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In the middle of my despair four years ago, one of my artist friends from the gallery approached me to help start an after-school art program at a neighborhood church in Germantown. I hesitated but thought I needed the distraction. The glass artist Paula Mandel persuaded me to be her sidekick in a stained glass class at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.
I'm a painter and digital artist with no background in stained glass, so I wondered whether I was suited for such an undertaking. Besides, quite frankly, as a senior citizen I felt uneasy about driving to a community where violence is in the news almost daily, and where the high school for which the program is designed is often described as one of Philadelphia's most troubled.
Despite my misgivings, I decided to try it.
The first day I arrived at First United, a venerable old church with a history of activism, I walked down a long flight of stairs to a dingy basement area with poor lighting and no equipment or supplies. The kids looked at me warily, and so did I at them. These black teens engaged in quite a lot of posturing, roughhousing and back talking.
Frankly, I felt a little uneasy. What was I doing in these dreary surroundings, a white Jewish grandmother whose peers are retired?
Toward the back of the noisy and cavernous room sat a short, silver-haired white woman at a long table piled high with boxes of snacks. This was the wonderful Dr. Barbara Mitchell, a retired Edison High vice-principal and former Peace Corps volunteer who now voluntarily heads the church's Afterschool Program for Germantown High students.
This little woman stuck two fingers in her mouth, and out came a whistle that could have started the Kentucky Derby. Suddenly, all eyes were upon her and the kids went silent. She announced the start of a stained glass class and invited kids to sign up for it.
The kids, I subsequently discovered, look to her for love, discipline and support. Some who came from Africa call her "Grandmother" as a sign of respect.
Several women artists who, like me, lacked previous experience with stained glass joined Paula and me and we started The Stained Glass Project in the After School Program. Initially we relied on Paula to help us cut the glass properly or solder the lead until we learned to do it ourselves.
When adults ask for help
A side benefit of this collaboration is that we artists all recognize our inadequacies and don't hesitate to ask for help, even from the kids themselves. Consequently, this project might be the first time these kids have worked with adults who are not authority figures.
At first our goal was to have the students make personal wall hangings and wearable art. But then Sharon Katz, a South African singer, songwriter and storyteller, entered the picture. Sharon had founded The Peace Train, originally a group of racially mixed children that Nelson Mandela compared to the Rainbow Nation he envisioned for South Africa.
Her dream was to build a school in Ngcolosi near Durban, South Africa, so AIDS orphans and other children wouldn't have to walk three hours each way to get there. That school is well on its way to completion, with a little help from friends like Pete Seeger, who performed with Sharon in a benefit concert. With Sharon's arrival our Stained Glass Project took on a higher purpose: We decided to collaborate with her and make stained glass windows for her school.
No gadgets in Africa
At first, the kids weren't very enthusiastic. Some preferred to make only glass pendants. Others wanted to make glass designs suitable only for video- and TV-watching American kids. But they learned from Sharon that their South African counterparts lacked TVs, computers, video games and cell phones, so American pop icons are meaningless to them.
Soon our kids began to envision beautiful images for South African children to look at as they gazed out the windows during class. They began designing glass windows with birds, the South African flag, the American flag, animals and a park with a bench and a soccer ball.
The windows were crafted using gorgeous colored glass that the students selected from glass donated by other glass artists. The choice of color, design and shape was strictly their own.
The only input from the adults concerned whether the glass could be cut and shaped according to their design. Sometimes, they learned, we had to alter a design to fit the limitations of the material. Sometimes the glass broke or a shape couldn't work.
But they also learned to improvise and to ask for help. They also learned that even when a piece of glass broke or something didn't work as planned, they were not failures: They learned they could change direction and still achieve success.
Now, not only were students working hard on their own windows, they were helping fellow students with some of the toughest skills, like glass cutting and soldering. It was a dangerous pursuit, but we trusted them to work with sharp instruments, glass shards and hot soldering irons, and that trust paid off, because the kids were protective of themselves and others.
Over the course of the year, when some students had to leave for other activities, others stepped in to complete started windows. In a neighborhood where protecting one's "turf" is usually paramount, kids helped each other.
In the end, most windows were made by more than one student artist. Instead of the customary friction and suspicion between Africans and African-Americans kids, these kids laughed, teased, applauded, hugged and congratulated each other. Kids who had thought themselves failures rose to the challenge and became leaders. The best part of creating her window, one young artist said, was having "the team" work with her.
As for me: During a personally trying time, I met wonderful kids I might never have known. My focus shifted from my own troubles to the inspiration I felt just from being in their company.
By the end of the season we had completed 18 windows. On our last day together for the season Paula and I lined these windows up along a ledge— the first time we'd seen all 18 on display together. All of us gasped at the profusion of brilliant, gleaming glass works of art that this group had created. Next year we expect to begin making windows for another worthy prospect.
There's no better antidote for low self-esteem than having your teachers and peers look up to you because you perform so well. That was a regular occurrence in our class. I think it's the magic we need to heal our society.♦
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