Being (more) Human

“The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
-James Baldwin

We are, as a school, a community that can. We can create art with wild abandon. We can create connections with real purpose. We can create community with a clear conscience.

IMG_5668What we can’t do is rely on reputation, no matter how well earned. That ACMA is a place that is welcoming to all, that we are a school that honors and celebrates students of diverse backgrounds, cultural heritages, gender identities, and points of view is a reality we need to continue to build day by day, interaction by interaction, and purposeful choice by purposeful choice.

I see this choice of kindness every day as I walk through our halls. A commitment to kindness, and to each other, manifests itself in activities like the Kindness Project that some of our students took on earlier in the year, the boards of affirmations in our hallways, and the support I see in classrooms across campus as students strive to create and refine their art.

As a school we’ve made the choice to hang banners in the hallways celebrating more than just upcoming events and school spirit. A quotation from Martin Luther King hangs above our front door, another from Henry James reminds the students:

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind.”

Just outside our main office two displays celebrate the sense of belonging we hope all our students and staff feel here at ACMA. One, with silly yearbook photos of our staff against a backdrop of puzzle pieces leaves one spot for the observer; a mirror at eye level hangs next to the words “You fit right in.” I see students look at this every week.

IMG_5662Across the hallway another set of puzzle pieces decorate the wall just inside the front door. Surrounding a hand crafted “Welcome to ACMA,” the ACMA set against a rainbow, are connected puzzle pieces made by every new student to our school. On the first day of classes new students each decorated a puzzle piece and now every day they can see how they fit together to form the colorful mosaic of Arts & Communication Magnet Academy.

But kindness isn’t as simple as a jigsaw puzzle. Human nature can be cruel as often as it is kind. Stress, fear, and anxiety can make us careless, inconsiderate, or even mean. Teenagers aren’t immune to the thoughtless word or inconsiderate remark that escapes from the best of adults.

And in the face of this reality, art.

In his 1962 essay “The Creative Process” James Baldwin described the challenges and opportunities of being an artist. As he writes about the “battle” societies have all had with “the incorrigible disturber of the peace – the artist” he lands on the idea that it is the power of art that illuminates the truth and has the possibility to make change.

Baldwin describes the tension between artists and society as necessary, art providing the questioning that allows society to transform; society providing the structure needed for such institutions as education. As vigorous as this tension can be, he maintains that:

Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real.”

That freedom he writes about it more than a freedom to do, but also a freedom to see clearly the possibilities for societies to be their best, to confront injustice, to heal divisions, and to practice hope.

Through art, we have the potential to “make the world a more human dwelling place.”

Writing of the particular place of American artists, as true in 1962 as 2018, Baldwin suggests:

We are the strongest nation in the Western world, but this is not for the reasons that we think. It is because we have an opportunity that no other nation has in moving beyond the Old World concepts of race and class and caste, to create, finally, what we must have had in mind when we first began speaking of the New World.”

Locally, here at ACMA we have the possibility to transform ourselves through art in a way that Baldwin imagines for the greater world. Beyond puzzle pieces and vinyl banners, in addition to posters and projects, through the art our students create we can question, challenge, and celebrate the world we live in.

IMG_5672In ACMA’s Hallway of Hope and Justice our students share thoughtful and thought provoking pieces that ask our student body to question, reflect, and act. Posters celebrate the diversity of our community and show that as a school we value each student, each person, who is a part of our community. That there are many voices in that hallway is a result of Baldwin’s belief that the role of artists is to “drive to the heart of every answer and expose the question the answer hides.”

If we believe in Baldwin’s assessment of the role of the artists, it is through our creative spirit that we can “illuminate that darkness” and “blaze roads through vast forests.” Here at ACMA it is through paint and movement, ink and music, clay, cameras, and creativity that we can reinforce the goodness we want to see in our world.

In the weeks ahead I look forward to working with our artists to think about this social aspect of the work they create. What opportunities do we have? What truth do we want to tell? How can we, each of us, make our world a more human dwelling place?

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That Baldwin Quote

When I was young and foolish and starting my life as a teacher, the second decoration I put up in my classroom (after a framed 8 x 10 of Jorge Luis Borges) was a poster of Miles Davis. A closeup of his face, Davis held his fingers to his temples, his eyes closed. There were no words on the poster, and no indication of a horn, but when I looked at that image I could almost hear the moan of the trumpet from Kind of Blue.

Miles DavisMore even than the music, the first year teacher that I was found inspiration and comfort in the Davis quotation: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”

I lived by that quotation for my first few years of teaching, taking chances, some that worked and some that didn’t, and doing my best to inspire my students to do the same.

More than twenty years after hanging that poster on the wall, I still love the quotation, and Kind of Blue, though the principal I have become sees in it a freedom more suited to youth and jazz musicians than fellows like me with gray invading our beards.

As I think about the quotations that touch me now -and as a former English teacher, there are a raft of them- I find that one from James Baldwin hasn’t faded from my mind since the first time I read it during the year I started teaching.

USPS04STA017Over the years former students of mine, reconnecting after having gone away to college and to start adult lives, have often asked me about “that Baldwin quote.” It was something I shared with many of my classes on the last day of the year, an idea I hoped might resonate with some as it did with me.

Capturing a truth that applies to all of us, Baldwin wrote: “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.”

When I was 25 that seemed prophetic; at 46 it simply feels true. We are an amalgamation of our ongoing choices, and the lives we lead are ours to create.

It’s time to listen to some Miles Davis.