Art Imitates Life

Ask a group of North Miami middle schoolers to tell a tale and you'll hear about guns, vodou, theft, and cops.

The kids who attend Thomas Jefferson Middle School in North Miami call the place T.J. for short. Not all of the epithets are so cute, though. For example, many T.J. students are alumni of nearby Biscayne Gardens Elementary and affectionately refer to their alma mater as Biscayne Garbage. It may sound harsh but it's just a joke, something funny to say, like the story about a girl who ate a cookie at the supermarket, then learned it was really a dog biscuit.

For more than a decade now, T.J. art instructor Glenn Terry has tried to tap into the well of juvenile creativity that produces nicknames, drawings, poetry, and the like. When the bell rings, seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders amble from one of the school's dull hallways into Terry's resplendent room, where a five-foot-tall papier-mâch dragon stands watch. The walls are plastered with dozens of anonymous primitivist works that preteens and teens have sloshed down in watercolors, acrylics, and pastels. Three years ago Terry threw another art form into the mix: the short story. The very short story. The eight-sentence short story.

To jump-start his students' literary creations, Terry begins with a spiel: "We all have tales to tell. We all have experiences. All of ours are different from others'. Some are good or bad, happy or sad. There are some that are real hard to talk about because they are so scary or painful." He asks the kids to delve into their memories. But that is the easy part. "Some of these students have a great deal of difficulty writing a sentence. They can say them, but they can't write them," Terry notes. "A lot are very low functioning when it comes to language arts. And that's one reason I do this project." After a few weeks of writing, rewriting, editing, and illustrating, the miniature tales are perfected.

The result is Middle School Stories, the third and latest edition of which is a 30-page, photocopied document bound with a staple. The anthology is thin. Little of the writing or illustration is exceptional, yet it speaks volumes about life in one part of urban Miami-Dade. Some T.J. students have witnessed things that would shock any adult. "I'm amazed by some of the stuff my students have been through," Terry notes. "Their stories deal with things most of us have never had to experience, like getting mugged or watching someone get shot."

Terry, a 52-year-old Miami Springs native who gave up lawyering in the Eighties to become an art teacher, got the idea for the writing project from a half-hour radio documentary first aired on National Public Radio in 1993. Independent producers outfitted two thirteen-year-old boys -- LeAlan Jones and Lloyd Newman -- with tape recorders and sent the pair to document life in and around their Chicago housing project. The two kids' interviews and ruminations formed the basis of Ghetto Life 101, which won a Livingston Award and a prize from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Terry found the broadcast poignant, especially because he thought his students also had gathered intriguing yarns in the streets, playgrounds, and households of North Miami. "The best art comes from our own experience," Terry says. "Most of the stories that my students share are cute and interesting, but not unusual," he says. One writes about stepping on a snake. Another describes being pinned beneath a fallen Christmas tree. But many of the stories spring from memories of violence and crime. The collection includes anecdotes such as one from a boy who stole jewelry, shoes, and a TV during a sleepover, then spent two weeks in jail. Also part of the anthology: a tale penned by a male student who was napping when his father shot himself in the leg. The boy slept through the event. The dad went to the hospital. With a hint of irony, Terry recounts that only about one-third of the tales fall into this category. Only a third? Who could disagree that this is too many? Their stories show that these young scribes live in a place where danger is never far enough away, where the marvels of childhood are too often ripped apart by bullets and knives.

Not everyone likes the project. Some parents and Miami-Dade school administrators prefer to keep such stories hidden. They find them too embarrassing, too troubling, too controversial. A few parents would not allow their children to be interviewed for this story. But Terry believes artistic expression is a good vehicle for kids, especially when the road is rocky. "Writing about or drawing disturbing events reduces the stress that they cause," he says. "It's good to share things that bother you."

Aristotle called it catharsis. "Keeping it real" is how the bards of rap like to put it. Let's just say that once again art imitates life. Kids imitate life.

 
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