The Stories That Connect Us

I’ve spent much of the last two and a half weeks trying to catch my breath. Family medical emergency (much better). Training for an April “sprint” triathlon (coming soon: a what-was-I-thinking-there’s-a-difference-between-hanging-in-the-pool-and-swimming blog post). Kicking off a new year of El Otro Lado at Amy Biehl Community School in Santa Fe. Two teaching artists, six teachers, ten class periods, one hundred plus fifth and sixth graders.

Last year I worked with seniors at Capital High. I remember standing in front of that first class with my fellow teaching artist, a hip filmmaker, much closer in age to the students than to me. As I introduced myself (I’m Michelle Otero. I’m a writer. I live in Albuquerque, which always felt like a big city when I was growing up in Deming… ) and talked about the program (El Otro Lado is an art and storytelling process developed by visual artist Chrissie Orr. It explores who we are and where we’re from through writing, painting, recorded oral history… ), a voice in my head shouted, “Who is that woman? Why is she talking? Someone tell her to shut up.” This happens every time I start a project with a new group of teenagers. Suddenly I am seventeen again, trying to corral the popular table at the student council meeting into helping plan Spirit Week.

Fortunately, the feeling passes. As the project unfolds, as we tell our stories, we begin to see each other. The girl with the butterfly tattoo on her shoulder makes a shrine to the Virgen de Guadalupe. The boy who never writes in his journal doesn’t have a home. He sleeps one night on his auntie’s couch, the next at his cousin’s, a few nights at his girlfriend’s place, and then back to auntie’s for a few days.

I like working with high school students, watching them reconnect with something pure as they run a paintbrush across a canvas or pound the bubbles out of clay. Some have never used watercolors. Some haven’t worked with clay since kindergarten. Some hate poetry–and then they write a poem.

So now my students are ten, eleven, and twelve years old. My mom taught elementary school for thirty years, and each time I’d visit her class, I’d wonder how she held their attention all day, every day of the week, for nine months. I’m lucky. I come in for one hour at a time, and I have poetry and collage and flip cameras and colored pencils on my side.

Here’s one difference between seniors and fifth graders: when you walk into a room of seniors, even if they really like you, even if you’ve helped them write the most beautiful poem or paint a self portrait, they might lift their head and say, “hey.” But fifth graders. Fifth graders cheer. Really. As in, “She’s back! Yay!”

The art teacher has a photograph of her fifth grade self on the art room door. “Do you recognize this fifth grader?” I try to remember who I was at that age, one of the tallest girls in school, my parents recently divorced (only to remarry each other two years later), ugly glasses, good grades, teachers who liked me. Back then, school was made for the kind of student I was: eager to participate, to please adults, ambitious, articulate, perfectionist.

Maybe school is still made for that kid, I don’t know.

What I do know is that some boys cannot sit still. A few girls talk and talk. One girl cried all through art class. I remember those tears from late elementary school and junior high, how quickly a group of friends could divide into factions, the girls who would always cry, and those who would comfort. Tuesday afternoons the students are energetic in a pinball machine kind of way. I think of K, how he runs straight for the playground swings as soon as the last bell rings, how homework is sometimes a struggle, not because he doesn’t get it, but because he’d rather stand on his head or make up a different story to go with the book he’s reading or run around the yard or play ninjas.

How could anyone who’s spent any time in a classroom advocate for cuts to arts programming or physical education, for less recess, and more tests? Why would anyone think to deprive little people of recreation or creative expression?

Here’s why I am a teaching artist, why I am thankful to the teachers who have said yes to El Otro Lado. Stories, however told–with paintbrushes, crayons, ripped up magazines, words on a page, looking in the eyes of someone who really sees you–connect us. Stories make us whole.

Published in: on January 29, 2013 at 12:07 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thank you Michelle for this post! Sounds amazing. How can I find out more about Otro Lado?

  2. Thanks for sharing this story!

  3. Not too shabby!

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