thought about what was waiting at the other end of I-5.

Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, soon to start its 26th year, is a place vibrating with creativity. On my visit in June I’d been struck by the student art filling the hallways, the energy in the sculpture studio, and the discussion in classrooms. I was moved by the light in the eyes of the students who showed me the garden on campus, wowed by the passion of the filmmakers I talked with, and amazed by the talent of the dancers who made the spring recital so engaging that my nine year old son, mesmerized by what he saw on stage, surprised me when he wanted to stay well past intermission.

The teachers and staff I met, friendly, funny, and student focused, were marvelous too, and I could tell from our conversations, the give and take with students I saw in classrooms, and their questions when we all got together after school that this was a group of professionals who took their work seriously and themselves a little less so. Kindred spirits. I was eager to join this professional family, working side by side, learning together, and supporting kids.

And what kids.

The students I got to talk with were creative, clever, and kind. They struck me from the start as curious and comfortable in their own skins. We talked about art, and Pikachu, and even cats. I faced the age old question: “Dogs for arms or arms for dogs?” My answer, the sensible choice, sounded as ridiculous as it should have as I said it.

bowieAnd I got to witness the students’ creativity.

In addition to jawdroppingly great dance, I watched students mold clay, make music, and collectively paint the David Bowie portrait now hanging outside the office at ACMA, the same painting that inspired my song choice on the drive north.

From the Hall of Hope and Justice to the classrooms and studios filled with passion and purpose, the spirit of ACMA is a beautiful tune of acceptance and artistry. I’m so excited to heed the call of that patron saint, answering yes when I hear that invitation: “Let’s Dance.”