School Festival Created Halloween Fun & Family

A friend of mine was telling  me the other day that she was going to be the fortune-teller at the Halloween Festival at her son’s school.  I smiled and then recalled to her my own sons’ Halloween Festivals when they were in public elementary school in Los Angeles.

I had just come across some photos that I had taken at those festivals so they were fresh on my mind.  In fact, I’ve written about the festivals before. Here’s a link to take you there in case you missed it: http://wp.me/p2ohfO-4BE.

My friend, Pam, dressed as a 'friendly' clown and staffed the ghost castle game at the Calahan School Halloween Festival.
My friend, Pam, dressed as a ‘friendly’ clown and staffed the ghost castle game at the Calahan School Halloween Festival.

Ours wasn’t an elaborate festival but simple, old-fashioned fun with games handcrafted by parent volunteers that provided entertainment for the kids.  Many of them had been designed in coordination with the teachers (an amazingly talented bunch). In addition to the fun they provided, the games actually taught the kids something about chance and probability, physics, calculation or science. That aspect didn’t necessarily register on the kids, of course, but they still had to use some of the skills and thinking processes associated with those academic areas in order to play the games.

Games at the Halloween Festival were designed to teach the kids concepts such as chance and probability.
Games at the Halloween Festival were designed to teach the kids concepts such as chance and probability.

Parents too had a great time.  The festival, held on a Saturday before Halloween, drew families to the school to create a true sense of community within the larger Los Angeles school district, one of the largest, in fact, in the country. This served us well when the Northridge earthquake–measured at 6.4–rocked our school which was located near the epicenter of the quake. Although our school–Calahan Elementary–miraculously didn’t sustain the greatest damage, student enrollment dropped by nearly 100 overnight when families homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged so badly that they could no longer live and work in them.

Parents staffed the games at the school's Halloween Festival while the kids tested their skills.
Parents staffed the games at the school’s Halloween Festival while the kids tested their skills.

The Halloween Festival had built a true caring spirit for the school and families who were part of it. When those students disappeared from our school, their absence left a huge hole and psychologically difficult for the students who remained.  When the district then wanted to move two of our teachers because the school population had shrunk, the entire school rallied in an effort to prevent that action.  Our protests wound up as front page news of the Los Angeles Times and resulted in our teachers remaining at the school until things could be stabilized.

Principal Parade
The principal led the kids in a costume parade around the school grounds. Although he usually dressed in costume himself, this particular year he didn’t. Students still had a great time following him around the classroom and playground.

That kind of ‘togetherness’ is a lesson from which our country’s current political environment benefit.  Calahan had at least 18 different home languages with kids whose families came from all over the world.  The Halloween Festival, in particular, did more to break down any cultural, political or language barriers that existed between us because it took all of us parents, working together, to make it happen. Everyone had something to contribute and contribute they did.  Now, years later, students, teachers and parents keep in touch through our school group Facebook page or e-mail. And Calahan kids who have come after us, often ask to join just because they too have a fondness for the school. It truly was an exception in a district where schools were mostly detached from those who attended them and from each other.

I dressed as a witch on year and took photos of everyone who came in costume to Calahan's Halloween Festival.
I dressed as a witch on year and took photos of everyone who came in costume to Calahan’s Halloween Festival.

While Halloween is a scary holiday for some, for me and the kids who grew up at Calahan Elementary, it conjures up sweet memories of fun and family.  I hope it will do the same for my friend.

Years Later, First Day Brings Smiles and Tears

Students at Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College started classes this week for the fall quarter. Those who live in the WWU dorms arrived last weekend and moved in creating the usual traffic jam for the neighborhood as a steady stream of cars pulled into the surrounding campus parking lots. I always enjoy seeing the students return. My studio and home are located right off the WWU campus so I often stroll through the campus to take in the first day excitement. First year students usually show up with their parents, their arms loaded with all the belongings and necessities they’ve brought from home for their dorm room.  They are all smiles as they pull into the parking lots but by the time they say goodbye, there are usually a few tears as their son or daughter stays behind to begin to their college career.

Clutching his lunch bag, my son is ready to leave for his first day of school.
Clutching his lunch bag, my son is ready to leave for his first day of school.

It brings to mind my own experience of seeing our sons off on their first day of school.  And yes, I’ll admit tears sometimes well up in my eyes when I think about those wonderful times.  That happened recently when I was sorting through some of my old snapshots to place them in an album.  In the one of the negative envelopes were the priceless prints of my oldest son, taken on his very first day of kindergarten at Calahan Elementary School in Los Angeles.  He looked so small.  I had forgotten about those pictures but when I came across them was grateful that I had started then the tradition of taking a photograph of my sons on their first day of school.

Outside Calahan Elementary School on my son's first day of kindergarten. He looked so small.
Outside Calahan Elementary School on my son’s first day of kindergarten.

I remember taking his little hand in mind, his other hand clutching his lunch, as we walked through the playground gate towards the open kindergarten door. Other parents and their kids were already inside the classroom, introducing themselves to the attractive, young teacher named Melinda, and helping their kindergartener pick and settle into a place to sit.  There was an air of anticipation as the kids looked tentatively around the room at those who were to be their classmates,not only for kindergarten but for another six years. We knew only one little girl who had been in my son’s Mommy and Me class two years earlier.

My son was looking forward to kindergarten.  He had already attended two years of pre-school and needed new challenges. But I could tell that he wasn’t quite sure, as I bid him good-bye, if he was up to this. And I wasn’t certain that I was either.

My son takes a seat at his kindergarten desk and waits for class to start.
My son takes a seat at his kindergarten desk and waits for class to start.

The first time’s always the hardest, I kept telling myself, as I hugged him good-bye and made myself step out the door. I looked back from across the playground to see him sitting inside the classroom at the desk. The teacher was already attempting to take control of the class and make the kids feel welcome.  My son looked as if he was paying close attention. How I wished I could have stayed as a tiny observer for just that day.

Kindergartners, my son among them, parade out the classroom and across the playground at the end of their first day.
Calahan’s kindergarteners, my son among them, parade out the classroom and across the playground at the end of their first day.

That was a long day for me as I waited for the hours to pass until I could return to the school and pick him up. When I did, I had my camera with me and caught the kids on film as the teacher’s aide led them together out the door, across the kindergarten playground to the gate where parents, like myself, were patiently lined up to retrieve their kindergartener. It was an odd feeling, knowing that this would be the pattern for the next several years. And one, after that first day that I really didn’t think about as much until it came time for my son to leave for college.

The truck almost loaded on the day my son left for college.
The truck almost loaded on the day my son left for college.

Once again, I was saying good-bye but this time, I wouldn’t be the one to go with him as my husband was driving the loaded truck with my son while I stayed behind with our other two sons. And yes, I was teary-eyed as I hugged him when the last box had been put into the truck and the rear door pulled down and locked into place. I stood there at the end of the walk and sadly watched as they slowly drove away from the house. I have pictures from that day too and am glad I do.  Now, as I watch the students and their parents go through this same ritual each fall at the university next door, a smile comes to my face and a tear to my eye. And sometimes, as I did this year, I go home, pull out the photos of my own sons first day at school and remember.

WIth one last pet to our cat and a hug to me, my son headed off to college.
WIth one last pet to our cat and a hug to me, my son headed off to college.

 

Halloween Festival Raised School Spirits

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.

My oldest son was fascinated with the adventures of American explorers Lewis and Clark and chose to be Meriwether Lewis at the school's Halloween Fesitval one year.
My oldest son was fascinated with the adventures of American explorers Lewis and Clark and chose to be Meriwether Lewis at the school’s Halloween Fesitval one year.

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.

My son struck a pose for me as a pirate at the ,school's Halloween festival. Halloween was always his favorite holiday.l
My son struck a pose for me as a pirate at the ,school’s Halloween festival. Halloween was always his favorite holiday.l

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.

My youngest son, shown here in his Bucaneer's costume, loved the school's Halloween festival and went even before he was a student there.
My youngest son, shown here in his buccaneer’s costume, loved the school’s Halloween festival and went even before he was a student there.

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.

The faculty and staff at our school joined in the festival fun too.  Four of them stopped by the photo booth for a picture with me, sitting in front, in my safari costume.
The faculty and staff at our school joined in the festival fun too. Four of them stopped by the photo booth for a picture with me, sitting in front, in my safari costume.

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.

 

First Day

This morning, a friend called up the picture on her phone of her granddaughter, posed before the front door, backpack on and book in hand, as she was about to leave for her ‘first day.’  For many of us who live on the West Coast, the first day of school was today.

It can be difficult to go back to class when it’s still so gorgeous outdoors in a place like ours  where the summers are so short.  Not like many other locations elsewhere in the United States where going into a cooled classroom might provide welcome relief from the heat of the season.  First Day at Calahan

With the start of each school year, I always made, as do many parents, a visual record of the day by snapping a picture of my sons as they headed out the door or were about to enter the school with their lunchboxes and books.  In my own experience, I found that the hardest of these notable days was the first day of kindergarten for my oldest son and my youngest son, and the last first day of high school for my youngest son, Tim. When they take that step across the threshold of the school door, you know that life will never be the same for either of you.  As a parent, it’s both a proud and poignant moment. 

 

I joined the many moms and dads before me (including my own) to capture a ‘Kodak moment’ of that milestone day.  Being the sons of a photographer, even while I was still working as a full-time journalist, my boys knew better than to try to dissuade me from this annual ritual.   First Day at LowellAs elementary students, they were often happy to share in the fun with a picture together with their brothers going out our door, beside the car or in front of the school.  That spirit of cooperation grew less enthusiastic as they entered their middle school years.  Forget about posing anywhere near the school where friends could see them.  All the ‘first day photos’ from those years were taken at home.  By the time they reached high school, they were at least resigned to the fact that it was better to humor me than to resist.  And I had learned by this time to be satisfied by quickly shooting the annual picture on the fly, like paparazzi stalking their celebrities, just as they were about to head off.First Day at Sehome

Even that initial day at college did not go undocumented.  Although it may not have been the actual first day of classes, I managed to snag a few shots of each of them on campus before my husband and I bid them a tearful but joyful good-by and good luck.  To me, that special day was as worth keeping for posterity as was any graduation day.  It captures the beginning, not the end of a life event.  I think there’s a richness of emotions of that day that you can look back upon later.  Uncertainty, excitement, confidence, even a little presumptuousness about the journey on which they are about to embark.First  Day of College

Now that they have all moved on and, for the most part, moved out, I look back fondly on this first day of school as I see other parents taking part in the same yearly ritual.   I smiled quietly, thinking of my own sons ‘first days’,  preserved on film (digital wasn’t yet around) that now bring back a flood of warm and bittersweet memories.

At the risk of totally embarrassing my youngest son, I thought I’d share some of my personal ‘First Day’ photos  for you to enjoy.  Maybe you’ll share a few back.