Seeds Under Earth

“Some periods of our growth are so confusing that we don’t even recognize that growth is happening. We may feel hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical, or we may feel depressed. It would never occur to us, unless we stumbled on a book or a person who explained to us, that we were in fact in the process of change, of actually becoming larger, spiritually, than we were before. Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening. Those long periods when something inside ourselves seems to be waiting, holding its breath, unsure about what the next step should be, eventually become the periods we wait for, for it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.”   ― Alice Walker

We are certainly in a period of growth.

Two years ago our school packed up more than twenty years of memories (and dance costumes, and boxes of clay, and books, so many books, and tubes of paint) and moved across town as bulldozers razed a building we loved to make way for a new campus that was still a dream. Our initial thoughts were tinted with emotion. We wept a bit at the loss of a familiar home and leapt into a future uncertain of what it would feel like to learn somewhere else.

But we’re creative souls and over the first few months at our temporary building we adapted (and then adapted again when a leaky roof at a nearby K-5 school swelled our school with elementary students) and found that we could make art even in unfamiliar climes. Heck, in February we put on a three stage spectacular in the venues we’d made out of a gym converted into a dance studio, a commons made into a music stage, and a black box theater that had hosted the musical Cabaret. It was awesome, and less than a month later we found ourselves learning from home, campus empty as a result of a global pandemic.

We grew again over the months and months and months we were apart. As Alice Walker described it, “Whenever we grow, we tend to feel it, as a young seed must feel the weight and inertia of the earth as it seeks to break out of its shell on its way to becoming a plant. Often the feeling is anything but pleasant. But what is most unpleasant is the not knowing what is happening.” We didn’t know what was happening, not from month to month, week to week, or sometimes day to day. And yet, like that seed in her description of growth, we pushed upward.

Sometimes the weight of learning (and teaching) alone was crushing. Sometimes we felt “hostile or angry or weepy and hysterical” and even as we looked around for something or someone to give us perspective we found little to reassure us. And yet, like that seed, we pushed upward.

The partial return to school has felt like a sliver of sunlight to some of us. It is not school as we knew it, but it is not school as we have known it for the past year or so. And the next year?

The next year we return to a campus we’ve never been on before. The new building stands on the same ground our school has occupied for as long as we’ve been a school. New construction connects with the established performing arts center that has been a part of our collective experience for more than a decade. Much about the new place will remind and reassure folks that our history and our traditions (and our art too) matter very much. Wainscoting from the old building has been salvaged and installed on the reception desk in the main office and the library circulation desk in the new building. Artwork from our permanent collection, some of which has been in storage for two years, will go back up on walls. Students, staff, and alumni should step into the new building and feel like they’re coming home.

But just as the building has changed, those students, staff, and alumni have changed too. The past two years have seen societal change and personal change in our world and in our hearts. The strange feeling of separation so many of us have felt, only now being chipped away at by coming to campus and seeing each other, well some of each other, again, has made those changes in ourselves and our world feel stranger still. And yet I want to believe Alice Walker when she says: “it is in those periods that we realize that we are being prepared for the next phase of our life and that, in all probability, a new level of the personality is about to be revealed.” 

A few months from now my school will be in a new building, our third in four years, and while I don’t know what COVID restrictions will look like in the fall I imagine that as the months stretch on we’ll see more and more of each other. Performances will resume in person. Classes will be filled with students. Laughter will echo in the hallways and the piano in our commons will bring music back to the masses.

But Depeche Mode references aside, this growth has been confusing and frustrating and hard. And… we are strongest when we are here for one another. We are best able to grow and change for the better when we are each other’s support. As a school, as a community, as human beings, we can come out of these two years of change stronger, kinder, and more filled with hope. 

Put another way… “Hang on Little Tomato” by Pink Martini.

May the 4th

I heard R2 beeping before he rolled around the corner of my office followed close behind by the laughter of my bookkeeper, a counselor, and the custodian who was piloting the little robot. A few feet away in the main office, beneath a life sized inflatable stormtrooper and a cardboard cutout of Princess Leia a few students laughed with my receptionist and head secretary, hardly noticing the plexiglass that rose between them or the masks we all wore, focusing instead on the inflatable lightsabers and giant plush Yoda on the counter. We all needed that laughter.

Seeing our students on campus, all of our students, feels like it was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

We laughed a lot together before the pandemic drove us off campus, applauded more than you’d expect, and were inclined to nuttiness. For a few months all three of those things have felt a little on hold. And today, May 4th, we got a glimpse of what it will be like again.

Throughout the months since we left campus we’ve tried to keep out students and staff connected beyond just academics. Early on we organized Zoom lunches, kept Open Mic Nights alive (as online Open Mic Mornings), and even put on a staff revue to entertain the kids (and, truth be told, ourselves).

As the weeks turned into months we found ways to see our students, at least from the masks up. A drive through senior celebration, a walkthrough ACMA Day, and then on Halloween a dress up party that was legitimately fun.

In late April some students returned to campus, just over half of our student body divided into two attendance groups that came in every other day. They’re dancing and sculpting, singing, reading, writing, and making art on campus again, and yet…

We still need that laughter, that fun, that sense of whimsy that inspires spontaneous applause.

So as a school, both students and staff, we thought about what we might do this spring to just have fun (and maybe imagine ourselves in a galaxy different than our own for a while) and we came back with the two word answer: Star Wars.

The sensible choice for a date for the party was May the 4th, of course, so we planned, prepared, and ordered inflatable lightsabers. We dug the life sized cutouts of Leia and Darth Vader out of storage (we’re a school with such things in storage) and got about the business of good clean fun.

The morning of I sent a couple of photos to my staff from the day a few years back when we decided that it would be a good idea to hit each other with pool noodles made to look like lightsabers. The email prompted some revisionist history as to who won, more than a few happy responses, and the notion of a rematch between a couple of my intrepid Jedi.

Throughout the day I heard more laughter than I had any reason to suspect on a Tuesday in May during hybrid learning. 

Just before school let out our volunteer students gathered in their May the Fourth Be With You t-shirts and, accompanied by a stormtrooper or two, they hatched plans for the day. It looked like a friendlier version of that scene before the rebels go blow up the Death Star.

Two of those stormtroopers, whose blasters had been replaced with enormous flowers (much more in keeping with our school spirit) faced each other from across the main hall. Looking from one to another, their flowers speaking of romance, it appeared that the two might be our own Romeo and Juliet. The palpable longing of those two stormtroopers whispered a narrative of unrequited love. So very ACMA.

And then, after school, the party…

A constellation of activity stations spread out (socially distanced as they should be) across the lawn outside our building where young Jedi could pick up a lightsaber, visit a trading post, and get the training any youngling needs. Photos on the Millennium Falcon? You bet. Space age dance music? Sure. Time to laugh? You bet your sweet Jawa.

Some just wanted to play on the big grassy area, swinging their lightsabers or just walking and talking. Some wanted to try their hands at designing a paper spaceship. Some couldn’t stop smiling seeing their teachers dressed up like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, and Princess Leia. 

Students did a nice job of following the COVID protocols in place. Everyone wore a mask, not only Darth Vader. They danced and laughed and did their best to stay at least one lightsaber apart. And while it all felt different than some of our prior pre-COVID spring celebrations, this May the 4th was a delight in its own way. 

So while some of us might be a little short to be a stormtrooper, we do know how to have fun, and in a world so thick with stress it helps a lot to hear the beep of R2D2.


Not long ago my staff and I shifted gears and set aside a chunk of our planned professional development to allow ourselves some time to connect. Once we were there (well, on the Zoom together anyway), people listened and I think heard the overwhelming truth that while we may be stressed, while we may hold on more to worry than we’d like, and while many of us (at least by a show of hands) aren’t sleeping as well as we wish we were, we are not alone.

Along with our stories we shared some laughter, hardly a surprise with our caring staff, and some ideas about how we can continue to adjust things as we start the new semester. Most of all it felt like the alchemy of this adjusted day made something better than gold out of our very raw and real emotions. I think many of us felt something almost akin to hope.

It was nice to have permission to feel that too.

Comprehensive distance learning has been hard. It’s been hard on students, on teachers, on staff, and on families. We try our best and work with purpose and professionalism, and sometimes the results are pretty great. Other times, well, comprehensive distance learning is hard.

So for that professional development, after listing a menu of options for a variety of topics I added one last option for my staff.

“Finally,” I wrote, “I’d like to add one more: permission. If you need to not attend one of these, if you need to go for a walk, snuggle with your pet, or call a friend, then please give yourself permission to do so. You matter so much, and taking care of yourself, showing yourself kindness, and giving yourself grace, all these are important too.”

As educators we are givers. We give to our students, our colleagues, and our school community. We give of our time, our hearts, and sometimes our pocketbooks. We give to everyone who needs us, except (all too often) ourselves.

Few staff members took me up on that final choice, though the responses I got to that PD email were as kind as they were heartfelt, and I like to imagine that the willingness to shift gears and focus on engaging with one another might have helped too.

And then I got an email from one of my amazing teachers who I’d asked for ideas about future PDs. She wrote some very kind words about including that final option and then offered some suggestions that made me smile:

“That’s a  long intro to some ideas,” she wrote, “and I don’t know what boxes you have to check so that site PD is indeed site PD, but….

“Permission to relax. Permission to laugh. Permission to learn from our mistakes and from each other without a heavy title/subject attached.


“Mark-led drawing

“Remote Teaching BINGO (have had a silly autocorrect in Zoom chat, have typed an angry email that you didn’t send, cried during Zoom, cried after Zoom, stopped everything mid-Zoom and pivoted because it clearly wasn’t working, is feeling your eyesight go downhill because of all this screen time)

“An option to read/listen to/watch all these lovely “we’re not alone/here’s someone who loves teachers giving you advice” articles, clips, etc. that staff members share and I, for one, would love to read/listen to/watch, but honestly… when? If you TOLD me to pick one, sit back and watch it? I would.

“Break out rooms to share something that you’ve been doing that’s totally unrelated to remote teaching. Something human that brings some joy and reminds us that we’re all still living lives that are rich and don’t include a screen. 

“Having said all this, there’s no escaping the fact that we’re ALWAYS ON A SCREEN. It’s simply exhausting. And it’s always there. Before, during, and after class… grading, planning, meetings. All of it. For many of us, the only thing stronger than our desire to be with our co-workers and friends is our desire to watch screen time die a quick death. If you could get us all hazmat suits and/or accelerate the vaccine so we could mingle on the blacktop… that’d be great!”

I can’t afford hazmat suits, and I doubt Risk Management would smile on that anyway, but I can weave some of her ideas into future PD. If working with my amazing staff has taught me anything during this strange, strange, strange time, it’s the importance of laughter, of love, and the importance of allowing ourselves permission.


The going from a world we know
To one a wonder still
Is like the child’s adversity
Whose vista is a hill,
Behind the hill is sorcery
And everything unknown,
But will the secret compensate
For climbing it alone?
                     —Emily Dickinson

Any artist knows that true magic is just another name for art. Art compels us to think differently, feel deeply, and see beyond the world we already know.

Artists are the sorcerers of our age, and as our ACMA community leaves the campus we’ve known as home for nearly three decades, it will be our artists who will reassure us that as we climb the hill …to our temporary campus on 118th Avenue. All will be well. Much will be magic.

This, I think, will be true in part because, unlike in Dickinson’s poem, we are not climbing the hill alone.

In our school we have community. Our school is filled with kindred spirits, challenging foils, and fellow travelers. Yes, we are moving away from the comfortable environs of our original campus, but we’ll be back, and when we are (in the fall of 2021) what experiences we will bring with us from our wondrous sojourn up that hill beyond our former vista.

I know, I know, it’s just a big empty building, gargantuan space that will open as a middle school proper in the fall of 2021. One look at the yellow trim and aqua lockers and you’ll accuse me of purple prose. I’ll own that.

Because I think it’s the artistic spirit that clings to the students and staff of our quirky art school that will transform our temporary home into something more.

There is a sorcery to what we do akin to Prospero on Shakespeare’s island. There is a fairy dust that will make the wide hallways sing, turn the auxiliary gym into a dance studio, and make the canary yellow trim glow like a sunrise.

Well, maybe high noon. It is really yellow.

And as much as I will hold a place in my heart for our original CE Mason Elementary building, I know that it isn’t our campus that makes us who we are.

It is us. Together.

On the final day of our last school year a student handed me a drawing.

We are ACMA

We are ACMA.

That’s the truth, and it’s a reassuring one.

Climbing the hill of uncertainty together, that truth in our collective heart, we are invited to think about our journey in a way we might not have before. Yes, we feel the elixir of emotions that come with change, and… this new world is a place ready for art. And us, the sorcerers.

What People Don’t Know

I’d had a day. Not a bad one, not exactly. Some really good things had happened that day: half a dozen great kids helped with a project to celebrate our school’s history, we played a song to start the day performed by a current student which was an unexpected delight, and an alum visited campus and gave me an exquisite two panel oil painting of a dead rat. But it was also a day when I got to meet some very nice paramedics, had a staff meeting with lots of honesty and an unexpected and gut-punching turn, and ended the evening with a couple of concerned emails from folks who had been given inaccurate information that led them to feeling more than a little frustrated. All in all, by the time I got home I felt a little like that rat.

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Sleep eluded me, and I found myself at my desk very, very, very early the next morning preparing what needed to be done for the day. Once the emails were returned, a plan was set for some work with students, and the day’s to-do list whittled down to items that couldn’t be accomplished alone in a predawn schoolhouse, I spotted a stack of papers from a turn I’d taken in a 6th grade classroom.

I do my best to teach a bit every year, mostly English (my bread and butter for a dozen years) or art (another subject I taught a bit), and to start this week I had an opportunity to step in front of a Wellness class in our 6th grade wheel. My usual topic with this group is community and kindness, and I led with those topics, but as the 90 minutes progressed, I wanted to get the kids thinking about our upcoming move (as the school is razed and rebuilt) and the things that they love about our school and want to be sure we work hard to keep alive, even as we’re off site for a couple of years.

For this part of the lesson I asked them to warm up by listing three words that describe our school.





The responses were wonderful.

…and not too unexpected.

I asked what students wanted to be sure to remember about our current building, a structure that was built as an elementary school in 1949 and has been the home to our school since its opening in 1992.

The beautiful artwork on the walls. It inspires me!

The cafeteria, because it’s a fun space.

The light up hallway. I don’t know why, but the strings of lights always make me joyful.

The library. Because, library.

I showed them some of the posters we’ve been making of the murals, talked about working with a couple of the original muralists to get new work, and the ways we were planning to keep that student art alive in our hallways. We discussed the things we could bring with us, and have again when we got back: the lights, the library, the hanging art.

An idea for a quilt of sorts came up, and by the end of the day we started the planning for it.

But as I sat at my desk, a cup of coffee (and a long day) in front of me, what caught my attention was the top sheet of paper and the student’s answer to my question: “What do people not know about your school?”

Written on an index card, this student had captured beautifully why we do what we do.

“What people don’t know about my school is that everyone is so nice to you. Instead of thinking of people as classmates or teachers, I think of them as family.”


Family: imperfect, forgiving, kind, and worth working hard for.

The stressful meeting, the emails, the challenges to be overcome, those all eased a bit as I read her card. With a lot of stress in the world, there are times when “nice” is harder to come by than others, but like a family we do want the best for each other and are willing to invest the energy, emotion, and work into making it so.

I started reading through the other papers.

What people don’t know about my school is that there are counselors that help you.

What people don’t know about my school is that there are quite a few people here who are LGBTQ+ and they get treated like perfectly normal human beings.

What people don’t know about my school is that we have math every OTHER day.

What people don’t know about my school is that you can talk to anyone and feel liked by random strangers.

The list went on, and I found myself moved by the honesty and unexpected perspectives on our little school. We are not perfect; no place is, but we care deeply, we allow ourselves to feel emotions (good and bad), and in our hearts (and large those hearts are) we are committed to supporting one another as best we can.

What do people not know about my school? That we’re family.

Transitions and Traditions

Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all a patter and a pitter.”    – JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit

We’re moving this year. Every program, every classroom, every teacher, every student, we’ll spend the winter going through old things, the spring packing, and the summer relocating eleven minutes up the road to our temporary digs in an enormous middle school building that has served as a home to a series of schools under construction and has yet to open itself. That’s a role our own campus played back in the 1970s, and as we cash in that good karma some folks are a little nervous.


Like Bilbo in Tolkien’s epic, we’re challenged to lift our little swords, allow our hearts to pitter patter, and go forward. But read that opening quotation again and you’ll notice that as he does,  that intrepid Hobbit keeps one hand on the wall, feeling his way through the darkness with the help of a familiar support.

For us, that familiar wall is the C.E. Mason Elementary building that has been home to Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, and Arts & Communication High School before that, ever since our school has been in existence.

Over the past quarter century students have been making art and making meaning in the same classrooms, making friends and making mischief in the same hallways, and making a difference in a thousand different ways after graduating from our little school.

The memories that saturate our walls are as much a part of the building as the murals students have painted on the plaster over the years. The wainscoting hums with stories; the gallery of Mona Lisas look down with enigmatic smiles; and in the courtyard the echoes of decades old laughter  mingle with the shouts of our current students and their almost daily games of Sharks and Minnows.


Even as the wrecking balls roll onto campus this summer, we’re keeping some of the wainscoting to use for our reception area in the front office of the new building and the circulation desk in the new library. The murals invite a variety of approaches, as we capture images of the paintings that we can take with us and devise ways to honor their spirit, even as 1940s building materials mean we can’t pull the walls out intact. And as we trundle our traditions into the metaphoric bindlestiff we’ll sling over our shoulder in July, we’re also wise to keep a space (both physically and spiritually) for the murals still to be painted on the walls of a building that doesn’t yet exist.

20170930_110547Michelle Young, Saul Roberts, and all the many names signed beneath the student artwork from years gone by will be joined in our school’s history by new names, some current students, some newborns today who will be painting on the walls of an ACMA campus when they graduate in 2037.

That campus hasn’t yet been built, but it will be, and when it is those walls will hold stories as rich as the memories already made in our current home.

Memories from former students like…

Kristen, who told me about the weekend of the junior/senior prom when her Ohana spent the night in the school. “Our group of about twelve people met up at an Italian restaurant in Beaverton — Giovanni’s.  From there, those of us with cars headed to the high school (some people walked), with Mr. Yambouranis chaperoning us. The boys were to stay in the library; the girls in the Ohana classroom, which was the one at the far end of the building, across from the drinking fountain that had a mural of tiles and the office. Of course, no one really followed those rules!  We used the TVs and Laserdiscs to watch a bunch of film, including The Goonies, Rock & Roll High School, and the “new” episodes of “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” that aired on Fox.  Yambo retired for the night in the nurse’s office near midnight.” I can see the smile on her face as she recalled the adventure: “Several of us did some exploring.”

Spencer, who remembered “Mr. Sikking feverishly describing philosophy and the hero’s journey as he asked questions and then ran to overhead to underline the point 3 or 4 times.” And once, “after we had reached some sort of fundraising goal for the school, Mr. Sikking performed Santa Baby in a sexy Mrs. Claus neglige on stage for the whole school.” It was, he remembered, “one of the most ACMA things that comes to mind.”

And Lily, who, when talking about things being so “very ACMA,” told the audience at her graduation that it would be impossible to look back on “Cooper and Will’s concert ­light­show or Brock’s amazing film about cannibalism without feeling like this place is at least a little bit different. I remember hanging cellos up on the curtain rail in Mr. Brandau’s room, scream­ singing “Africa” by Toto at karaoke night, and making a film about a plastic lawn coyote.” So very much in keeping with the spirit of our school.

IMG_9676These stories won’t disappear when the bulldozers arrive in July. As the Quonset Hut that has served as gym and cafeteria, and performance hall is knocked to the ground; the basement that has been a cafeteria, counseling office, day care, and television studio is filled in; and the portables that have been the epicenter of more art, movies, music, and dance than any portables in the history of the world are carted away, the memories will be as alive as they have always been.

Our school is magical not because of the walls we touch as we lift our little swords and move forward; our school is magical because of the people who inhabit it: those whose daily life on campus was years ago, those who call it home today, and those whose paths will lead our way in the decades to come.

A friend who recently retired from ACMA had told me that she isn’t sure if the new building will ever feel to her like home. It’s an honest response to a big transition, and one that I know is echoed in other hearts as well. “I’m willing to keep an open mind,” she tells me, “but…”

There is a world of worry in that ellipses.

There is also an opportunity. I keep her, and all those creative, sensitive, and fantastic souls of students and staff no longer on campus in mind as I do my best to honor the spirit of our school as we embark on this transition. Knowing that to go back is “No good at all!” To “Go sideways? Impossible!” Going forward is the only thing to do, and we will do so mindfully, courageously, and with a clear sense of who we are.

Bilbo Baggins was not defined by his time in the Shire; he left for adventures, whether he thought himself ready or not, and while he brought himself and his history to every step along the path, he returned to his home in the hill richer and more creative than he could have imagined.

Our school is no less than that adventurous Hobbit.


I believe that my retired friend will step into the new building that opens in the fall of 2021 and know that this is home, not because of the wainscoting repurposed for the front desk or familiar student artwork in the hallways, but because of the spirit of our school —creative, kind, and accepting— that is as true on our current campus as it would be if we held classes in a circus tent, on a cruise ship, or at the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

We’ll be no place as exotic for the next two years, but the creativity and curiosity we bring with us to that big empty building on 118th Street will make it feel as if it were.

hobbitAnd then, in August of 2021, we’ll move back. Back to building constructed to be an art school, a structure that honors our school’s past while looking toward its future. There will be familiar faces (Mona Lisa, David Bowie, Leonidas), and plenty of new faces as well. And as we start making art and making meaning, making friends and maybe a little mischief, our new space will (over time) begin feeling simply like our space.

Some will say it’s an aspirational sentiment, but I honestly believe that the next few years will be an adventure that can share the same subtitle as Tolkien’s Hobbit, living up to the reassuring and very real words: “There and back again.”

A Little Like Hogwarts

Every winter we are given a chance to articulate ourselves. As an options school, ACMA is a place without a single geographic attendance area. Other “neighborhood schools” have set boundaries and draw from homes nearby; our little art school sees students from all corners of our district gather at our campus to create art and create community. As a part of the process of telling potential students and families about Arts & Communication Magnet Academy, we host “School Information Nights” in December, and it’s here that we get to share a window into our ACMA world.


With a student body made up of wildly creative sixth through twelfth graders, who come from all over the area, and who believe in the magically transformative power of art, I like to believe that we’re a little like Hogwarts.

It’s a line I like to use in our Info Nights, when I’m trying to help parents and prospective students understand that we’re more than just a middle and high school pushed together; we’re a seven year academic and artistic adventure, I tell them, and you wouldn’t stop reading Harry Potter after The Prisoner of Azkaban.

Folks usually indulge me with a chuckle.

Those Information Nights begin with student musicians on stage, see me talk with the crowd for a spell, share some pictures of what we do, and end with more kids on stage to answer questions as only students can. We aim for a fun night, filled with music, images, and honesty, and hope to leave our audience satisfied and applauding.

At ACMA we do like applause.

But the night is more than just a chance for entertainment. At its best, Info Night is an opportunity for us to reflect on who we are and who we aspire to be, and think about what steps we are taking to be the community we say we are. It’s a chance for me as the principal, as well as the many students who join me to answer questions from the audience, to put into words the reality we live every day.

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At a school as special as ours, and overwhelmingly those of us who call ACMA home do see it as very, very special, it could be easy to slip into complacency, to take ACMA for granted. Preparing for Info Night is a great opportunity to pause long enough to recognize that what we have, and what we continue to create, is unique.

Along the way, I do my best to help my audience see past the beauty and power of our performances and the art they may have seen displayed. I do my best to celebrate the rehearsals and practices, the editing and revisions, the rough drafts and the hard work that goes into making a final product. That process of making art is as much a part of who we are as any polished work.

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Knowing that not everyone can come to one of our Info Nights (we live in a busy world, I get it), I try each year to bottle some of the magic in a video we can share. Even knowing it’s not up to the task of telling everything about our school, and recognizing that it can’t include the amazing honesty and openness of the students who sit on the lip of the stage and answer audience questions, it’s another way to help focus our thoughts about our school.

That focus, and the many purposeful decisions that focus prompts us to make as we create our community, help to keep our school the special place it is. Certainly we continue to evolve, adding courses like animation and expanding the scope of what we do as we embrace the technological side of the arts, but at our creative heart we are more similar to the original vision of the school than we are different.

We articulate that in a statement I project at Info Night:

Arts & Communication Magnet Academy’s innovative educational community engages all students and staff in achieving academic and artistic excellence. We ignite the human need to create and question by honoring both the unique characteristics and the interdependence of all disciplines of study, while weaving a rich collaborative tapestry of experience.”

As I tell the crowd: we recognize that a phrase like “weaving a rich collaborative tapestry of experience” might sound corny to some, but we believe it. As a school we’re willing to put aside a few folks thinking we’re quirky (we are) or a little cornball (we are) or too artsy by half (we think we’re just artsy enough, and that our sequins look fabulous). We also know that by working together, supporting one another, and honoring the process and power of art, we can create an atmosphere that is magical.

Pausing every fall to prepare for our winter sharing helps us recognize and embrace that vision for ACMA. Thinking about who we are, as well as the actions we take every day to support that vision, is a healthy exercise for our school, and any school, and one we embrace.

It’s also why by December I should be able to tell you the hundred ways we’re like Hogwarts.

Invited In

“Imagine with me a place where eccentricity is encouraged, where struggles are acknowledged, and people are supported. Imagine a place where people are celebrated for their differences and brought into the fold to collaborate and create something beautiful.” -Isaac Rosenbaum

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His passion around Exhibition Day was profound, as was his exuberant approach to building community. The time since graduation has only added perspective to his inspirational work, and power to his message of hope, care, and the importance of inviting others to share in the community we help to create.

I watched Isaac’s TEDx speech this week and recognized in it the powerful voice for kindness and inclusion that I’d known when he was a student at my high school (or I was a principal at his school) (or we shared a school together).

So often in administration the thousand tasks, the pressing needs, and the unceasing obligations fill our days and run the risk of clouding our vision for creating the best school we can. For me this week, Isaac’s words were a warm wind, blowing those clouds away.

Talking about his school as a “chaotic collaboration” of students celebrating one another, and of each contributing to a greater mosaic of school culture was a reminder of what school can be.

photo-1-8His feelings of belonging, and of creating culture, are something parents, educators, and students themselves want for our kids. We know that at its best, school can be a haven, a place of inspiration, and a grand opportunity to belong and make a difference.

As a school we can’t eliminate the very human cruelty that sometimes infects us all. We can’t make every teenager, or every adult, embrace the better angels of our nature, or always choose the kind word. We are human, all of us, and we stumble sometimes in our interactions with others. At best we can look at these times as opportunities to show ourselves and each other the other very human possibility of forgiveness.

But as a school we can do much to nurture the attributes Isaac mentioned in his talk. We can build in opportunities for our students to tell their own stories, celebrate the people who make up our school, and make it easy to give thanks often and publicly. Schools, busy and bustling, can open their arms to all by choosing to make connecting with each other a priority.

This can happen through big events, like Exhibition Day, or the more subtle instances of kindness that we weave into every day at our schools.

Creating a place where students feel they belong isn’t easy, the important things in life often aren’t, but it is both possible and worth the effort.

That effort is most effective when it involves many, and many different perspectives. As Isaac described in his TEDx Talk, having a student government that wasn’t made up only of extroverts and “typical ASB students,” but involved artists and writers, introverts and dreamers, made it possible for the school to be more welcoming to all.

photo 2But welcoming doesn’t mean glossing over troubles. Isaac mentions being a peer counselor in his last years of high school. As a Peer Active Listener (PAL), he listened to a student who was excluded and bullied, and who considered taking her own life. Describing her loneliness, so common and so profound in our students today, Isaac came to the realization that not only do we all need community, we all need to feel heard and to belong.

Having seen that PALs program he describes, I can attest to the power of students helping students. PALs provided a safe place for students to be heard, and a sensitive ear for anyone going through the challenges of young adulthood. In addition, the students who served as PALs worked closely with adult counselors, and more than once I saw stories, like the one Isaac tells in his TEDx Talk, that were literally life saving. This was a way the school as an institution could support the individuals who made up the student body.

Even if a school doesn’t have a PALs program, students can and should be encouraged to listen to each other, seek help from caring adults, and be aware of the importance of inviting others in.

IMG_6196Understanding the profound need all of us have for belonging can inform the choices we make person by person, classroom by classroom, school by school to welcome each member of our community to participate in making the culture of our school.

I come back to Isaac’s words about community, and join him in imagining “a place where eccentricity is encouraged, where struggles are acknowledged, and people are supported.”

This doesn’t happen by accident or without thoughtful attention to the needs of our kids. As Isaac suggests, “maybe we are the answer to the prayers” of those most in need. Us. Each of us.

I encourage us all to be aware. To imagine the community we want to create, take actions every day to make that community real, and go the extra step to invite in those around us who may feel lost or alone, stressed out or unsure if they can be a piece in that mosaic. They can, and our community will be more beautiful because of them, and us, together.

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.

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.


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.


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.