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Tricks and Treats

Here's a salute to teachers all over the US, who are coping with kiddie madness today. No holiday belongs to children more than Halloween--and teachers usually approach the day with a mix of stoic resignation and determined tolerance for excess. As in: I got through this before, and I can do it again. Pass the Kit Kat bars.

I once worked with an elementary principal who loved Halloween. He spent weeks creating his own alternate persona every year, and fine-tuning details of the school costume parade and parent volunteers. He visited every classroom personally to talk to kids about safety, and shared his well-developed theory around why it's healthy for children to fantasize about being princesses and rock stars. He spoke about how we all need practice in facing our fears in safe spaces.

This principal encouraged teachers to embrace the seasons of the school year. This was before the "holiday curriculum" came under fire as lightweight and/or biased, another reason to grab the instructional reins from dim-bulb teachers who would rather count the seeds in a pumpkin than tackle serious worksheets on evaporation vs. condensation. The principal saw science in winter bird-feeding and snow-measuring, however, and he instituted service learning through Valentine's Day visits to nursing homes. He was always up for a celebratory song or story; his first goal as a school leader was building community and traditions.

It was because of his influence that I instituted an annual Monster Mash concert in my middle school band program. At the middle school, there were rules about Halloween. No costumes (and that meant no hats, silly glasses or wax lips, either). Kids caught self-medicating with under-desk candy on November 1 could be sent to the office and given a detention.

I thought it would be fun to do an October concert in costume, featuring scary music. Most of the 8th graders were instantly on board--the music was super-cool--but there were usually resisters. Dressing up is for little kids! Do we have to? In the end, the best part of the concert was arriving early to see how creatively band members were dressed. It was about giving young teenagers permission to drop the too-cool act for an evening, and just have fun. A little fantasy, a little Mussorgsky.

Over my 30 years in the same community, the district system occasionally ran afoul of one or two local churches, who accused schools of celebrating secular humanism. Given the thoroughly religious connection between All Hallow's Eve and All Saints' Day, this is an arguable point, but I've honestly never met a teacher who saw Halloween as an opportunity to promote Satanism--or random cultural violence and gore. I've also wondered how anti-Santa, anti-Easter Bunny and anti-Wicked Witch folks shield their children from secular influences. Evidently, they don't shop at Target.

The ultimate buzzkill around Halloween came from New Jersey last week, as Springfield Schools Superintendent Michael Davino issued, then grudgingly rescinded, a ban on Halloween costumes, because:

This holiday should not be an excuse for an all-day costume party which would detract from, if not squander, an entire day otherwise set aside to educate our students.

There's some other blah-blah about wasting precious educational time, which makes me think Davino's worried about test scores. He's also been away from the classroom for a long time, if he thinks he can single-handedly repress the anticipation and restlessness of children in favor of relentless pursuit of data, simply by writing a grumpy memo.

Davino assures us that this is the last Halloween that this kind of tomfoolery will occur in his district. From here on, Halloween fun will happen over his dead body. So to speak.

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