The paper fluttered out of the windows of the coiled and bent Corolla. In a billowing stream, the two-ply newsprint flapped like large albatrosses escaping through the rolled down windows, and into the intersection of 39th and Pennsylvania. Fumbling around the front seat of my car looking for the pieces of my fallen Nokia, I manage to pull my destroyed vehicle to the side of the road. The girl who hit me is already sitting cross-legged on the curb across the street, fighting back tears while clutching her Pomeranian mix to her chest.
“I’m not sure where my insurance card is,” the girl says, still holding the small dog. As we wait for the cops to arrive, I circle the intersection, gathering the numerous scattered issues of Voice of the Tigers, my students’ first newspaper.
If the girl’s Pomeranian had crawled across the steering wheel just five minutes earlier, if the location of this car crash was just five blocks farther East, if she had careened into the car just a few degrees sharper, slamming into us at a perfectly perpendicular angle, the dogs’ owner would have t-boned right into LaShawn, my 6th grade student celebrating the release of her first newsprint publication. I rescue a few more newspapers as I settle into my own spot on the curb, cellphone in hand.
I woke that morning unusually early, at 5, and put on a white jumper dress with a faux bamboo belt — part of the TJ Maxx cache my mother has been buying since I got a “real job.” In preparation for the last day of school, I wanted to look nice for an awards assembly and talent show we were putting on for the community. I had planned this last day almost as one would plan a ceremonial event — in my mind the rituals of the last day had become a sacred rite of passage: I made it, survived my first year teaching. As a team of colleagues, we made it, having essentially opened a middle school from scratch. Our students made it, moving one year closer to high school. We didn’t make the academic gains I had hoped for, but there was one tangible reliquary of academic progress we did create: the first student run newspaper entitled Voice of the Tigers.
The newspaper was born out of a schedule deficit. We needed to integrate an “advisory” hour at the beginning of the day to be in compliance with Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Each advisory was to have a special topic of interest.
After spending a year writing for a newspaper, and a brief freelancing attempt, I decide my advisory would be a journalism course. Our product would be C.A. Franklin’s first student-run publication.
To begin, I bring in a mass of local and national newspapers for students to flip through — The Kansas City Star, The Pitch Weekly, USA Today, The New York Times. Unique to the mix is The Call, Kansas City’s African American newspaper founded by Chester Arthur Franklin, the same C.A. Franklin of our school’s namesake. I attempt to impress upon the students’ that our newspaper can act as a legacy to our namesake; something unique, special. After all, C.A. Franklin led his newspaper with an egalitarian purpose. Franklin’s mission is still written into the paper as its “platform”:
THE CALL believes that America can best lead the world away from racial and national antagonism when it accords to every man, regardless of race, color or creed, his human and legal rights. Hating no man, fearing no man, THE CALL strives to help every man in the firm belief that all are hurt as long anyone is held back.
With this foundation and legacy in mind, I begin our newspaper class. We first study the components of a newspaper, cutting out headlines and ledes, pictures and captions. Eventually, I divide the kids into different groups based on their own affinities — a group of photographers, a group of writers, editors, a group of illustrators and designers. By semester’s end, I have amassed a few scanty, poorly written paragraphs, a few amateur, pointless drawings of the Chiefs, and some photographs of pre-teen girls posing in the girls’ restroom. I edit what material was available into a columned Microsoft Publisher template, added in some clipart, made copies, and distributed them through the middle school. The result was utterly underwhelming: students guffawed, writing our paper off as a joke. “Ain’t nuthin’ real at this janky school. We don’t go no lockers, no real walls, not even a real newspaper,” was the common sentiment of the student population. And they were right, this “janky” newsletter was not sufficient.
“You know, I can probably help out,” Emily, a friend from high school, says over the phone in her mild mannered quiet tones, as I relay the difficulties of my well-intentioned haranguing of a group of middle-schoolers into creating a newspaper. Emily has been working for a suburban community college’s newspaper as a photographer.
“Let me put you in touch with the editorial staff, they might be interested in helping out too, taking something like this on.”
On an overcast Saturday morning, I leave the city and drive to a Christian coffee shop in the suburbs. Christian rock bands play here on the weekends. Latte purchases benefit mission trips. David, a quiet guy with a receding hairline, is waiting for me. He’s an editor at Emily’s community college and puts me in contact with a Jen, a short and stocky woman, with a cigarette constantly hanging from her lip. A natural manager, Jen brings with her a young and committed newspaper staff—a lanky and humorous photographer, two soft-spoken, demure designers. All show up every week to my classroom door, assisting the students with their projects.
With the help of the computer teacher, I relocate unused ancient teal iMacs into my classroom. With the help of a tech savvy friend, we re-image the computers and install pirated software. I convince Principal Walker to buy us several low-end digital cameras. We even find a donor to cover the full expense of printing 500 copies, in color. The newspaper is now officially in business.
A small group of photography students from the college begin working with our “photographers,” teaching them rule of thirds and bird’s-eye view. They run around the playground with digital point-and-shoot cameras, taking pictures of the neighborhood. Davion, a hyper-active kid, has an affinity for the camera, can manipulate the banalities of an Eastside neighborhood into abstractions of color and light. Jazisha pens drawings for the paper. Tovian writes an op ed, calling parents to become active participants in their children’s education, and chastising a now complacent community. Erykisha writes matter-a-factly about classes offered in the new middle school.
Tovian names the paper Voice of the Tigers one day, early on in the school year.
“Well we’re supposed to be the Tigers [the schools’ mascot],” she says. “This paper might as well be our voice.”
We are now working under a deadline. I can be heard chiding the students, “We now have a real paper to produce.”
So we create additional newspaper club time after school. An intrigued reporter from the local weekly newspaper begins following our endeavor, sitting at my desk during class time, following the kids around with a small notebook.
The last week of school, the paper is finally printed. Printed in color ink and eight pages thick, it boasts an article advertising the merits of a talent show and a showcase of student photography. On the front page, Tovian’s op-ed warns parents about looming low-test scores and advocating for increased community involvement with the local school. Jazisha’s practiced tiger drawing ensconces the masthead.
We meet after the talent show and awards ceremony to celebrate and distribute the paper throughout the community. LaShawn, Yulissa and Sasha wait anxiously in the classroom, each holding a bushel of the newsprint across their laps. On the “distribution team” (admittedly a name we made up for a team of kids who were excited to be in newspaper, but didn’t take the initiative to produce anything), these girls’ job is to disseminate the newspaper to as wide an audience as possible. Within the thick of the June heat, we left C.A. Franklin and began our door to door distribution. The girls run up to people’s homes, knock loudly on the front door, then with shy shrugs hand off newspapers.
“This our school newspaper, Voice of the Tigers.”
“We’re from C.A. Franklin, right up the street.”
“We wrote it ourselves!”
They giggle and disjointedly run back to the curb to meet me.
After several hours, we realize we have entirely too many newspapers than we can pass out on foot.
“Take them to the Plaza,” one girl offers, which is the upscale shopping center.
“We can charge people for them.”
“We can take them to church!”
I end up giving each girl a large bushel to take with them and distribute over the summer. I pack them in my Corolla and drop them off at home. The girls babble in the backseat.
“Do you think people will read it?”
“Does this make us famous, well, like, kinda famous?”
I drop LaShawn off last. She lives with her grandmother, an ancient woman who speaks too loudly into the phone. LaShawn’s mother died years ago, and she never knew her father. Their water gets turned off regularly, and kids often refuse to sit next to her. “She stinks!” some kids snarl, as they yank the collars of their uniform shirts over their nose. But today, LaShawn is proud. Sitting in the backseat, as she always does. The scarf around her head is blowing in the wind out the car window, and she prattles on about the newspaper and her summer plans. I drop her off and she screams “thank you!” as she jumps out of the car, arms overloaded with newspapers and running toward the front door. I wait until her grandma opens the door, and watch as LaShawn immediately thrusts forth a copy of the paper, showing it off to her grandma.
My car is now empty save for the 200 or so newspapers in the back seat. I resolve to pass them out at local coffee shops and set them in the windows at boutiques. I start driving back to my apartment with the windows down, the papers flutter against one another in the backseat, making the same noise as spokes on a bicycle wheel. I’m energized, excited. On this last day of school, I’m ready to start the new school year, even ready for the summer school course I’ve been coerced into teaching. I start heading west on 39th street, passing Baltimore St., passing the Walgreens, passing by Gomers, the liquor store. The midtown air is already thickening into the yellow haze of the humidity that’s promised to come.
The light turns green and in one of the middle lanes, I begin to accelerate. I look out the corner of my eye to see a white sedan lunging toward me. A Pomeranian stares at me from the driver’s side of the dashboard. The sedan moves in slow motion, and I know I’m going to be hit. The sedan knifes into the seat behind me, and my car fishtails in a quick semi-circle before rebounding off of a curb. A gust of stale, exhaust heavy wind swoops up the papers, propelling them through the back seat windows and out into the street. I manage to maneuver the car to the side of the road. The abruptness of the collision gives me sea legs and a cloudy head. Dizzy, I drunkenly stumble into the intersection, picking up the papers. I find a spot on the curb and await the cops, tow trucks, and firemen. My car, months away from being paid off, is surely totaled.
I sit, flipping through our first edition of Voice of the Tigers. My eyes aren’t being held by the writing, however, but by the photos. On the cover of the paper is a close-up photograph of Dyesha’s fingers holding our first classroom camera. Dyesha’s long slender fingers wrap around the camera — her long manicured fingernails exposed, as is the uncovered lens. I flip to the back of the paper — a collage of the students’ photographs. One photo recognizes the makeshift computer lab we’ve made — a slanted row of color-coordinated teal shelled iMacs. Three photographs focus on playful shadows and light patterns created through perforated playground equipment.
Each of these photos, however, provides a different perspective of Franklin’s seemingly mundane reality. A piece of outdated playground equipment becomes windows of orange-kissed sunlight. Obsolete school supplies become an emblazoned river of turquoise. A diagonal close-up of a sidewalk lining the rusty fence that surrounds the decrepit school becomes an illuminated pathway. The abstractions offer an alternative vantage point into life at C.A. Franklin, a vantage point that belongs to my students. I sit back, and wait for the sounds of sirens to arrive, to help clean up the mess we’ve made in the intersection.
Photo by Jennifer Kumar