I had a tough time keeping track of my students last Friday because some were silent and others were invisible. Both groups of kids were participants in activities I sponsor at TJ. The silent ones were members of the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), who held a day of silence to protest homophobia and then a “breaking the silence” party to go with it. The hard to see ones were members of the UNICEF club, who sponsored a presentation from an organization called “Lost Children” that promotes awareness and education for Ugandans suffering under that country’s twenty-year plus civil war.
Why all the do-gooding? First, you need to grok “8th period,” the unique system for extracurriculars here at TJ. Because we’re a magnet school serving five far flung districts, we can’t hold club meetings after hours like regular schools do. Instead, using creative scheduling allowed by a block system, twice a week we have “8th period,” during which students can sign up for any of over 150 clubs and activities ranging from Namaste (which celebrates Indian culture) to the classic rock appreciation club (two years ago we rubbed elbows with Jethro Tull: did you know Aqualung is also an acquaculturalist?).
This being TJ, the complicated system is fully computerized on a student-designed intranet that allows kids to check and change their schedules at the click of a mouse. There are humans behind this extracurricular Oz, of course, including a full time administrator and a small army of parent volunteers. The school thinks it’s worth it to offer kids a breath-taking range of opportunities to explore interests that don’t fit into the heavy academic curriculum.
GSA is one example. Historically, high school isn’t a good place to be different. While TJ is far less stratified than a normal school (our jocks are nerds, too), girls who like girls or boys with two mommies need a safe place to just be for a few minutes a week. Hence the club. It’s not an especially energetic group, as TJ clubs go. At a normal meeting, kids simply sit around and talk. Except once a year, on The Day of Silence, when they carry a card around to all their classes explaining to teachers and kids why they’re not talking. For this occasion, we also passed out rainbow ribbons and invited students from other local high schools to join us for pizza in the courtyard at the end of the day, where all the kids got together and… talked. Very subversive, the entire thing.
UNICEF is another group I sponsor, or at least try to keep up with. They seem to have taken the saving the world thing literally, and have it in their planners as due this year. Here’s a bit from an email from the club president I just popped open:
So on May 8th and May 16th for B Block we have Mr. Lagon and M. Saade coming. Mr. Lagon will discuss women/child trafficking and M. Saade, water/sanitation issues. Mr. Rosenfeld, could we get either the auditorium or college career center?... On May 8th we also got a break fundraiser reserved. I guess we’ll sell pizza + t shirts. Treasurers, could one of you check with the finance office? We need to have the purchase order and such filled out beforehand-- they will order the pizza for us after we fill it out. We also have a break fundraiser Friday May 23rd, Wednesday June 11th,and Friday June 13th. Again, I assume we’re selling pizza + t shirts…
I’ll stop now so you aren’t too winded to keep reading. Friday’s event was more of the same, with a rock and roll twist. “Lost Children” is a group that somehow makes saving kids sexy through documentaries featuring attractive American young people who throw themselves into transformative friendships with tragically typical Ugandans.
It remains to be seen if intolerance and injustice are out of business since Friday afternoon. But if you want to bet on changing the world, I’ll take TJ kids pursuing their passions over butterfly wings flapping in China any day.
One thing I know they change is me. Through sponsoring the activities, I’m drawn into the emotional and political world my students inhabit. It is a little weird sometimes to end a work week listening to kids broach social taboos while sitting at 1950s-style one-armed bandits, or a little depressing to take in a video about genocide. Even so, as I drive home on Friday afternoon with my elbow out the window, it’s generally with the feeling that once again, my students have taught me valuable lessons.
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