Schools Look Like Sing Sing

At 20 years old, I dropped out of school because the path I was on wasn’t for me. I hadn’t quite figured out my next move yet and was working at a hospital as a patient transporter to bring in some income while I tried to decide what to do next. I wanted to do something worthwhile and meaningful that also allowed me to flex my creative muscles. As fate would have it, a partner of mine sent me a text asking if I’d be interested in teaching a photography class for $10 a hour a few hours out of the week. This was something new to me so I weighed the decision.

I’d been shooting photography for about two or three years at that time, but had never taught it to another person and the idea that I could even do something like that never crossed my mind. I thought I had to be certified or have some type of accreditation to teach but I accepted the offer anyway because something about the job seemed like the perfect fit for me. I had a chance to show the younger generation how art can be a great outlet of emotions and a way to express themselves in a positive way and maybe they could teach me a few things as well. I met with the program coordinator to discuss the finer details of what my role would be. After taking care of the necessary paperwork, I was in the classroom.

I remember being super excited about teaching children not only photography, but about entrepreneurship, and all the things I wished I learned when I was in school. It may seem a little cliche, but giving back to my community was really the catalyst for me taking this job. This was an after school program, so I knew I wouldn’t be bound to the same curriculum of the formal daytime teacher. I could teach lessons that I wanted to teach that I knew could have a great impact on the children. !

Once I got into the class, the moment of this project came to a halt. I realized two things: teaching was hard work and our school systems were suffering.

One thing that affected us was the environment that our youth were learning in. It did not mirror the types of schools depicted on television, but that of Sing Sing. I’m not exaggerating, the schools were like a prison. They were grim inside, not only aesthetically, but the feel of the place was also unpleasant and not conducive for a learning environment. Walking the halls made me feel like I was being punished for something, like I was in jail. Low ceilings, the yellowish cinder block walls, ultra violet lights, and a cold feel that I couldn’t shake. The kids were in uniform walking in single-file lines. I figured if you added some shackles to them, they would look just like the residents of the State Penitentiary. I wondered why anyone expected the children to learn in an environment that was comparable to a prison.

I had an idea. I thought if we changed the learning environment, I would get different results. The kids would be more excited to come learn, participate in the program, and take pride in their school. My partners and I decided to create posters to spruce up the school. I wanted to give the kids daily reminders that, “Yo, we are here for a reason.” Something a little more fun to look at so that maybe they wouldn’t feel imprisoned but rather, empowered.Through these posters, I wanted them to begin to take pride in their environment and begin to love to coming to school. This was their space to create and grow.

I took those posters to the Director and he was impressed, asking, “What else can y’all do?” It was a great feeling to see that someone who was in charge was responding positively to our work. If he liked it, maybe the kids would too? I proposed that we do this for everything, from their website to the brochures and everything in between. Anything that was visible, I wanted to have my hand in it.

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