The Experience We Needed

I work at a creative school filled with whimsical and imaginative people who make art, support each other, and like to dress up. Every October this means that we have an opportunity to unleash that creativity. At ACMA Halloween is a national holiday, and this year, separated by the pandemic, Halloween had to look different.

We decided on a pumpkin carving contest online, cobbling together a video of dancing students (filmed individually and spliced together by our intrepid film students), and… and we knew we wanted something else. We wanted to see if there was a way to be more together. The experience we needed, needed after weeks connecting only through computer screens, was to be on campus together. So…

We planned a Fall Fest, our usual name for ACMA’s October party, as a “walk through” event. Students would get dropped off on one end of campus, stroll along the wide sidewalk past parked staff cars, their trunks open and filled with candy, and circle around outside the building to dance, play, and laugh through their masks, and then exit out the other end of campus.

Walking along the sidewalk, at a safe social distance of course, I spotted a steampunk librarian, the Incredible Hulk, a couple of hobbits, and the inflatable robot from Big Hero 6 …and that was just the teachers. One dance instructor in a long blonde wig, a black cape and plastic teeth came up to me and asked: “Do you think the kids will recognize the vampire Lestat?” “No,” I answered. His costume was great, but did kids still read Anne Rice or watch horror movies from the 1990s? “How about if I say Tom Cruise?” “No.” 

But maybe I was wrong, because ACMA students often surprise us. They surprise us with their wit, their perspective, and their creativity. On Halloween that creativity shines.

So we saw pirates, plague doctors, and a menagerie of animals. An impressive knight and his lady strolled through, making ACMA feel like Camelot. A flapper danced in, and when I asked her if she was reading Gatsby in English she answered: “I did last year and I’m bringing it back!” Some costumes were fantastical, like the astounding Queen of Hearts, and others subtle, like the student in a t-shrit that said “feminist” and a pair of glasses that made me ask: “Gloria Steinem?” The student smiled. “Yes.” Her costume was, as they say, so very ACMA. It was awesome.

Flights of Anime characters walked through campus, and I was happy to have recognized Totoro. Skeletons, cowpokes, and Wednesday from the Addams family filled ACMA with energy and from the werewolf who greeted students at the front gate to the ghostbuster near the exit, the positivity that everyone brought to the day was amazing.

The students were great, walking through the candy corridor, taking photos, dancing (with direction from a couple of our amazing ACMA dancers), and playing some outdoor games that allowed everyone to stay more than six feet apart. I couldn’t see the smiles behind the sensible facemasks, but I could tell they were there, and (true to ACMA form) just about every student said “Thank you” as they left the Fall Fest to get picked up on the other end of campus.

After more than a few days of stress, problems to be solved, challenges that tested our collective resolve, to see moments of joy was a rare and wonderful experience.

Then, as I spotted our bewigged Lestat laughing and chatting with the teacher who was dressed as a farmer and another whose striped red and white shirt and red beanie told me we’d found Waldo, I knew that today’s Fall Fest was as good for the adults at my school as as it was for the students. In this world of Zoom and email, separated from physical proximity and lonely for the best part of education, connecting, today was magical.

After the day was over a teacher who had been taking photos for the yearbook came up to me and told me that she heard a student tell a friend: “This is not the experience I thought I’d have, but it’s the experience I realize I needed.”

These days that statement is just about the highest praise we can aspire to. Because we need each other. We need to laugh, look into each other’s eyes, hear human voices without the help of a computer, dress up, have fun, and know that we are not alone. Today’s Fall Fest did that for many of us, students and staff alike. 

It was the experience we needed, all of us.

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.”

Throwback

Dress up days are almost always a crapshoot. For every successful Pyjama Day is a clunker that leaves students either puzzled or uninspired. At most middle and high schools a few standards hold sway (usually with alliteration) so seeing “Throwback Thursday” on the Spirit Week calendar doesn’t particularly raise anyone’s hopes. But students have the fundamental ability to surprise us, often in creative and clever ways, and last Thursday at ACMA was an example of what makes me hopeful about the future.

Populating the halls on ACMA’s Throwback Thursday were the almost to be expected bell bottoms, poodle skirts, and leg warmers, all done with the eye of an artist, and…

For anyone who thinks that “kids today” have had their creativity zapped by technology, their spirits broken by school, or their innovation stifled by a world of questionable priorities, I offer ACMA’s Throwback Thursday as exhibit A that the kids are more than all right. 

On Thursday ACMA students took the concept of “Throwback” and made it their own.

Rosie the Riveter walked passed me holding hands with a fantastically robed Jedi master, the 1940s meeting “a long, long time ago.” Sharks and Jets shared the hallway with Robin Hood; a student wearing a bowler hat and pinstripe suit high-fived two Jazzercise instructors. At lunchtime I saw an Egyptian pharaoh.

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Now in and of itself this may not sound crazily important, and I suppose in the greater scheme of things it isn’t, but this combination of youthful exuberance and wild creativity, made manifest by students who constructed their own costumes and were willing to spend a school day as 19th century banker or Laura Ingalls Wilder reminded me that I have the good fortune to be surrounded by students who are innovative, thoughtful, and willing to put aside inhibition and play.

These weren’t simply costumes plucked off the wall at the Halloween store; the spikes on my punk rocker’s wrist and neck would have passed muster in 1983, the tinted glasses and tie-dye shirt one student wore looked like they’d been around since 1969, and the Beavis and Butthead t-shirt one student sported felt authentic. Even these more conventional approaches to Throwback Thursday had been put together thoughtfully, an approach that I see many students take to most of the subjects they care about.

IMG_1840For the more adventurous or theatrical, that forethought exploded into the reality of flappers and fedoras for Throwback Thursday. 

Once again, the takeaway wasn’t just that creative kids like dressing up in costumes (though they do), but that when they want to, today’s youth has the potential to innovate, to take an established prompt and make it their own. This is as true for something as little as a dress up day as it is something big like climate change, period poverty, or school safety.

Unfettered by the many limitations those of us over thirty put on ourselves and the cultural expectations dictated by our greater society, students know that the world is theirs for the changing. Many of this generation aren’t going to do what we expect them to do, or at least not in the way we expect them to do it. Instead, like that Jedi and Rosie the Riveter, or pharaoh, or punk rocker, they will build on the history the know, express the passion they feel, and create the reality they want to see.

Maybe I’m sentimental, it’s an accusation I’ll own up to, and maybe today was just a great dress up day during Fall Spirit Week, but I choose to recognize it as more. My older eyes saw in my students an expression of creativity that will lead to a better world, a sense of hope wrapped in an expression of joy, a bright future dressed in old clothes.

Perfect, with Obstructions

For more than a quarter century they made art in imperfect surroundings. Dancers danced in studios carved out of spaces designed as elementary school classrooms, musicians rehearsed in a low ceilinged portable, and actors performed in a Quonset Hut. Strikingly, the results were magical; talent, passion, and perseverance outweigh infrastructure. In the end art wins.

And then we tore it down. We didn’t, I guess, but the construction team did, reducing seventy years of wood, concrete, and plaster to dust and clearing the way for a new campus to open in the fall fo 2021. That building will be designed as an art school, a powerful gift for our kids. In the interim ACMA has taken up residence in the voluminous building that will eventually open as a middle school for more than a thousand students. With our 700 or so kids it feels a little like wearing dad’s suit.

TMS

But this bigness isn’t a bad thing, at least in the short term. Having packed our little art school into boxes and traipsed across town, it has been nice to have enough space for everything, and while we know there will be swaths of the building we don’t use, as a temporary home it’s a pretty terrific space.

I’ve been able to gauge reactions to our temporary campus from the handful of teachers, students, and parents who have stopped by over the summer for meetings. As I’ve taken them on impromptu tours, dodging in and out of boxes and furniture in the process of being assembled, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at the comments and smiles inspired by the building and what we’re doing with it.

Some cheered at the large clean classrooms, others were wowed by the beautiful wood on the walls of the commons, and two students who walked around couldn’t get over how many bathrooms there are. “And they’re huge,” they added. I suppose they are.

This campus where we’ll spend two years will be nice for our creative ACMA family. With more than enough space, the compromises we’ve had to make (like two years without our performing arts center) seem to be working out (thanks to some good old fashioned creative problem solving), and the overall result is almost what one staff member called it, coming back from a tour: “For a rental, this is perfect!”

Ah, perfect.

That line reminded me of a documentary my film teacher recommended to me last year called The Five Obstructions. It’s a film about art and the creative process, and as I got to thinking about it this summer, it struck me as a nice analogy for what we’re about to do as an art school.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 7.49.58 AMThe Five Obstructions takes as its starting point another film, a 1967 short The Perfect Human by Jørgen Leth. The Perfect Human is an artsy meditation on …something. You can see the whole thing here if you like, and if you do you’ll recognize the work a confident artist working in a medium he knows and creating a polished piece that can be classified as art. Visual, creative, and more than a little quirky, there is a whiff of that ACMA spirit about The Perfect Human. It is the kind of film our students would dig.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 7.50.37 AMFilmmaker Lars von Trier certainly dug it, and in 2003 invited his mentor Leth to remake the short five times, each with a collection of “obstructions” that would challenge him to adjust and force him from his original plan as he pushed against the limitations von Trier imposed that blew up his comfortable and familiar way of working.

These obstructions are many and diverse: he must remake the film in Cuba, for example, with no shot lasting more than twelve frames; he must shoot the short in “the most miserable place on earth,” but not show that place on screen; he must turn The Perfect Human into a cartoon.

The results are delightful.

The process, however, Leth describes at one point as “demonic.” And… An oyster without sand under its shell doesn’t produce a pearl, so while Leth complains to von Trier that the constant cuts of the first obstruction (twelve frames is about half a second of screen time) “will be totally destructive,” once done with the film, he reports that “the twelve frames were like a gift.” For an artist, challenges are like that sand in an oyster. 

Now I don’t know what unexpected obstructions will come with our temporary (but perfect) home. In August I can anticipate a few: some of the classrooms won’t have the furniture we expected, using lockers for the first time in our school’s history will be different to say the least, that sort of thing. But for every expected obstruction, I’ll wager that there will be another dozen we can’t predict. Some of these will feel “demonic” and some will lead to artistic gifts.

So thinking about The Five Obstructions, I hope that our response to the obstructions we will face will be not to grouse and stamp our feet on the floor, but to embrace the challenges, look for creative solutions, and remake our approach to making art (and our approach to making meaning in the core academic classes) and use this as an opportunity to do something wildly creative.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 6.48.09 AMThe results? Heck, they could be all over the map. And that’s okay.

Leth’s series of remakes run the range of emotion, imagery, and innovation. His actors, including him as one of his actors, inhabit environments unfamiliar and evocative. Watching The Five Obstructions, and the remakes included within the documentary, is like pulling back the skull of an artist and peering inside.

Screen Shot 2019-07-30 at 6.35.49 AMPushing an artist to work within constraints, limit him or herself to a particular palette, or respond to external complications outside him or herself could suggest that the process or the product would be compromised. And yet…

Looking back at the 1967 film that started it all, modern audiences might notice that the “perfect person” smokes a lot (a pipe for him; a cigar for her), is very white, and seems to embrace the trappings of the midcentury western bourgeois society. Given an opportunity to bring fresh perspective to this point of view, many of our students might come up with something innovative, very personal, and new.

How might that hold true for us as we are faced with the obstructions that come in any move? How might these challenges, and we know there will be surprises that challenge us, inspire in us innovation?

I have no doubt that this big yellow building can be a great home for us for two years. Perfect, even, with obstructions.

The Green Bunny

Behind me thunderclouds rose, blotting out the sun over the courtyard. Wind pushed the first raindrops of a summer storm onto the crowd where everyone clutched umbrellas and purses ready to make a break from their folding chairs for someplace dry. We’d hurried through the final reading of names for the cords our graduates would wear at commencement, our pace picking up as gray replaced blue in the sky. I’m told ACMA’s Senior Awards assembly has never gotten rained out; today was as close as I ever want to get. And…

Looking out over the students, staff, and families, I couldn’t just say run for shelter. I had one more award.

I know in the rush of raindrops I had to hurry my story, and, a sucker for saying things right, I thought I’d give it another go here for anyone preoccupied with getting into the Quonset Hut for pizza or back under a breezeway to get out of the rain.

Because the story of that last award, while not exactly ACMA, is as ACMA as anything I know.

Green Bunny opaque copyIn 1950, I told the crowd, a little boy came to school at this campus. He was in third grade, and he liked learning and being creative. He washed dishes in the cafeteria downstairs to earn lunch, was learning how to play trumpet, and liked his teachers. But life for a creative soul in the middle of the last century wasn’t always an easy road to travel, even for an eight year old. Almost seventy years later he told me about his experience, saying “I still remember distinctly the art teacher disapproving of my green bunny rabbit in the third grade–there went my career as a visual artist!”

That was far from the end of the story.

Because young Morten Lauridsen may have stepped away from visual art, but he threw himself into making art, specifically music, that has changed the world. As a result, this boy from C.E. Mason Elementary has been described as an icon among choral composers. His works have been nominated for Grammy Awards, earned him a National Medal of Arts, and are performed across the United States and the world more often than just about any living choral composer. He did not let the forces of conformity surrounding him break his spirit. He used his inner strength, creativity, passion, and purpose to carve an artistic life.

Today at ACMA we encourage green bunnies, and all sorts of creativity, and I like to think that the young Morten Lauridsens who walk our halls feel supported and will have different kinds of memories seventy years from now.

Untitled_ArtworkThat spirit of artistic spirit is alive and well in our little art school, and when I decided on The Green Bunny Award the first thing I did was go to two of our senior artists to ask if they’d each come up with an image for the certificate. Amazing as they are, I had two exquisite green bunnies on my desk by the next week. What would Morten Lauridsen’s teacher think?

Truth be told, I cared less about her opinion than his, and I sent a copy of the certificate to the composer with a note of thanks for his inspiration. Gracious as he is, his reply showed the spirit I hoped to celebrate with The Green Bunny Award. “I am very tickled and honored with this news about the Green Bunny Award,” he said. “Ranks right up there with the National Medal of Arts!”

Back to that growing rainstorm.

I’m told someone saw lightning. I heard thunder, but had my attention on sixty seconds it would take me to say what I could. This year’s winner was a filmmaker and leader of his class who spent countless hours researching the history of our school, collaborating with peers enthusiastically and often, and showing that same Lauridsenian spirit that says art (and a bit of tenacity) can overcome any obstacle.

Just the week before, other members of his graduating class had approached me and asked if there was some special award I could give him.

There was, and it had green bunnies.

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Book, Journal, and Key

There was a bit of a stir at ACMA on Monday, April 1st, when three students who were helping me measure some huge wooden beams in the attic above the library (a dark and dusty place where no one ever goes) found a small, weatherbeaten journal, an old book by Walter Scott (without a copyright, but with an inscription dated Christmas 1890), a set of (now) antique pliers, and a key.

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Over the past week I posted images of the journal’s pages, and many students have visited my office to take a look at the originals, but a few have asked if anyone was going to transcribe the handwriting and I’ve done my best to do so here.

I’ll write more on this adventure in the weeks to come, I’m sure, but for now I wanted to offer my intrepid treasure hunting ACMAniacs an easier to read version of that antiquated scrawl. Click here for a link to a PDF of the Journal of Clement Arbuthnot

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.

Artisan Dances

This post is in praise of the homespun, the handcrafted, the artisan. I’ve been places where high school dances are elaborate affairs, acres of lights, fog machines (that somehow always set off the fire alarm), and a sense of spectacle that rivals a Hollywood production. I once chaperoned a prom in an affluent Southern California community held at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. They brought in a ferris wheel.

DVDWb6sUQAMHBhRThere is certainly something memorable about a spectacle, it’s in the name I suppose, but to tell the truth the best school dances I’ve ever seen have been less about fireworks and more about feeling. These events, the really good ones, aren’t store bought or rented by the hour. They’re built by hand, crafted with creativity, and imagined with an eye to the unexpected.

This fall, one manifestation of the unexpected came in the form of pudding, forty pounds of it.

Being at ACMA means being ready for anything. The unexpected happens so often it can be depended on: a piano in the cafeteria, a visiting llama, a teacher in a kilt? Yep, ACMA. Art everywhere in the hallways, impromptu violin concerts at lunch, and no mascot? ACMA. Silly yearbook photos, the principal in a cannibal movie, kindness as part of the middle school science curriculum? That’s ACMA too.

So on an October morning when my secretary leaned into my office and said: “I’ll be right back. I need to go pick up forty pounds of pudding” I knew enough to simply nod and answer “Great!”

Just outside my door piles of boxes had been accumulating for a couple of weeks: glow sticks, neon paper, and paint splattered posters. This was going to be an ‘80s themed fall dance, and it was going to be, I was assured, totally awesome.

IMG_9044By the end of the week we’d have boxes of apples, bags of popcorn, and enough caramel to satisfy the hundreds of students who would fill our Quonset Hut, courtyard, and hallways that Friday night. Throughout the week I saw rolls of colored paper turn into posters of dancers, checkerboard designs (that I was told would look fantastic underneath the black lights), and a giant boom box.

Every afternoon after the last bell rang, a core of Dance Committee students and a panoply of others spent day after day in the hallways painting, cutting, and preparing for the dance. To the sounds of Duran Duran, Wham, and Madonna they laughed and worked together to come up with what they imagined the 1980s to be.

A week before they’d asked our staff for photos of themselves in the 1980s. The results, which looked like the casting call for a John Hughes movie, were put into a slideshow that ran on a loop on our indoor marquee on the day of the dance.

Decorations continued to emerge: the giant Rubik’s Cube, the banner announcing the GLOW HALLWAY, and the black lights (that the kids were so excited about that the custodian put them in the fixtures outside the library by the Wednesday before the dance).

On Thursday my cafeteria lead came into the office to purchase tickets to the dance for two students who were having some trouble affording them. So very ACMA.

The pudding arrived, in four pound pouches two to a box (for anyone curious how forty pounds of pudding arrives, as I was). I found out that the pudding was destined for dixie cups, to be covered with crumbled Oreos and planted with a gummy worm. I’m not sure how that fit into the ‘80s, but still… homemade fun.

IMG_9049Friday after school the hallways moon walked back in time. The decorations that had been piling up in the office found their proper places around campus, a fleet of tables appeared in the courtyard (to be manned by parent volunteers who would serve caramel apples, popcorn, and worm cups), and the DJ set up in the Quonset Hut.

But dancing at a dance is just one part of the experience at our little school. As those Men Without Hats remind us, “You can dance if you want to…” Some don’t. They’re still friends of mine, and at ACMA we have a quiet room set aside for board games and to serve as a haven for those of us who need an island of quiet on a night of reveling. It’s the Lionel Ritchie to the evening’s Quiet Riot, and at every dance our game room is a popular choice. Some only stay for a round or two of Apples to Apples; some hunker down over an evening of laughter and Jenga.

Then Friday night arrived, and with it students in ‘80s wear that would have made Cindi Lauper proud. Asymmetrical, neon, and bedazzled, the outfits took me back to my own high school years (when an ‘80s dance was simply called a dance). As with the decorations and planning for the dance itself, the students had brought creativity and their own interpretation to what they were wearing, and the results were fantastic.

IMG_9045And occasionally unexpected, like the student who arrived in armor and said: “‘80s dance? You mean 1380s, right?”

Walking around that night I was struck by the overwhelming quality of everything. The ‘80s outfits were put together with care, whimsy, and (it looked to someone who was there during the Reagan administration) historical research. The decorations were thoughtful, well done, and had been formed by the hands of scores of students.

And that was it: the students owned this dance.

As they had with last year’s May the Fourth extravaganza (with a stunning Darth Maul in full makeup) and the epic winter formal (complete with a life size cutout of one of our math teachers dressed as a gondolier), ACMA students had created something marvelous.

Plus, pudding.

Found

We tried something different at our last staff meeting. After spending some time analyzing data and engaging in a rousing discussion of student academic success and the results from our student wellness survey we shifted gears and did a little crafting. Specifically, every staff member got a sheet of paper with a couple of pictures copied onto it and together we laughed as we helped each other fold (and fold and fold and cut and fold) those pieces of paper into miniature books.

IMG_8460The blank pages inside the books, I explained, were for the staff members to fill out as we went on a little walking tour of campus. Ours is a school built in 1949, added onto in the 1950s, and one that made a life changing transformation into an arts academy just over twenty years ago. Some of our staff have been here since almost the beginning (of the art school, not the 1949 elementary), and the stories they have to tell are as rich as they are inspiring. Over the course of the year we’re celebrating those stories and the people and events that form the history of our little school.

Part of that celebration is listening, engaging with the past, and making connections to our present and our future. One joy of the process is the parade of surprises that surface with a little digging: there was once a large greenhouse on campus, the reason a roll of film is painted above the classroom near the front door is because it once was the filmmaking room, the fact that an English classroom used to be the library and a history room was once the staff lounge (and that a couch from that lounge is now a prop in our theater).

So as we left the library, which in the 1950s was the assembly room and later became the gym, tiny blank books in hand, I asked the teaches if on those empty pages they would write, draw, or capture in whatever way they wanted some of what they were seeing and hearing on our campus walkabout. Their individual perspectives on our school matter, I told them, and using this little rectangle of paper to record them could provide something fun for others too. What if, I asked, when they were done, they scattered their ACMA history books across campus for students to find?

IMG_8462So we walked.

Our first stop was the Quonset Hut where our students now eat lunch. There, amongst the cafeteria tables, one of our most veteran teachers pointed to the high arched ceiling and brought everyone’s attention to the black paint rising up the walls. “From there back,” he said, “was the stage…” and then he began describing the wild creativity, born of the necessity of not having a world class theater, that had filled the space. He talked about the production that included a swimming pool, the dance numbers, the music, and the staging of Alice in Wonderland that knew it was the last ever in the space and cut holes in the makeshift stage for trap doors and other surprises. “We were creative,” he explained, “because we had to be.”

The true words of an artist.

IMG_8466From there we walked north to the “new edition” of 1950 and a math classroom that housed one of the many Mona Lisas of ACMA. Anyone walking our halls today notices variations on DaVinci’s theme: Mona Lisa in flannel, Mona Lisa as a dog etc. etc. Most are painted directly on the plaster and easy for anyone to see, but the math teacher who calls this room home had mentioned to me that he’d found the newspaper Mona Lisa that fell off the wall a few years ago and given her a home in his room. Pausing to look at her, our staff took time to talk about the magic of student art filling our halls. From the paintings and tiles to the giant salmon above the western doorway and the masks above the Tom Marsh Gallery, student work is a part of who we are as a school. Our next task, as we walked south toward the main office, was to slow down (a tough thing for a teacher in September) and really notice what we were seeing. That, and jot in our books.

We filed down the hallway and toward the corner where we stopped next to talk about another kind of art …the professional type. I’ll save details of this for a future post, but a fact that I went more than a year before knowing was that hanging alongside some of our student artwork is the work of well known artists from the Pacific Northwest. The smiles in the eyes of our staff as one of our art teachers described our “collection” were inspiring.

IMG_8461We ended back in the library (née assembly room, née gym) where adults who knew a little more about their school scribbled and sketched in the books they’d made, books that were a bit of them and bit of ACMA, presents of the past for students of our present.

The next morning, arriving to school early, I spotted a few of those books in hallway. By lunch I’d seen more in the classrooms I visited throughout the morning. Will they get students wondering? Will they prompt someone to ask a question about our school or inspire curiosity about our campus?

Whatever the result, the process of reflecting on our shared history and taking time to be creative together made for a fantastic end to a meeting that was all about understanding our students and helping them succeed. Truth be told, I believe that our walk has the potential to help make our school a better place for kids (and adults too). Data is certainly a way to understand our schools and ourselves, but so too are stories.

I love the creativity I saw in my staff, the willingness to get up out of their chairs and do something unusual, and the gift they were willing to create for the kids to discover.

Bird is the Word: Three Stories

I’m sometimes asked what it’s like to be the principal of an art school. With just over 700 students grades six through twelve, an unusual age spread, focused on visual and performing arts, my school is proudly quirky, unapologetically iconoclastic, and as wildly creative as it is kind. Our staff shirts this year are tie dye. But that doesn’t quite catch all of who we are.

IMG_6890So I offer three snapshots of our school spirit, tiles in the mosaic of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy. Hardly comprehensive, these examples from a busy August simply show a sample of who we are, or aspire to be.

ACMA has long had a tradition of silly yearbooks photos. It could be argued that these have always been a part of our school; look back at the first yearbook and you’ll see Faye Dunaway, Groucho Marx, and Obi Wan Kenobi alongside the students. By 1994-1995 students had begun to add props to their yearbook photos, hats, guitars, and stuffed animals. Fast forward to the early 2000s and the staff are in on the goofiness.

Last year saw a puppy make his way into a yearbook photo. Some students came with masks, hats, and one in a banana suit. For kids new to ACMA silly yearbook photos, the final station of our registration day, are an introduction into the playful spirit of our school. They get their official ID picture, formal, with a smile, and then are invited to have fun. Work, then play. For returning students this is an opportunity to plan ahead and express themselves in a way that is “so very ACMA.”

So this year, as I was walking through the blue box theater where they were taking photos, I heard a snippet of dialogue that I’m not sure would ever be uttered anywhere other than our little school. Bending over the display screen, the photographer and a student were reviewing a proof and the photographer said: “You look fabulous in this first photo, but the bird is looking away.”

IMG_8129

So very ACMA.

The next week our teachers returned to campus, and in the midst of staff meetings and preparing for back to school night, new student day, and the first day of school, a group of about a dozen of my performing arts teachers gathered in the library to talk about a big idea. Our PTO had suggested that in lieu of an auction, this year we might entertain the notion of a celebration of the arts, a Cabaret Night that would see performances from across the creative continuum, an evening where parents, patrons, and families could come and enjoy what ACMA is all about. It was a kernel of possibility that these teachers decided to embrace.

Talk ranged from how we could select the best of the best performances for the night, integrate new work, and invite talented student performers to show off the art that matters so much to them. It was what I expected the conversation might look like, talented artists chatting about showcasing student work. And then…

Then something shifted. One teacher brought up and idea about how we might fill the foyer with visual art, integrating photography, animation, and spoken word into the event. Another suggested a plan for providing multiple performance venues. A third asked about using the main building for some part of the night, making part of Cabaret Night a farewell to the CE Mason building that has served as home to students for almost 70 years. Ideas exploded all around the table. Dinner? Dessert? MCs? What about alumni?

Conversations blossomed about former students and what they were doing in the world of art and performance. Would any be interested in performing with our students? The possibilities…

One night turned into two. How could we invite more families to come to experience our art? What kind of projects could we collaborate on between departments: film, dance, music… if we projected photography and had our jazz band… how about some poetry paired with… would the choir want to… could we get sculpture students and the orchestra to…

I left dizzy with the possibilities. I’d seen each of these teachers individually preparing and producing opportunities for students to shine, and I’d seen a few collaborate with other departments, but in a passionate hour on the week before school began I witnessed the sheer power of art and imagination, in service to students, on a level that is hard to capture in words.

IMG_7358I know that this spring the fruits of that conversation and the hard work that will follow this genesis of ideas will be marvelous (mark your calendars for May 17th and 18th), and as inspiring was to be a fly on the wall while these amazing artists and educators talked about taking chances, supporting students, and embracing the challenge of creativity on an epic scale.

On a more modest, but no less inspiring scale, a student came up to me at Back to School Night almost in tears. She’d lost $40 in the course of picking up her schedule (and ice cream cone from our PTO for our annual ice cream social) and asked if anyone had turned it in. They hadn’t, and it broke my heart to tell her so. She left, retracing her steps back to Fred Meyer where she’d been before walking to campus.

My mingling during the ice cream social brought me to the family of an incoming sixth grader, who shook my hand, remembering my name from our registration day, and let me know that he and his mom had found $40 that he wanted to hand in to lost and found. “They might really need it,” he said. I knew he was right.

So I asked the student if he wanted to be the one to give the money back to the student who’d lost it, and he smilingly agreed. We walked into the building in search of the upperclassmen who had lost the $40. We found her friend, who called her at the store. Then the friend turned to the 6th grader and handed him the phone. He introduced himself, listened, and smiled. Handing the phone back, he looked at me and said: “She wants to give me a hug!”

The creativity of birds, the passion of artists, and the kindness of family, these are who we are at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy …wrapped in a tie dye t-shirt.