East Palo Alto Storytelling, Part 1

Throughout the fall of 2010, So Say We All co-founder Jake Arky will be working with TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley on a storytelling class at East Palo Alto Academy High School (EPA). The So Say We All co-founder will be reporting on the progress of this storytelling-drama inspired elective in a number of installments.

Tution-free EPA is tucked away in the neighborhood of Menlo Park, California and is a charter public school with a very integrated student body. This is also the first storytelling elective they’ve had to date.

Class 1:

When presented the opportunity to teach a storytelling class at EPA, there was little-to-no hesitation to accept the offer. Working with So Say We All for close to two years now and teaching storytelling classes via The Greenroom has been a great artistic accomplishment for me, so the chance to turn high school kids into young raconteurs seemed like a dream come true.

After describing the school and the storytelling project to several friends, the response was pretty similar: “Oh, have you seen ‘Dangerous Minds/Freedom Writers/Stand & Deliver?'” And while I have seen those movies, I have also know that those cinematic tales of inner-city kids and the teachers who inspire them to rise above the expectations should not be a basis for reality in these types of situations. These movies, after all, are sugar-coating the truth and passing them off as reality, one where everybody goes to college thanks to Hilary Swank.

Only now there is me, not Hilary Swank. There is my boss from TheatreWorks. And there are 10 students who only have to participate for an hour each class and are graded on a pass-fail curve. Their first assignment was to look at the picture below and respond to it with a story for the character:

Artist: Banksy

For the half of the class that was paying attention, there were several responses that seemed to be a mixture of recognition of the figure in the picture and anger for not knowing why there were flowers in his hand. One student screamed out that Banksy’s figure was agitated — “he’s so agitated with his life and I dunno even know what agitated means!” — while others thought that he was being homophobic due to the fact that the flowers are the only part of the picture with color.

About half-way through another writing prompt the focus and trust among the class evaporated. The three or four students engaged in the picture kept writing while one girl threatened another just for looking at her the wrong way. One student who could not stop talking at a mile a minute pace went over to the open window to taunt a student in the courtyard, claiming he was “comin’ for him after school.” Two female students, best friends for life, according to them, could not stop laughing and falling over each other due to a from a text message one of them received late in the class.

By the end of the session, the teachers and the students were at an impasse. We, the teachers, tried to bargain with the students that part of future classes would involve more speaking out and less writing, but for those interested in the writing aspect of the lesson, we wanted to encourage them to keep expressing their thoughts for the rest of the semester. Mumbles of agreement were tossed out before the final bell rang and for the first time all day, the students were all on the same page of exiting the classroom.

Did we have a pact? Did they really want to do this stuff? Were they really going to write or perform anything? All very good questions. Only time will provide the answers. At the end of the day, I feel challenged rather than defeated. Hopeful as opposed to upset. The baseline has been drawn so now I know where everyone stands. And a few of them are in good shape.

Here are some anonymous excepts from some of their work thus far:

“I like it because it doesn’t have violence or disrespect anyone. It’s just a guy with a bunch of flowers in his in his hands, kind of funny…I think he’s trying to express his feelings and this is the way for him to do it because he can’t talk, he can’t use words…” – Response to the Banksy picture.

“This lets me know that people should spread the love instead of bombs or hate anything else…the flowers represent love and peace. The person looks mad because of what is going on.” – Response to the Banksy picture.

“I live in East Palo Alto (mid-town). Lots of adventures happen there. Crazy, funny, awesome, loving things happen there that you won’t forget…Gangsters, hoes, wunna-b’s, top notch, parties, drugs, gang-related, drama, violence, crazy people, real & fake people, boyfriends, baby-daddies, girlfriends, baby-mamas, HATERS, backstabbers. Midtown.” – Response to prompt about East Palo Alto

“I love the color green ’cause it represents my turf. I don’t eat dinner all days, I didn’t really eat a lot. That’s how I got so skinny. I consider myself a G-townie. I’m proud of myself even though I’m fucking up. I don’t really think I’m important because I haven’t really been doing anything with myself school-wise…I’m proud of my family because they suffered in the streets and they know what it’s about and now they tryin’ to make it better. When I get out of high school I don’t really want to go to college.” – Response to prompt about East Palo Alto

“I go to Walmart and look at the plants when I’m sad. I’m most proud of my family because they’re gangsters. I dream to be a stripper. In 10 years I’ll do a back flip.” – Response to prompt about East Palo Alto

“East Palo Alto means ghetto town. I have never lived in a place where people die in my community. I want to go back and live in my hometown, San Diego. I don’t like it here. Being in San Diego means the world to me, though it sucks because there is no job over there…I am proud of being Mexican because all of my family is from there, they also have the best food of all. I am also proud of being the student of the year at my old school. I dream of moving to San Diego and having a happy life there. In ten years I would have gone to San Diego State University and got a doctorate degree and living the time of my life.” – Response to prompt about East Palo Alto