With Halloween just around the corner, I found myself conjuring up memories the other morning of the Halloween festival that we had at my sons’ elementary school in Los Angeles. It took place in October just prior to Halloween. The school’s Parent Teacher Association (PTA) was responsible for pulling it together. I was a PTA board member at the time the idea for the festival was introduced. Originally, the festival was conceived as a fundraiser for the school but became an event that did more to build a strong school community than did anything else.
We regarded our neighborhood school, Calahan Street Elementary, as special. A public school within the Los Angeles school district–one of the largest in the country–there were 18 different ‘home’ languages spoken by the families of our 400 children. It was truly, like a little United Nations in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. The Halloween Festival brought everyone together for a day of ‘fun-raising’and spirit building, no pun intended. The games and booths were all very low-tech and old-fashioned. Many were constructed by our Dads who offered up their woodworking and carpentry expertise to build the game sets. There was a bean bag toss, a fishing game with prizes for everyone, a pumpkin carving contest, a make-up booth, a guessing game with a jar full of jelly beans. The kids, as well as the parents, lined up to take turns testing their skills and luck. If you wanted to see into your future, you could visit the ‘fortune tellers’ tent where one our parents was dressed up to play the part.
One year the principal showed up dressed like Pinocchio. I’m not actually certain he intended to be the storybook character or whether the lederhosen and hat he wore just made everyone think that’s who he was. He paraded around the schoolyard with a string of smaller costumed characters, known otherwise as his students, trailing behind him.
Two of the fourth and fifth-grade classrooms located in one of the school’s ‘portable’ buildings, were transformed for the day into a homemade haunted house. It was a popular draw with the kids. Our volunteers spent the evening before hanging strings of synthetic spider webs, creating a potful of worms from cooked, chilled spaghetti and making whatever spooky creatures they could come up with to decorate the darkened interior and frighten those who dared to enter. There was always a line up to get in. The kids stepped into the haunted house excitedly clinging to each other as they entered, and left squealing and screaming with frightful delight.
I manned the photo booth decked out with stacked bales of hay, cornstalks and pumpkins. All day long, I took pictures of costumed kids, parents and teachers. It was great fun trying to guess who was behind the masks and wearing the Halloween outfits. I dressed up myself. The first year, I was witch complete with a streaked wig and fake teeth. Why I ever thought dressing as a witch to take pictures of grade-school age kids was a good idea I’ll never know. I looked so wicked that the little festival goers didn’t want to have anything to do with me. Once I removed the make-up and teeth and magically turned into a ‘friendly’ witch I had much more ‘business’. The next year, I opted to be something less terrifying– a safari explorer, complete with pith helmet.
Among those I photographed were my own school-age sons who had transformed themselves for the day into either an astronaut, a pirate, a hockey player or–after the year that we visited Lewis and Clark’s fort in Oregon during a summer vacation–as Meriwether Lewis. Now, every Halloween, I set out those framed photos of my sons and smile, remembering that day.
Of course, I also took photos of my sons at the local pumpkin patch as they sought out the perfect pumpkin for their jack-o-lantern. But it is the photos from the school’s Halloween Festival that give me the warmest feeling. The pictures bring back fond memories of all the friends my sons made there. Of all the kids that I came to know when I volunteered in the classroom. Of the teachers and aides who were some of the most dedicated, hard-working and talented educators I’ve ever met.
Of the staff and principal who were some of the best in the district. Of the parents who, although they came from many different backgrounds and cultures, came together for the common good of their kids. Halloween may be a scary holiday for some, but for me, it’s a treat to remember the good time we had at the school’s annual Halloween festival and of those who made it such a successful and unforgettable event.