When I teach, I never know what the lesson will truly be.
That's the gift teachers are given, I think. We plan, but the lesson might be something far more profound.
Last week I was in Atlanta as Artist in Residence for a national mental health organization. I teach on the Youth Track, 13-25 year olds. I'm there, techically, to teach a photography workshop, but it's really a three-part session on self-expression. The work produced each year knocks my socks off.
The first session is shooting. We find an area near the hotel that will provide the richest amount of content for the photographers. This time it was Centennial Olympic Park. Coming back from the park, I was in the rear of the 21-person group walking with a straggler. As we neared the hotel, we saw a loud, energetic picket line of workers protesting low wages.
"This is my first protest!" The student, a high school junior from Montgomery, AL, was beside herself with excitement. She ran to document it with the few shots left on her camera.
Flushed and animated, she returned. "Do protests work?"
"Sure," I said. "Peaceful, powerful protests work all the time. The ones that work are the ones that have clear goals."
"Huh?" She had no idea what I was talking about. I tried to make it more personal.
"Do we have Jim Crow laws anymore?" I asked. I thought a light bulb of instant understanding would go off in the head of this African-American girl from Montgomery. The civil rights movement was seminal to forming everything that I am as a person, as an artist, as a political being. It's a touchpoint. Sometimes I forget that not everyone thinks the way I do and that it was 50 years ago. Those events are history to this child. Ugly history. Maybe even boring history.
"Jim Crow? What are those? I don't remember."
Really? A girl from Montogermy, AL, didn't know what Jim Crow laws were? I couldn't decide if that was great or tragic.
I tried again: "Are there separate water fountains for blacks and whites anymore? Can you and I go to the hotel restaurant and have a meal together?"
She was starting to understand.
"Protests work," I said. "You are growing up in a different world than I did because of peaceful protests."
I got a look of "wow." We spent the next 10 minutes talking about the power of peaceful protests. We talked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Riders who came from all over the country to protest Jim Crow, Dr. King, the sanitation worker's strike that cost Dr. King his life. We talked about what she might want to change in her life.
That a peaceful group can band together and work tirelessly to change a wrong turned out to be the lesson of day. For one girl. From one teacher.
Art Saves Lives.