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Signs Of Life

Columns by Pamela Majteles

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Kids will be kids

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Posted by pam on January 14, 2011 at 10:12 pm

Originally published October 13, 2006

This column is reprinted with permission from The Hills Newspapers.

Kids will be kids.  So I thought recently when seeing the scarecrows made by local school kids for Piedmont’s Harvest Festival.  I could not help smiling at the sight of several scarecrows, particularly one made entirely of photographs of kids from Ms. Rachna’s class at Havens Elementary School.  With all those kids smiling at me from the body of the scarecrow, there was nothing to do but smile back.

The photographs reminded me of other photographs of smiling school kids from Calvin Simmons Middle School in Fruitvale located about five miles from Havens in Piedmont.   These photographs are part of an exhibition entitled “Looking for Hope” at the Peralta Hacienda Historical Park Museum Gallery in Oakland.  In this exhibition, photographer and former Oakland public school teacher, Matt O’Brien shows photographs of his students at Calvin Simmons, as well as students in East Oakland at E. Morris Cox Elementary School and Elmhurst Middle School, where he also taught at one time.

Seeing the photographs of smiling kids from Ms. Rachna’s class and Mr. O’Brien’s classes was very familiar.  As a parent, I am lucky to have lots of those kinds of photographs.  You do not have to be a parent, however, to recognize the universal message conveyed by a child’s smile.  Anyone can appreciate the happiness that kids seem to radiate with their smiles.

Although the smiles of all the kids were familiar, it turns out some things about the kids in Mr. O’Brien’s classes were not so familiar to me.  Accompanying the photographs in the exhibition is text handwritten by the children.  The children write about their discomfort and fear in their communities.  They make repeated references to violence, gangs and drugs.

When first viewing the exhibition, I was completely focused on the rich, black-and-white photographs.  They grabbed my attention with their skillful compositions and visual narratives. The photographs show the kids against the backdrop of their classrooms and schoolyard where they are engaged in common activities of the school day such as examining a Petri dish in science class, reading a book at their desks, and playing football in the schoolyard.  The most common activity captured in the photographs is the smiling.

With such captivating photographs, I did not initially read the children’s accompanying words.  “What I would like to change in my community is the gangs because gang members kill a lot of people . . . Every day somebody is killed,” writes one child.  Another writes, “All the . . . guns, knives, it is pretty hard to live a normal live in peace.”  Yet another child writes, “And for drugs . . . they think everyone does them and that if you don’t they call you names.”

Somehow, the words did not seem to fit the smiling school children in the photographs. Along with the familiar smiles, I expected familiar words like those I hear from my kids and their friends.  These words described experiences that seemed a long way from home.

In truth, these kids are not far from my home.  They also are not much different from kids close to home.  As I think about their words, I cannot figure out how these kids will be kids.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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