The Power of a Story

by Latoya Peterson


I’ve been buried in work for the Public Media Corps – the program ends December 17th, so there is a lot of work to accomplish between now and then.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to provide as many updates as I would have liked to on the program, so I am planning a series after I finish to talk about the things I learned over the last six months.

However, I did want to share one quick thing.

Back in September, I helped my co-fellows Brittany and Danielle with their social media club mixer at Anacostia High School.  The mixer was one of my favorite parts of the program since it allowed me to do what I like best – to engage with people.  The kids who came to the mixer were funny and high spirited, just as interested in tech as they were in pizza and trash talking.  I met Tony, a sweet kid who decided he was ready to be the next Jazze Pha and used my help to create his own beat using GarageBand, which he then attempted to convert into a ringtone for his cellphone.  One kid, named Robert, wanted to start a blog but did not have an email address.  So we worked through that process.  A girl named Tiny said she wanted to be a teacher, but later decided she wanted to start a blog to showcase her poetry.

And then, there was Mardez.

Quiet and serious, Mardez was one of those kids with a confidence that permeated the room.  Other kids seemed to genuinely like and respect him, and he had his priorities straight, soaking in knowledge like a sponge.  Mardez walked into the room and asked questions about being a graphic designer.  He showed me his portfolio, which was a printed binder full of graphic designs and effects, many featuring 50 Cent.  I told Mardez he should start scanning his work and putting it online – one, to create a holding space for all of it, and two to create a copy of all his work.  I saw Mardez again at the What’s Good DC taping on Tuesday and he chatted for a bit, mentioning he wanted to catch up.

Today, I found out from another fellow that Mardez was featured on a blog called The People’s District, an amazingly cool blog that tells the story of DC through all the types of people who live here.  When I read Mardez’s story, I felt my heart drop.

“I dropped out of high school after my freshman year. I had teachers who put me down and a school counselor who encouraged me to get D’s. I told him that I wanted to do better than that, but he said, ‘You ain’t gonna be any better than that.’ When my Mom had a baby, I knew that I needed to help my family get money and I left school because there was no future for me in the D.C. public schools. [...]

“A couple of months after I dropped out, we got put out of our house. The landlady put our stuff out in the snow along with my newborn baby brother. When we asked her for help, she just laughed in our face. When I saw my friends get off the bus, I thought they would laugh at me, but they didn’t. I just sat there and looked angry because there wasn’t nothing else that I could do. [...]

My cousin ended up helping me get back into school. He said, ‘You can’t drop out of high school and drop into a good job. It don’t work like that. You are not Bill Gates. You can do more help to your family by finishing school.’

“He helped me get to Anacostia High School. I changed my attitude and am doing the best I can. I want to go to college and even got a scholarship. So far, I have visited 13 colleges so far, and am trying to find a college that fits what I want to do in life, which is graphic design.”

I felt pain, not because of the sadness of his story, but because of how common that narrative is here in DC.  Our dropout rate is atrocious, with only 48.8% of students graduating from high school within four years of beginning 9th grade.  Mardez is one of the success stories – he was able to re-enter school and is on target to graduate this year, with a plan to go to college and a dream of becoming a graphic designer. But the problems still swirl around him.  Tony, the burgeoning producer, recently confessed at a social media club meeting that he was planning to drop out of school. Mardez told his story that day, to convince Tony to stay in school, and added one crucial detail: in 9th grade, one of his teachers embarrassed him by pointing out Mardez’s wrinkled clothes, ignoring all the issues Mardez was going through at home.  I really hope Mardez got through to Tony.

I wish I had been there for that meeting. I wish I had read Danielle’s post earlier, so that on Tuesday, I could have pulled Mardez aside and told him I was homeless too once, and I know what that feeling is like, and that life gets a little better once you can financially support yourself, and that he was on a good path.  I wish I had read that post earlier, so I could tell Tony that I knew exactly where he was, that I too had almost dropped out of school in my senior year, that my 3.5 average fell to a 1.5 and I missed 70 days of class.

But I didn’t know this, so I just let them play computer games on my Android tablet and talked to them about tech.

Then again, maybe that was better – I hated when people tried to talk to me about my life in senior year, when all I wanted to do was escape it.  Maybe leaving it alone was the best course of action. Let them play and explore possibilities.  Watching Mardez, Tony, and three other boys I didn’t know crowd around the tab and critique the gameplay aspects of Asphalt 5 reminded me of how much work I have left to do when talking about black boys, play practices, technology, and video games.

It’s stories like the ones Mardez and Tony told that remind me of why I got into this work in the first place, and why we focus a lot on structures on this blog.  Mardez has a good shot at making it, but he is surrounded by kids in the same boat, struggling against all kinds of social issues and political issues to try to craft lives for themselves.  Mardez’s story pains me because it reminds me of people that I knew, and people that I still know, kids who were exposed to the ways of the adult world a little too early, trying to make adult decisions (i.e. I need to drop out of school to help my family) without adult perspective and understanding how each of these actions could alter the course of their lives.

All of the fellows joined the Public Media Corps hoping we could impact our communities in some way.  But doing the work exposes how large the problems actually are.  We are all staring down at the end of the program, just fifteen days away.  I think everyone feels some sense of unfinished business.  But how do we keep moving forward?

How do we even begin to evaluate our work, when so many things are intangible?

And how do we reconcile all the things we’ve learned and grown to understand with the edicts laid out by those who fund programs like these?

(Image Credit: Danielle and Brittany, for the Public Media Corps)