7.25.2009

Graffiti or What I Wish For the World


I am fairly certain I learn more than I teach at the middle school where I work in Los Angeles. I don't think I'm a bad teacher necessarily, it's more that my students don't really want to learn what I'm supposed to teach them whereas I find their lives fascinating.

This year I teach about one hundred students, and my school serves teenagers from all over the city so I have a little microcosm of LA experiences: recent immigrants, Los Angeles natives, UCLA professor's kids and aspiring gang members. But my classes are the "regular" kids, not the honors or advanced classes, so the percentage of aspiring cholos to scholars is a little off. The funny thing about my students though, is that they are middle schoolers. So even if they look like punks, and often act like punks, they are at the same time just nice kids trying to make sense of the world and find a space where they might fit.

This year my students participate in the Doodle 4 Google competition that the Google people sponsor where they ask kids to redesign the Google logo.

I explain the contest to my students and then let them get creative. In these days of high-stakes testing and strict instructional pacing plans, I don't do this very often and students react to this freedom in a variety of ways. Some just want to color, others draft and redraft striving for perfection. Some scrawl quickly and then chat about how they will spend the $15,000 prize. Ten of my students enter the school competition. I take the entries to the computer lab where the technology coordinator, several other teachers and I are meeting to choose winners.

I set my students' artwork on the table and take in the competition. One entry, "Helping Hands" transforms each letter into a good deed. Nice. Another depicts an environmental utopia with doves flying artfully above the Google landscape. A third shows the first three Google letters as monsters, then the last three an economic utopia. All are rendered carefully, but one of my own student's pieces can definitely hang. Stephanie has drawn a group of environmental activist penguins holding signs that say "Go green" using the Go from Google. I can imagine any one of these four Doodles winning in the regional competition.

But Google allows us to send six entries so we get to pick another couple for competition. We select another one of my student's renderings of a good v. evil city sprouting from the letters and growing from light to dark.

With one more to choose, four drawings remain in the running. Two are my students' work, and both carry the careful styling of graffiti artists. I want one of them to win. I think of the winners from last year: blue-prints for castles, rainbows, flowers, and animals. None of those designs capture the urban landscape where so many of my students grow up.

Several teachers are uncomfortable sending up a "tag," glorifying this illicit activity that is one aspect of gang involvement. I see their point but I really want one of these two boys to win. I have to stop and think about why it is important that Google receive an entry from my school, an urban LAUSD public school that captures a different reality, a reality that isn't about classic art or architecture. This is the art that holds power in my students' lives and maybe it isn't beautiful to everyone, but what art is? And maybe it's more than a rendering of their urban existence because it's art they understand, art that reminds them of the tough and beautiful place where they're from or where their cousin or brother or uncle is from.

"I want one of these two to go," I say pointing to my graffiti artists.

While we discuss these last two entries, the artistic style is not in question but whether or not we are comfortable promoting gang-related illegal activity.

We don't choose Daniel's melting Google tag partly because the "l" looks like a melting penis but also because he didn't check the citizenship box for his immigration status on the Google application.

In the end the committee leaves the decision to me and I choose to send on Brian's drawing of a brick wall with a Google tag and the sidewalk littered with images from local gangs. I know he won't win but I'm proud that I can advocate for him and his art.

I draw my own Google with my students this year. The G is an ear, the "oo" a boom box, the "le" a microphone and cord. My wish for the world is that everyone would have a voice and that those with power would listen.

As I look at all of the student Google winners displayed in the hallway, "Our Economy," "Go Green," "Helping One Another in Friendship," "Stop Graffiti," and "Beautiful World" I'm proud of the voices from Emerson expressing not only our students' wishes for the world, but the realities of the world we wish we could ignore.

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