A Rat Question

I have a painting of a dead rat. It’s vivid and vigorous, well, as vigorous as a dead rat can be, painted in oil (blue, black, and of course red). The artist, a charming and wildly creative student who graduated a couple of years back, gave it to me after I noticed the painting at a big student art show. She went off to study forensic pathology and left me with a two panel painting that I like far more than one ought to like a painting of a deceased vermin …and I have no idea what to do with it.

You probably saw that dilemma coming. What does one do with six feet of oil painted dead rat? 

Technically and emotionally the painting is strong and hits me the way some art just does, visceral, raw. And…

My wife is not going to say to me: “That dead rat diptych would look great above the fireplace.”

If I hung it in my office at work I could see the subject matter raising eyebrows, and while I’m not opposed to raising eyebrows, it seems to me that the principal’s office ought to at least strive for some sense of calm; the meetings that fill the room are sometimes dramatic enough without having stressed out people look up to see the reclining corpse of an artistic rodent.

I thought about hanging it in the science wing of our new campus. They dissect rats and such, but then I remembered the living rats we keep in our middle school science labs and it feels ghoulish to put this reminder of their mortality so close to those furry young lives.

So…

Whither the dead rat painting?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I welcome suggestions. I really do want to figure out a place to display this awesome oddity and I have until June before we move into the new building, which means less than half a year to find the right home. 

Main office? Maybe not. Teacher lunch room? Just kidding. There’s an answer, I believe that, but what it is… maybe that’s an answer for a future post.

Keep faith. Find joy. Make art.

I made a video last week, one of a series of short and somewhat silly attempts to keep a human face in front of my school community, a reminder that we’re all in this together and even separated by the pandemic our ACMA spirit is very much alive. It was, as nearly all my videos are, unscripted and unrehearsed. A friend of mine, Scott, a videographer in San Diego, used to kid me about my single takes and lack of notes. This short kept to that tradition.

And…

As a fellow who likes words, the more I thought about the message of that short message, the more I felt like I wanted to expand on it a little, flesh out my thoughts, add an example or two. That fleshing out is this, a post with the heartfelt, modest message: Keep faith, find joy, and make art.

Restrictions about social gatherings in person, and the fact that we have been away from school since last March have many of us feeling more isolated and apart than we’ve ever felt. One of my counselors compared what we’re experiencing with astronauts journeying out into space. “The difference,” she told me, “is that the astronauts know when they’re coming back to earth.”

So while it’s easy to feel overwhelmed sometimes, to look up from a day of Zoom meetings and just feel tired, to realize after a day or two that you haven’t left the house in a day or two … it’s important to keep faith. We not only will get through this, but we are getting through this. 

Right now, as difficult as it is to be separated from friends, to be away from school (for teachers as well as students), and to live with an uncertainty about when things will be a little less strange, we are doing our best. Every day we’re a day closer to students returning to classes. Every day we’re a day closer to welcoming friends and family into our homes. Every day we’re closer to vaccinations and celebrations. Every day.

There’s a line in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring: “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” And while the road has darkened in the past few months, our faith in a world improved need not disappear.

And while we work hard and do all we can to make the most of this imperfect present, it’s also important that we find joy. This could be as simple as petting our cat or dog, strumming a ukulele, or listening to music. It could be texting a friend, playing Minecraft, or going for a walk. I dig reading, others like reality TV, still others want to dance, sing, and write poetry. Yes. Yes. And Yes.

Because even as we understand that our world is not yet the world we would like it to be, and that challenges beyond the pandemic are there waiting for us to face them, it’s okay to take a deep breath and have a cup of hot chocolate. 

Finding joy will help to keep us buoyant enough to meet the hardships that we will face. Sharing joy, when we’re able, will help our world overcome those hardships.

Faith, joy, and art. It’s that third one that might really serve as a call to action right now. You see I work at an art school, filled to the brim with creative souls. I miss their smiles, their flair, their way of being in the world every day we’re not on campus, and…

I’m inspired to know that they are still making art. I see it when I visit classes, when I host open mic nights online, and when I walk into the foyer of the school and see the carts with clay, paint, and finished sculpture projects on them (dropped off by students and fired by our amazing ceramics teacher). I saw it in the shirt designed by one of my students, a vision of our school as a human, sensibly wearing a mask. And I feel the truth of a quotation by British novelist Iris Murdoch that I used to have hanging in my classroom:

“Art is not cozy and it is not mocked. Art tells the only truth that ultimately matters. It is the light by which human things can be mended. And after art there is, let me assure you all, nothing.”

Age has led me to believe that art might not be the only thing that matters, but I do believe that art and artists do change the world. Today, as I looked back on that little video I thought of the students, staff, and parents who make up my school family and I was filled with faith, joy, and the desire to make art.

Something To Look Forward To

I was talking with one of our school counselors yesterday and as we discussed the pandemic, the upcoming election, distance learning, and the thousand stresses on our kids, staff, and families she shook her head and said “we just need something to look forward to.” Boy do we.

Then today it happened, an outpouring of exuberance, an hour of performance, and enough applause and positive encouragement to lift my spirits (and everyone’s on the Zoom meeting) higher than they’d been in weeks: Open Mic Night.

When we’re in the building, ACMA’s Open Mic Night is a monthly affair where students have an opportunity to perform for peers, parents, and friends in a low pressure/high applause setting. From its first imaginings Open Mic has been a place where we acknowledge the courage it takes for a teenager to stand up in front of an audience and sing a song, read a poem, or share a story, and at the same time we flex our good audience muscles and approach the event as an opportunity to celebrate that courage and creativity with cheers to raise the roof. These days the roof isn’t something we share; my roof is separate from yours, yours is in a different building than mine, and we all have to work a little harder to come together to make art. But we do.

And today we did. A lineup of students (with a couple of younger siblings thrown in the mix) delighted our audience of fellow students, ACMA staff, parents, and grandparents with acts as diverse as a song in ASL, an a capella rendition of “You’ll be Back” from Hamilton, a rowdy piano pounding out “Maple Leaf Rag,” and the cover of tune by Tom Petty.

It was glorious.

…and a lot of just good clean fun. Listening to our students sing, some so talented that I noticed the affirmations that were showing up in the chat switching TO ALL CAPS! AND STAYING THERE COMMENT AFTER COMMENT AFTER COMMENT, RECOGNIZING THE RIDICULOUS TALENT OF THESE PERFORMERS!

I feel a boost of adrenaline just writing about it.

Because, just like that counselor said, we need something to look forward to. We need voices raised in song, we need to laugh, we need to fawn over babies and pets as they appear on screen, we need art, and most of all we need each other.

Today was a simple affair: kids singing songs, an audience cheering them on, everything over the computer and all done in less than an hour, and… 

…and today was more than just a simple affair. It was something to look forward to.

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.”

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.

Support Your Local Artist

Spectacular_2020_PosterAbout a year ago I had the pleasure of introducing Arts & Communication Magnet Academy’s ACMA Spectacular with three truths: “I believe in art. I believe in artists. I believe in ACMA.” I do, and I also believe that art has a transformative power that makes our world better for everyone, the audience and the artists. Everyone

And…

Art doesn’t happen without support. Sometimes that support is wild applause. Sometimes it is quiet encouragement, gentle reassurance, and the unwavering belief that the artists can and will make magic. Sometimes that support is as simple as a few dollar bills.

Artists have had patrons since artists have been artists, and in a world of education where the arts sometimes takes a back seat to other worldly concerns (at least in the minds of decision makers) patrons of art education have never been more important.

Right now you have an opportunity to make a profound difference. With a few mouse clicks or touches to the screen of your phone you can change lives by supporting student artists and art education.

On February 7th and 8th ACMA is staging this year’s ACMA Spectacular, a celebration of arts and artists that draws on the talents of all of our disciplines, showcases student work, and shouts to the world that art matters!

Screen Shot 2018-11-10 at 9.16.29 PMThe Spectacular is our biggest fundraising event and all the profits go directly to helping kids.

Those young artists are hard at work now, rehearsing songs, dances, and scenes that they’ll share with audiences in less than a month. Our filmmakers are shooting and editing, our painters are painting, our sculptors are sculpting, and our poets are polishing verse. All of them are passionate about the work that they are doing, proud that patrons will be able to purchase that work at the event, and excited to share their performances with anyone who buys a ticket.

It’s through those tickets that you can support these creative souls, and I would encourage anyone reading this post to consider the $45 ticket price not only as admission, but even more as a contribution to something that matters: art and artists and ACMA.

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.

Dog-a Lisa

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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