Two years ago, 14-year-old Jeremy Williams went to space camp in Florida. He spent his summer flying simulated moon missions and playing the wee astronaut. But he couldn’t go last year because his mom, with whom he lives in Woodridge, in Northeast D.C., couldn’t afford it. Jeremy’s mother raised him alone; his father died when he was 4. This year, Jeremy wasn’t quite sure where he was going to go to keep busy during the long summer days—until his brother Jason, 28, called to tell him about the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s Teen Arts Project. Jeremy had only two days left to register for the program.
“‘They’re going to pay you to learn shit,’” Jeremy recalls his brother telling him. “That’s exactly what he said. I was like, ‘Sure.’”
Jeremy’s older brother works as a program administrator at the Metro Teenage Freestyle Drop-In Center on Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Jason, who, Jeremy says, “knows everybody,” heard about the District’s summer arts program for kids and promptly called up Jeremy to get his Social Security number for enrollment.
A week later, Jeremy was trooping down to the D.C. Department of Employment Services to fill out forms and take a math and reading test. He isn’t sure why he had to take the test, because he was never given the results and hasn’t really needed the skills. In fact, he was pretty much in the dark about the whole program.
His brother hadn’t given him much information, but he decided to trust him. “I knew my
brother wasn’t going to just stick me,” Jeremy says. “Whatever program it was, was going to
The Teen Arts Project meets five days a week from 9 a.m. to noon and then from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. The morning class, in photography, is held at Watkins Elementary School at 12th and
D Streets SE. The afternoon classes take place at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, at 545 7th Street SE, a four-story, red-brick building on a quiet, shady corner just down from the Eastern
Market Metro station. The project runs July 6 to August 6 on a $5,000 grant from the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks in conjunction with the Department of Employment Services’ SummerWorks 1999. Jeremy’s class—20 teenagers, ages 14 through 19—are all paid participants in the project.
“Instead of being at a clerical job for SummerWorks in government offices,” explains Lori Wallace, the project’s administrator, “they were able to come here and do art and get paid.”
Getting paid, it seems, is the project’s biggest selling point.
“I don’t like painting, but I’m getting paid, so I’m doing my best,” Jeremy says. He is standing on a stairwell just inside the building lobby wearing denim shorts, New Balance kicks, and a Summer Arts Camp T-shirt smeared with purple paint. To his right, the words “Music-N-Art Is Fun” are painted by a door frame. Around him, his classmates are busy adding personal, if sloppy, touches to blue, purple, and green panels leading up to the building’s third floor. One flight up, somebody has spilled some paint; the kids shuffle their feet loudly to avoid it and throw around adolescent blame.
Wallace’s voice rises above the others. “That’s OK….That’s OK, you guys,” she reassures. “That stuff happens.”
Other than mandatory attendance, the demands don’t seem too high. Jeremy later describes the mural class as “kind of like anything goes. You could paint a stick, and she’d find something good about it.” Still, he resists painting. “I don’t like painting. I don’t like paint on my hands,” he says, furiously wiping his hands. “My dad was a painter.”
Like Jeremy, many of the students do not seem too interested in the task at hand. A few of the older guys are back and forth to the bathroom or up and down the stairs, teasing the girls and cracking wise. With only a week left to finish the mural, Wallace grows frustrated. Up the stairs, she can be heard rebuking the kids and urging them to focus. A fine-arts graduate of the Corcoran School of Art, she admits that the program needs refining: “This is our first year. We’re kind of experimenting. We’re checking out the ropes.”
There is more commotion: A few steps up from where Jeremy is painting purple birds, one of the girls has painted “Winnie and A.J.” surrounded by two hearts. The kids begin to ask in unison, “Who’s A.J.?” Wallace demands that Winnie paint over the sign—with something more artistic.
Wallace is a bit of an idealist; she very much believes that the children are motivated by a desire to express themselves through art: “Something I really want to strive for next year is to also offer [the program] to other teens [who] want to come, maybe just as a camp, and not get paid by D.C. government.”
Jeremy sets down his brush for the umpteenth time; he repeatedly mentions that he does not like to paint. “Five-fifteen an hour,” he says. He winces at the low wages, but Jeremy is a practical kid: “It’s money, so I’ll take it.”
Wallace tells him to get back to work.
In the workshop’s small, cluttered theater between black-painted walls, about 20 children, all African-American, circle a lone white man, Casey Groves. He is an actor with the Shakespeare Theatre and the teacher of the workshop’s theater class. Groves and his students are playing a game he taught them called Steal the Space, which focuses on nonverbal communication.
It’s Groves’ turn. Students in the circle must make eye contact with each other and switch spaces before he notices the move and jumps into one of their spots. The game is fun, and the kids enjoy it, but its dramatic applications seem limited, especially because the “nonverbal” aspect doesn’t last more than a few minutes once the teens get excited. The game goes on way too long. Finally, after his last turn, Groves puts an end to it. There is actual business to attend to.
The class has its final dramatic presentation in two weeks, and the students have yet to decide on a plot or even a theme for the performance.
“I’m having to adjust to where people are at,” Groves says. “I’ve never taught this level. I usually teach younger kids. And these guys are much more cool and don’t want to do something that’s really kind of silly.” Groves originally planned to put together one or more skits centering on the African diaspora, but he has since backed off from the idea. “I kind of decided to, like, let go of my original idea and let them tell me what they wanted to do,” he says.
He quiets the group just enough to ask them what they have in mind.
“Let’s do The Matrix,” one kid shouts.
“Let’s do a video,” says another. Most of the suggestions involve re-creations of popular movies or music videos.
Groves tries to keep up: “New Jack City? What’s that? I’ve never seen that.” He also has a little trouble pronouncing “Tupac,” as in Shakur. “No idea is bad; everything is fine,” he reminds them.
Someone suggests “White Men Can’t Hump,” and the group erupts into laughter. Groves rejects that one. He tries to remind the kids about some of the ideas they came up with the previous week.
Then one of the older kids schools him: “All that stuff we talked about the other day? We were just playing,” the kid says. “We were doing that to waste time, and you took it seriously. I tried to throw you a hint.”
The kids pick up on an adult’s lack of control immediately. “I think he’s probably scared or something,” Jeremy later says of Groves. He confesses that his teachers have quite a lot to handle with 20 kids in their custody for five weeks. “[Wallace] has a bossy tendency, but I can understand why,” he says. “People coming in late, people being trifling, don’t want to do anything, cussing, disrespectful, don’t give a….I can see why she’d be mad.”
Luckily, the teachers do know how to gain some command over their students. Kids were strolling into classes whenever they felt like it, so Wallace declared that students who came more than 10 minutes late would not be paid for the day. That threat seems to have worked. Today, most everyone is accounted for, although a few still sit inattentive, either with headphones on or playing cards.
“In school, [the teachers] have to deal with you,” Jeremy observes. “Here, they don’t have to deal with you. They’ll fire you any day. It keeps me more in control of myself because I’m kind of talkative—you know, disruptive—in school. But here, if I’m disruptive, I can get fired.”
Ron St. Clair is a freelance photographer who teaches the Teen Arts Project’s photo class over at Watkins Elementary. A longtime educator, he knows that he cannot automatically expect enthusiasm from these kids. “These are inner-city kids, and they’re not going to be excited about the program just because it’s a program,” he says. “You’re bringing them into the art field,” he continues. “They haven’t been in that type of atmosphere before. So when you put them there, and you give them an assignment, and they don’t understand quite what they’re doing, they can be a little bit resentful.”
Nevertheless, St. Clair is confident that some of the kids in the program “want to learn. They want to have something that they’re a part of, and those are the kids that I don’t have to worry about. When they come in, I give them an assignment, and they come back with whatever I asked them to do…completed.” And there are those who are in it for the money. He says the split is “50-50.” “[With] the other kids, it’s not only a hassle but a challenge. I have to constantly, every day, feed the idea to them: ‘You have to do this. This is what you get paid for.’”
Even though he can be paid only for 15 hours a week because of his age, Jeremy comes to St. Clair’s photography class almost every day. He likes it a lot more than painting. “It’s more like work, ’cause I actually have to do stuff. Like, I actually have to be in the darkroom pressing buttons and doing the whole thing.” And photography satisfies the kid’s practical nature. It has given him goals for when the program ends this week.
“I know photography now,” he says, “so I’m going to try and get a job at CVS or something.” CP