Broken Ship in a Box

“That’s a broken ship in a box,” she said, looking past my shoulder at a wooden crate under the window. She tilted her head and looked again. “Broken ship in a box. That’d be a great title for a poem.”

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And while I don’t know that this delightful teacher, so observant and good humored, knew that I’d given over this school year to bring more poetry into my life, professional and otherwise, I applauded her suggestion.

“It could be a collective effort,” she went on, smiling. “We could all write it together.”

The possibilities seemed great.

In education we like metaphors, and at ACMA we like bending those metaphors a bit. Rebuilding our ship at sea is a familiar one, so too thinking outside the box. This object in my office, and my teacher’s noticing it, seemed to marry both in a marvelously unexpected way.

We left it at that, at least then; a bell rang pulling her to greater things (middle school social studies) and I had to run to a classroom observation, but I jotted down the title she’d suggested and snapped a photo of the ship, thinking to myself that we would do something with it. Something. Sometime soon.

That sometime soon happened the following week, during our staff development day.

Before we got to discussions of academics, digital citizenship, intervention, and student wellness, we started the day with something a little unexpected, a quotation by Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath: “We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, never able to dismantle it in dry-dock and to reconstruct it there out of the best materials.” How like education, I suggested, and how connected to thinking outside of the box.

I told the story of the teacher and the ship in the box, including the notion we all might work together to write some poetry, and invited them to consider that scene from Dead Poets Society where Robin Williams’ teacher tells his students:

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion …and medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” “Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” 

I acknowledged that though I was a former English teacher, or perhaps because of it, I knew that not 100% of my audience was excited about writing a poem. 

IMG_1638With that in mind, I’d reached out to my art teachers (every good educator knows that the best plans are plans shared and the best lessons aren’t hatched in isolation) and the result was divine.

Three teachers stood in front of the staff and introduced an art lesson that invited them to each work on a square that was a quarter of a ship. They could make it their own, complete with poetry or without, and would then collaborate with three other staff members to build their ship. 

These astounding teachers, who I have seen do such great work with kids year after year, brought that same spirit to the work with adults. They toted in colored pencils, pens, and materials for collage. They circulated around the library where we were working to laugh, encourage, and help the teachers engage with the creative shipbuilding at hand.

IMG_1633It was fantastic.

We saw pirates, and rainbows, and clever comments on education writ large. A science teacher put plastic in the ocean, an English teacher brought in the Greeks, and one intrepid sailor tipped the lesson on its side and built a brigantine from newsprint. One math teacher brought out a protractor, a dance teacher found metallic gold foil, and more than one person burst well off the black rectangle of the mounting paper. Rebuilding ships. Breaking boxes.

IMG_1650A couple of crews even snuck in a little verse.

And we, as a staff, got to create together.

We talked, we considered why we do what we do, and we expressed those ideas in colorful and creative ways.

Too often we adults forget the importance of play and art and connecting with each other in whimsical ways. That morning we did all three.

What then is our mission as educators? Like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society is our aim to inspire? Care? Support? Push our students to be their best?

Believe our art and it could just be all of the above. 

At least at ACMA, where a teacher might notice an antique broken ship in a box, and…

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A Mural in Progress

It’s the last week of school and I’m living in a yearbook. Around me on all sides are the scrawls and drawings, wisdom and vulgarity, cartoons and catchphrases, a cacophony of teenagers with sharpies. Near the Tom Marsh Gallery, a unicorn. By the dance studio, a rainbow handprint. And just outside my office, a cartoon of Thanos is snapping our current building away.

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That snap isn’t far from the truth. In just a few days rumbling machines will rip down the walls of the C.E. Mason Elementary building that has housed our campus since ACMA came into being. Gone will be the cherished murals. Gone will be the wooden wainscoting. Gone will be the gentle slope of the hallway outside the darkroom.

Knowing that this chapter in ACMA’s history was coming to a close, our graduating seniors took it upon themselves to paint the interior courtyard one night before graduation. We walked in the next morning to a kaleidoscope of color, birds, rainbows, and more than a few stenciled Mona Lisas. The substitute custodian that day walked up to me as I was coming onto campus. “Is this some kind of a mural?” He asked, “Or graffiti?” I looked around at the bright colors, creative images, and statements of love. “It’s ACMA,” I answered.

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The next day was a perfect storm. Literally.

Underclassmen were amazed when they saw the painting on the walls. Strolling around the courtyard, posing for photos, and laughing, they relished the seniors’ art. That afternoon we gave out yearbooks, and as we did the skies opened and a profound thunderstorm brought rain down in sheets and pushed students into the hallways. …sharpies for signing yearbooks in hand.

IMG_2088You can see where this is going.

What happened next was a window into our school’s collective soul.

But we are an arts school, and the faces that looked out from the walls, the animals who galloped, scurried, and flew over the plaster, and the wild colors that covered the eggshell white were incredible.

Bathroom graffiti seldom includes portraits of Frida Kahlo. Ours did.

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We saw examples of cubism, cartoons, and clever creativity. Scattered between, above and beyond were names, messages, and quotations.

The students chose to write and draw on surfaces they knew would be torn down as part of the major construction beginning in July. They stayed away from the portables that will be sold off and honored the established student art that has been up on the walls since the school began. So many used the opportunity as a way to make their artistic mark on a school they care about. It was overwhelming.

…and…

We had to close one of the bathrooms because of some naughty pictures and inappropriate words. And while the students didn’t mess with any of our murals, they did color outside the proverbial lines, both in terms of location and content. Some comments were vulgar, others simply mean.

In terms of quantity, the positive outweighed the negative like elephants to mice, but that didn’t make any of the negative less jarring.

IMG_2092We are a school that aspires to kindness, acceptance, and caring; we are a school made up of humans, fallible, clumsy, sometimes careless humans.

So we adults painted over a few words that weren’t meant for school, and the next day I got on the PA to share a message with my kids:

We’re ACMA; we’re artists. We’re creative, interesting, and have the ability to be thoughtful, to choose to be kind, and to make good decisions.

This week, following our seniors’ decorations of the courtyard, many of us took up the pens we were using to sign yearbooks and added our marks to the walls of this old building. I get it. It’s a human need to want to connect and belong. Overwhelmingly those little pieces of art have been positive and showed the creativity within us. Some weren’t.

So I wanted to reach out to you now with three things:

First, honor each other, the murals that are on our walls, and who we aspire to be at ACMA. Please do not write things on the wall that are vulgar or crass, that insult anyone, or would embarrass your grandmother.

Second, please do not make any marks on the wood, doors or wainscoting; we are salvaging some of this wood to be incorporated in our new building, and we want to have enough wood to be able to do that.

Third, be kind. Treat our venerable building well. It has served as a home for ACMA for decades and we do right when we show it, and the people who take care of it, respect. We have just three more days together on this campus; let’s finish strong. Together.”

After that, more of the same. Meaning a few of the bad words and inappropriate images, but even more of the colorful drawings, scores of them, notes of appreciation for our school, and even a quote from Hamlet.

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

IMG_2093And my frustration at what some would rightly consider vandalism began to shift. Yes, I did my best to monitor what students were writing, and yes I joined our patient custodian in covering the naughtiest of the words, but I recognized that for a principal who values feedback, this living yearbook was providing a roadmap of what to celebrate, what to question, and what to change moving forward.

Some of the uglier graffiti, tucked in bathroom stalls and the corners where peers couldn’t see them draw it, told me that we still have work to do with regard to treating others with respect. We put energy into fostering positive interpersonal relationships, and we’ve got to do more to help this be a universal value. That these types of comments weren’t front and center like the more artistic offerings told me that even those who wrote them recognize that they’re not something in keeping with our school community.

IMG_2098Some of the graffiti made me question what more I can do to involve students in more of the decision making that happens on campus. Their thoughtful remarks about the end of this era, saying goodbye to a building they obviously love, and the transformative power of art reinforced that “the kids” (or at least some of them) are mature beyond their years. Harnessing this passion will be a challenge that, done right, can be a powerful force for good at ACMA.

And image after image, comment after comment, this installation piece that our school became provided those of us willing to slow down and really look with much to celebrate.

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The seniors, who started the whole shebang, left messages of love, affirmation, and acceptance. From the Freddie Mercury stencils to the rainbows, hearts, and expressions of love, they demonstrated in glowing color the values that make art the universal language of hope.

The others, who joined in with the emerging voices of sixth through eleventh graders, added to that youthful exuberance with their own perspectives, mostly positive, about the world they are creating, on a canvas they love that is being destroyed.

I can honestly say that I hope to never have this experience again in my professional life, and…

IMG_2102I have learned to appreciate the gift that graffiti offered me, an opportunity to see what’s happening in the hearts and heads of my students. …and what we saw was overwhelmingly good.

Our students are hungry for opportunities to share their creativity, their thoughts, and their passions. This doesn’t have to be through visual art or yearbook style quotations, though it can be. It might also look like open mic nights, literary publications, and chances online to share a little bit of who they are.

While I can’t say I’ll miss it, not at all, post-snap I can say that I will think about it, and doing so I will look for ways my students can have their voices heard throughout the year, not just on walls.

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Into the Sunset

The mural had remained unfinished for 25 years, a panel of the film unspooling above the door of what had been the film room started but never completed. Few noticed it, or said anything if they did, but this year, as ACMA turned its collective attention to the history of our artsy school, conversation sprang up about the unfinished mural in the main hallway.

So rich with possibilities.

It took about thirty seconds to realize that as the building entered its final year we ought to finish this picture. Sure, it wouldn’t be as long lived as the rest of the murals on campus, and…

To lean into a little Robert Frost:

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

I took to social media to ask if anyone wanted to pick up a paintbrush and finish the mural. An 8th grader was quick to say “yes.” We agreed that in keeping with that notion of art as experience, and underscoring the impermanence of art that our school is feeling collectively this year (as we prepare to move and see the 1949 building razed to make way for a new ACMA in 2021), we’d set the date for this completion in May.

As artists, we know that making art is where the magic lies, even if the physical life of that art is as impermanent as those first summer leaves. Sure, some of the big ones stick around, The Last Supper, the cave paintings at Lascaux, and such, but paint on a wall knows that its life is limited, and yet as humans we keep painting on walls.

Diego Rivera, the prolific Mexican muralist, recognized that “great art is like a tree, which grows in a particular place and has a trunk, leaves, blossoms, boughs, fruit, and roots of its own.” And while some redwoods tower above all others, other trees provide the wood from which humans have always built houses for shelter, ships for discovery, and the brushes, pencils, sculpting tools, sets, and stages that have given voice to art for eons and continue to do so today.

Rivera talked a lot about the importance of his work as it related to his culture, as true for him and Mexico as it is for us and ACMA. Enter that middle school artist with a box of paint and a ladder.

IMG_1616 (1)Hers would be the last mural at C.E. Mason Elementary, the longest running project in our school’s history, and a nod to art for the sake of art, not simply for longevity.

She decided, on the day she came in with a couple of friends to complete the painting, that she’d end the mural history of this building with a sunset.

“My friend told me ‘nothing gold can stay, Pony Boy,’” she explained to me with a smile, referencing the S.E. Hinton classic. That seemed right. “If you look closely you can see the two figures there watching the sun go down.”

Painting (and laughing and snacking and hanging out) took much of the day, as it had when the first artists pulled ladders to the wall back in 1994. Then, as now, making art at ACMA was both communal and filled with fun.

They even snuck a line from a My Chemical Romance song into another frame of the mural, a perfectly ACMA thing to do.

A quarter century later, that mural looks great, complete, ready for destruction when the school year ends. The destruction of the building, not the spirit of art. …and I like knowing that these same students will be juniors when we move to the new campus in 2021, ready to work on the first mural in the new ACMA. Stay gold, Pony Boy.

The Elephant in Moscow

Almost every year our jazz band packs up their instruments and drives to Idaho for the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Wildly gifted musicians, these students are great ambassadors for ACMA, inspiration to a world hungry for art, and a truly fun bunch.

This year, ahead of the trip, they hosted a fundraising concert where they could shake off any nerves ahead of the big festival performances and fill a jar with enough money to help make the trip to Idaho a big success.

It was a fantastic concert, as they always are, and this one felt a little different.

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It began with some R&B, musicians I’d heard play Monk and Ellington, brought some unexpected funk, and the crowd of jazz aficionados loved it. After that came the usual suspects: Coltrane, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, some with stories to be told, others introduced with a smile and a sense of urgency to get to the tune, so beautiful it would be. Off to the side, one of our English teachers and his wife danced. Even before a pianist pointed out their swing, I could tell the students dug having them enjoying the music so much. They played on, bass thumping, horns blaring, and piano dancing up and down the register. Drum solos, a Frank Sinatra tune, and the playful banter of musicians comfortable with each other and engaged with the music they were playing, this was an example of the profound power of art. The concert ended with a rendition of “Strange Fruit” that would have made Nina Simone proud.

IMG_0444Throughout the night, as students adjusted the bass or tinkered with tuning, our jazz director stepped to the front of the stage and charmed the audience. We were getting every bit of professionalism we paid for at this free concert, he told us, we were seeing the fruits of the students’ labor, and getting a window into their artistic souls.

Midway through the performance, with a little longer time to fill, he told us a story.

“I’ve taken the kids on this trip to Moscow, Idaho ten of my eleven years at ACMA,” he said to the assembled crowd. “Sometimes the weather is great, and sometimes it’s crazy. One time a few years back we had a lot of snow. We were on the bus driving toward town, and out into the road stepped a big moose. He looked at our bus coming down on him and froze. There was nothing we could do. The bus hit the moose, and the moose was annihilated. So was the bus. It ruined the whole side of the bus. Nobody got hurt.” He smiled. “And it was one of those moments when I thought to myself: Should I call the principal? I mean nothing happened. A split second, that’s all I hesitated,” he said, nodding in my direction. “And then I saw that a kid had texted home: ‘Mom, We just hit an elephant!’”

IMG_0450It was an example of those nutty and unexpected incidents that define what it’s like to be an educator. Once we knew the kids were all okay, we could laugh together.

That’s a feeling not unlike what happens when a play wraps or a dance show is over, when Art is My Voice closes or the last audience members have headed home from a literary event with a copy of The Ballpoint tucked beneath their arms. There is a surprising joy in art, and sometimes conflict too, but in the end art has the capacity to leave us feeling better about our world.

One joy of working at an art school is seeing students finding their voices and sharing their passions with an audience. It makes me proud to think of the students who are traveling to Lionel Hampton, and happy to imagine the inspiration they’ll bring to the audiences there. Here’s hoping they don’t meet an elephant on the way.

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Unlock the Piano

We have a piano in the cafeteria. For years it was locked up, safe until it was needed for choir practice or the jazz band rehearsing for an upcoming show. It’s not a fancy instrument, just a simple upright that we get tuned often enough to stay relevant and got used just enough to justify keeping around. This fall, at the prompting of one of our amazing food service folks, we took off the lock. It has transformed lunch.

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As an art school we know that the students (and staff) who fill our halls are creative sorts. They sing and dance and act out scenes from Shakespeare, and that’s just between classes. It’s not unusual to find students sitting in the hallways at lunch reading something they’ve written to each other, hunched over a chromebook to watch a film one of them has shot and is editing, or practicing some of the steps they’ll use in tap class that afternoon.

We’re a school that loves applause, both giving and receiving, and bursts of clapping are common at lunch, during passing periods, and even sometimes in class.

Being a principal at a place like this brings more unexpected joys than I can articulate, it also brings the challenge of balancing opportunities for students to express their own creativity while building a positive community and running the day to day operations of a school.

To me this means not just promoting the established performances, but also inviting more impromptu opportunities for the creative souls who make up my school.

Screen Shot 2018-12-05 at 11.47.24 AMOnce we unlocked that piano in the cafeteria we saw students use it. From the most talented seniors, students who have gigs in Portland on weekends and can hold their own with professionals, to youngsters plunking out Für Elise, our kids sat down and played.

All this fall we’ve heard songs familiar and strange. Some days the cafeteria is filled with a sing along, other days it’s jazz or a cover of a Twenty One Pilots tune. Pop, classical, moody student compositions, we’ve heard them all. Last week I walked through the bustling lunchroom and it was the Harry Potter theme.

And something else happened too.

More and more I’ve heard music that isn’t just a piano. In addition to those students who gather around the pianist to sing, outside the cafeteria I’ve seen more kids strumming ukuleles in the hallway, and on a particularly sunny day I heard an impromptu violin concert outside.

violinI want to foster an environment where students are encouraged and inspired to make music in the hallways, the courtyard, and the cafeteria. My poets and painters, animators, ballet dancers, and photographers all benefit from being in a school where music fills campus. It’s not something I could or should legislate; my job as a steward to this magical school is to create opportunities, open spaces where students can bring their own art alive.

Listening to one of the most beautiful renditions I’ve ever heard of that old jazz standard “Body and Soul” the other day at lunch got me thinking about the other ways I can give my students the chance to overflow with artistic exuberance. They could be big ideas like adding a stage to the commons area of the new building that starts construction this summer, or small ones like putting up the wide swaths of paper for students to draw on in the Quonset Hut that serves as our cafeteria. It could be encouraging open mic nights, stopping to really listen when I hear students playing ukulele in the hallway, or posting images of student artwork and links to student films online.

At some schools it could be setting aside times and places that students can fill with their own voices. Some places have grand traditions, like Exhibition Day, others are ready to introduce new opportunities both big and small. At my little art school it might be as simple as giving license to extemporaneous artistic expression, or joining in on the applause I hear at lunch.

All of these are ways to support students and nurture creativity, ways of unlocking our pianos.

Feathers/Wings

IMG_8703We started them on the first day of school, the day when all students new to ACMA came to campus a day before returning students. After a welcome in the auditorium students fanned out across campus in groups, visiting the library, participating in some theatre games, and making art. That art was simple in design, but big in idea. Feathers.

Each student got to choose a bright cardstock strip to draw or write on any way they thought represented them. Faces, quotations, animals, the choices were as different as each individual student. Next, they cut these into the shapes of a feathers, and by the end of the day hundreds were piled on the art studio table.

IMG_8704Over the next couple of weeks we added to the pile of feathers. Staff took turns making their own during our preservice week, parents got to make feathers at my first principal’s coffee, and our intrepid assistant principal set up a table for returning students to make their own at lunch. The feathers filled a wicker basket to overflowing, and then…

On the wall outside my office at the front of the school those feathers became wings. On a rich blue background two swooping collections of feathers reached toward the butchers paper clouds. On those clouds, drifting about the rainbow wings, were written: “Attitude determines altitude” and “Commit to soar, ACMA.”

IMG_8701We figured it would be a nice photo opportunity for any souls willing to stand in front and make the wings their own. It was also a metaphor that captures at least a bit of who we are as a school.

Individually we are creative, divergent, and wildly individualistic. Some of us draw, some of us write, some of us express ourselves in music and movement. Those feathers showed all the colors of our rainbow, gave each person their own personal space to create, and the freedom to be themselves. And…

Together those individual feathers coalesced and created something magical and greater than any one individual. Alone we are feathers; together we are wings.

So too at our little art school. The painter, the poet, the percussionist; the dancer, the director, the dreamer; each left to our own devices can create something marvelous and individual, but how much more when the sculptor and the screenwriter, the filmmaker and the photographer, the actor and the artist support each other?

Art unifies us. Art lifts us up. Art, and each other, helps us soar.

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A Luxurious Profusion of Art

I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I write a bit, and like to. Occasionally I’ll scribble something resembling a cartoon; my kids tell me they can always recognize a sketch as mine when a pirate or a cat shows up on a note or inside a greeting card. It makes me happy to see my daughter’s own cartoon cats beating mine into Grandma’s birthday card (cats are easy and fill up the space, she explains to me, my rationale as well, though I haven’t yet admitted that to her).

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My wife is the real artist, a painter whose time in art school showed that she could also sculpt, make books, and create with wire. At one point a life sized model of me made from metal mesh knelt on the balcony of our apartment in Oakland. What the neighbors must have thought.

I have a good friend who is a classical guitarist, and while I’ve never learned an instrument myself, I recognize his playing as magical. That said, I feel my heart swell when I listen to my daughter practicing the piano at home, and the other night, long after sensible parents had put their kids to bed, I’ll confess to being delighted when I heard her quietly plucking La Vie en Rose on the ukulele.

This appreciation extends to every live performance I’ve ever seen in the theater. The last time I acted on stage I was in the third grade, a weasel in a school production of Wind in the Willows. It was the 1970s and costumes were very homemade. My tail, which I remember being as round as a mason jar and longer than my leg, literally knocked over scenery during the weasel dance in Toad Hall. I never acted again.

But, “O for a muse of fire…” how I wish I could memorize lines, or play the violin, or knock out Misty on the piano. To be able to paint an autumn field alla prima, or throw a pot on the wheel, or tap dance… these are skills that leave me in wonder.

I remember a time, now decades ago, going in to the Hipbone Studio in Portland with my wife for an evening of life drawing. Her sketches in charcoal on newsprint looked like something by Raphael; thirty minutes in I’d resorted to caricaturing my fellow artists.

And what does this long reflection (confession?) on my own artistic shortcomings have to do with anything? I suppose some of it is just a love or words. As Stephen Fry wrote:

While I am fond of the condensed and economical use of [words] in poetry, in song lyrics, in Twitter, in good journalism, and smart advertising, I love the luxuriant profusion and mad scatter of them too.”

So as someone who appreciates art, and art of all kinds, and who has the pleasure of earning a living by being the principal of an art school, I relish the chance to madly scatter a few words of praise and wonder at the arts and artists I spend time with every day.

This extends beyond the gallery or performance hall, and peeks behind the curtain or glossy cover of the literary magazine.

Beyond the swell of inspiration that comes from watching performances and seeing finished work on display, there is something fundamentally profound in seeing the process of artists creating.

The hours a filmmaker invests setting up shots, coaching actors, editing and adding music; the days a sculptor devotes before a piece goes into the kiln; the endless rehearsals a jazz musician muscles through to make a piece feel easy to the audience; this making of art is, as often, where the true magic lies.

Watching the sawing, hammering, and painting of sets before the play opens, or listening as the costume designers talk options with their director, these are the moments when art is alive.

Poets mulling over words, short story writers wrestling with their characters, playwrights polishing dialogue, this is art.

Choirs harmonizing, orchestras coming together to bring a score to life, the work it takes for large groups like this to make music together is the challenge of art that brings with it the possibility of bringing us closer together.

Dancers, dedicated beyond belief, pushing themselves mentally and physically to make their art appear effortless to an audience who doesn’t see the hours in the studio, the starts and stops, the grinding work they throw themselves into in the collective embrace of music and marley.

And knowing I can’t dance, or play the cello, or step into the darkroom with a roll of film and come out with a work of art, I do my best to be the most appreciative audience I can be.

I applaud ferociously. I celebrate unceasingly. I post images of student art on Instagram, video clips of choir on Facebook, and posters of the upcoming shows on Twitter.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 9.07.18 AMI do my best to remember what it was like when I was a youngster and my dad taught me how to take photographs. He was patient, methodical, and caring. My wonder at seeing the world through a viewfinder, just as my dad did, is something I see in the many young photographers on campus. And I think about what it was like to be young and artistic and have an adult believe in me and want me to succeed.

I aspire to be that adult, one of many adults at our school with that caring and belief, who strives to be that supportive force for all students.

Art transforms the world. Making art transforms the artist.

Thank heaven for places like ACMA, where art and artists are given the support and opportunity to transform us all.