A Yellow Bathrobe

Halloween. It’s a tough topic in some quarters in education. I’ve worked at schools where it was one of the worst days of the year for administrators like me, confiscating Jason’s carving knife, counseling pregnant nuns, and persuading the masses that togas might not be a fantastic idea at school.

At one high school I followed a fellow in a full gorilla suit on a merry chase that led through and then off campus, ending in the parking lot of a run down apartment complex. When he was unmasked, like something out of a Scooby Doo cartoon, it turned out that he was a senior we’d expelled who was wanted by the police.

Don’t get me started on ninjas.

It doesn’t help that off the shelf costumes marketed to appeal to teens often carry the word “naughty” in their description: nurse, superhero, witch. For the fellows, gore, drag, or innuendo. A principal I once worked for used to say “I’d rather come in and work on Christmas day than deal with this Halloween nonsense.” Behind closed doors he did not use the word “nonsense.”

halloweenvideothumbAs a principal I’ve always tried to appeal to common sense. A student once helped me with a video to underscore the importance of the no mask policy.

I’ve always tried to encourage homemade and clever over store bought raunch, and still, the water polo player covered in Hulk green body paint and wearing only a purple speedo…

Ah, Halloween.

So then I got to ACMA.

Folks told me that at our creative school Halloween was a national holiday.

I found out it is.

And getting ready for this year’s parade of creativity my office staff, my wife, and my kids all told me that as the principal I had to dress up.

As a substitute? I offered. No.

A petty bureaucrat? Nope.

Then one day in September when I’d tweeted some photos of student art, a couple of my staff spotted a painting and said that they had the answer.

Halloween

The coffee wielding human staring down the …something fantastic and wild, they said, needed to be my costume.

Halloween arrived, face painted and trailing a cape.

I met it wearing a yellow bathrobe and sipping coffee from a green mug.

IMG_9235We started the day, as we had the year before, with music from Harry Potter, a recognizable and magical theme, played over the intercom. Walking the hallways was an adventure in color and creativity. A giant camera, David Bowie, and an amazing handcrafted wolf laughed alongside Dorothy, Toto, and one of the most elegant green faced witches I’d ever seen.

I started visiting classrooms. In one the Morton Salt Girl, Taako, and Bob Ross sat next to a Royal Guard from the Tower of London, a vampire with real fangs, and Little Red Riding Hood. Incredible.

I spotted two avocados, a giraffe, and a biker in black pleather. More than the usual plush ears and tails giggled through the hallways, rubbing shoulders with pirates, cowboys, and Bilbo Baggins.

Two matching Waldos asked if I wanted to play hide and seek.

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Perhaps the most striking thing about Halloween at ACMA is the overwhelming creativity on display. These are wildly artistic students with talent to match their imaginations. The best costumes are always homemade, clever, and rooted in fun. Simple or complicated, big or subtle, this celebration of art is, at its best, a window into our collective soul.

As I strolled my radio crackled and I got the call that a history teacher, who would later arrive as a mummy, was held up in traffic. I had a chance to cover his AP US History class for a few minutes.

I unlocked the door and as students filed in, steampunk, cub scout, and zombie, there was the artist of my inspiration painting herself. It brought me no end of joy that she, and her peers, recognized my costume without explanation.

Magical things happen at our little school, sometimes on Halloween.

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National Holiday

I saw my first unicorn at 6:35 am. She walked out of the dark and into the cafeteria to stay warm before school, joining a pack of students who had spent time planning and creating costumes for a big day at Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

IMG_4894Back in the main office, after a bus duty of watching remarkable creations walk onto campus, I found two pirates smiling at the pumpkin left anonymously the night before and decorated with my name and a llama, a reference to Rojo, the therapy llama, who had visited earlier in the month.

Together we laughed at the parade of costumes that stopped by: The Hulk, complete with green face paint; an impeccably mustachioed gondolier, whose facial hair was as carefully sculpted as it was real; and a body builder toting a giant dumbbell and looking like someone out of a 1920s circus …and those were some of my teachers.

IMG_4897Here at ACMA we begin each day by playing music over the PA in lieu of a bell, and as we were getting ready to cue up the theme from Harry Potter The Cat in the Hat stopped by, joined by a cheetah, and Chuck Norris …more staff.

Students got into the act as well, an outpouring of creativity that captured the outrageous skills our students have in art and performance. Clowns and zombies, Ghostbusters and vegetables, dogs, cats, fairies, and even a skunk, the wild abundance of costumes was overwhelming. Stepping into the hall as the opening strains of Harry Potter filled the school I saw …everything. Herds of unicorns. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Chefs. Cowpokes.

IMG_4914At lunch I hung out with a seven foot tall satyr.

I must have looked a little overwhelmed at the spectacle of it all when one of my math teachers smiled at me and said: “Here at ACMA Halloween is a national holiday.”

What a glorious thing that is.

I love that ACMA, as strong academically and artistically as it is, is on an average day a school of plush ears, horns, and tails. Our students, and our staff too, know the value of having fun and expressing themselves. Today’s costumes didn’t have to be fancy or expensive; the best were hand crafted celebrations of the creative spirit.

ACMA is a place where students make art and live life artistically, and on the 31st of October …well at ACMA that’s a national holiday.

“I’m Batman.”

photoHalloween on a high school campus is a big deal. In a world where the majority of the individuals are still searching for their true identity, a chance to dress up in borrowed clothes, don a mask and a persona, and push the boundaries of taste and social norms (or at least mom’s comfort zone) is about as appealing as a bucket full of candy to an eight year old.

At some schools Halloween is a nightmare. As an assistant principal I knew that part of my day would be spent watching the sea of costumes for those whose taste ran afoul of the dress code or school rules. Pregnant nun? Maybe. Go-Go dancer? Hmmm. Texas Chainsaw Massacre? No.

Beyond the usual togas and superhero capes, past the expected ninjas and zombies, occasional inspiration rears its all hallows head.

photo-3-1Noticeable this year at San Dieguito were a towering inflatable Tyrannosaurus Rex, a delightfully steampunk angel, and a fellow in street clothes holding a sign that read “Nudist on Strike!” A costume contest at lunch saw a motorized mail truck, a truly impressive Cinderella and Prince Charming, and a ghost on rollerblades who looked like he might break his neck “floating” across the stage.

One teacher came as a frighteningly authentic Khal Drago, another in a vintage 1940s dress as a teacher from San Dieguito’s early years, and another enlisted her daughter to form a team of Madeline and Miss Clavel.

At San Dieguito even the adults get in on the fun.halloween-2016-1

Going with a superhero theme this year, our administrative team allowed our inner kids to spread their capes. Wonder Woman, Elasitgirl, and the Flash roamed the breezeways. During homeroom we handed out goodies as the kids trick or treated.

While most schools where I’ve worked actively discourage kids dressing up, or at least view it as a battle they need to prepare for, at San Dieguito out ASB rewards costumes, inviting students to travel from classroom to classroom trick or treating like they were eight again.

Education in its present incarnation does enough to put pressure on students, asking them to act grown up as they take on responsibilities and face pressure. At San Dieguito Halloween is a reminder to take time to have fun and laugh together.

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As the principal, do I love every costume, even the naughty ones? No. But the students do, and as with so much, more often than not the kids make great choices. They have fun, they play, they get to pretend, and they celebrate this opportunity to come to their school and have some good clean fun.

That’s a good day.

“Ni!”

I once worked with a principal who said he would rather work on Christmas Day than have to come to school on Halloween. Years of having to pull pregnant nuns and gorilla suited hooligans into his office had beaten the ghoulish spirit out of him. I remember once walking into his office as a nurse who didn’t meet the dress code exited and seeing him roll his eyes and spit the word like it was a curse: “Halloween.”

It’s with this history that I approach the final week of October. I’m an optimist at heart, but know that with the costumes marketed toward teens today  I could be walking onto a campus that looks like a cross between Saw IV and Faster, Pussycat Kill! Kill!

This year, I was surprised.

IMG_1058The first startling realization was that the adults were having a ball. I saw an astronaut, cowboy, Indiana Jones, and Princess Leia …and that was just the staff. Hester Prynne taught English. A pirate, complete with pirate ship, taught Science. A gladiator taught History, “Weird Owl Yankovic” taught business, and AP Art History students learned from Sister Wendy.

I excavated my letterman sweater to join counseling and admin as we adopted a ‘50s theme. Elvis piped through the offices. Comfort and discipline were delivered with a high ponytail and poodle skirt.

Halloween 1 003Out on campus, students dressed up in droves. Overwhelmingly appropriate, wit outweighed poor decision making. Degas’ Dancer, Mona Lisa, and the Girl with the Pearl Earring stopped by my office to say hello. Slash played catch with The Cat in the Hat, students preparing for next week’s flag football tournament. An uncanny Dr. Evil and Austin Powers won the costume contest, and I believe Napoleon Dynamite made it the whole day without breaking character.

photo (1)By far the most striking moment of the day, however, came when I rounded a corner and looked up into the bearded face of an imposing knight. Eight feet tall, with tree branches sticking up from his helmet, he waved his fish at me and shouted “Ni!” All I could do was offer him a shrubbery.

I’ll text a few photos to my friend, the principal who hates Halloween. He’ll laugh at the “Monster Mash” flash mob and my ASB Director, the rapper. I may not win him over to liking the holiday, but I think that, like me, he’ll appreciate the Monty Python gag, and leave with a spirit of hope that today’s kids possess both common sense and a great sense of humor.