Yes in my backyard! Recognizing the need for arts education.

Laurie Loftus, the Workshop’s Institutional Giving Manager, shares her motivation for our work.

Teen Students

Laretia and Jerry lived across the street from me in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood. I knew them for a few years when they were about 10. They spent a lot of time in my house, and I grew pretty fond of them. Jerry and Laretia were twins. In some ways, they were alike: They were both very sweet, polite and considerate kids. But that’s where the similarities ended.

Jerry was kinetic, fidgety. Both his body and his mind had the energy of a puppy, bounding in all directions after a kaleidoscope of stimuli. My memories of him are a bit blurry: even when sitting he seemed to be in motion. His fingers and mouth were stained bright red from the hot chili Cheetos he was always eating.

By contrast, Laretia was calm, earnest, with the sweetest smile. You could see her on the cusp of adolescence and responsibilities beyond her years in a way you didn’t get with Jerry. That made me kind of sad, that burden she shouldered. She’d chide Jerry when his rambunctious energy got the better of him, bull-in-a-china-shop style. At times, Laretia might have been mistaken for Jerry’s older sister rather than his twin.

Jerry and Laretia spent many – maybe most – days after school at our place. Together with any number of the other neighborhood kids that regularly came by, they’d hang out in the house and backyard, scampering around until they commanded their audience (two adults, one young dog) to gather.

Laretia and another friend and neighbor, Patty, would stage plays or enact a detective plot of elaborate device, complete with props like tickets for infractions, clues, and hats. They’d inhabit the characters they invented and it would be fun to get in there with them as they’d answer us in their characters’ voices. With Laretia, especially, you could see the wheels of her imagination turning as she answered your questions: What would happen if you got two tickets for the same infraction? Laretia’s ingenuity and smarts impressed me so much, and I made it a point to tell her so. “Laretia!” I’d say. “Do you know what a great imagination you have?  I love these plays you put on! You should be in plays at school!”

Smile

I don’t recall her saying she was.

When he wasn’t playing with our lab mix pup – who I’m convinced thought Jerry was a tall, weird-looking puppy himself, she loved him so – Jerry would be doing something physical. I remember seeing him standing in the backyard one day; the next thing I know he’s executing a backflip off a chair, sticking the landing Nadia Comaneci style, like it’s nothing. We whooped with surprise. “JERRY!  You are so good at that! Are you in gymnastics at school!?”

“Nah, they don’t got that stuff at my school….”

Dance

Jerry and Laretia were being raised – and well, I’d say – by their mom, who was my age but who, as Jerry pointed out when he found out my age, looked “hecka older” than me (that he always made sure to say “hecka,” the K-5 version of “hella,” never failed to delight me). I’m pretty sure I pointed out if I had kids to raise and two jobs to hold down, I’d probably look hecka older, too.

Their dad was in prison. One day Jerry came over so we could help him make an iron-on sweatshirt with a photograph of him, his sister and their dad on it, to bring to him on their Father’s Day visit.

Jerry and school seemed to get on like fire and water. He was held back a grade and there was talk of holding him back another year. He had mandatory summer school. I wondered what it was like for him, and his sister, in school. I wondered how much time, energy, interest, or curiosity their teachers had to help them see and appreciate what was uniquely special – and so different – in them. Above all, I wondered what opportunities they themselves had to see, appreciate and develop their very different but equally delightful strengths and assets.

Jerry and Laretia would be about 16 now. I wonder with a feeling as close to prayer as I get that Jerry is passing well and safely through adolescence as an African American male in Oakland. I wonder if he ever managed to harness the nervous boy energy and tremendous physical skills he had. On a recent visit to a Workshop Capoeira class, I thought of Jerry. Every time I hear our gifted Capoeira master Salê Alves talk about his teaching, I take away something small but invaluable I can apply to my life. I wish I could go back in time and pull Jerry into his classes – an ideal mix of physically demanding energy expression, history lesson, community-building and character development. I wonder if Laretia, who left a heartbreakingly sweet goodbye note on my car’s windshield when I moved, got to keep being a girl a while longer, and got to keep making sense of herself through the theater of her imagination.

In fact, whenever I see smiling, joyful kids engaging in the Workshop’s classes, I think of Jerry and Laretia. I let myself hope that they encountered the wise and good-natured teachers, the creative outlets, and the challenging education they deserve. I haven’t yet met Gloria Unti, but I often feel her energy as an animating presence here. I feel very grateful to be involved with an organization founded on the fierce belief that it’s Jerry’s, Laretia’s, and every child’s right to get the creative learning experiences they deserve, and to work beside people devoted to enacting that belief every day.

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