Cardozo’s boys basketball team walked into the Roosevelt High gym carrying their winter coats and ball bags and equipment, just a couple minutes before the advertised tipoff time of Friday’s game with Coolidge. Though officially the home squad, Cardozo doesn’t have a usable court on its own campus, so the Clerks have to use their rival’s house, where they don’t feel at home enough to leave personal belongings in the locker room.
The game, coming near the end of disappointing regular seasons for both squads, had been held up three days by weather. Few fans from either Cardozo or Coolidge showed up.
But the kid known around the Roosevelt campus as “Camera Man” was there nearly a half-hour before the scheduled game time. With a camera around his neck, he took in the mostly meaningless proceedings from an otherwise empty corner of the gym.
“I need the practice,” says Fireu Retta.
Retta, a 17-year-old senior, is rarely without that neckwear at schoolboy athletic events around town. It’s but one hint that he desires to one day be a professional sports photographer.
Even when he’s not at a game or a match, Retta’s snapping away. He says he shoots “at least 200” pictures per school day, and on a good day, one of those photos leaves him satisfied.
Some of that camerawork is a necessary part of his job as Roosevelt’s yearbook editor. But it’s his long-term employment goal that’s brought him to the Cardozo–Coolidge game. Retta knows that even the piddling crowd that showed up to watch the game in person wouldn’t care about seeing photos of the ho-hum affair afterward. But the contest gave him another opportunity to work on his technique—following the action through a lens, framing shots to ensure that faces and the ball are in every photo. He doesn’t let chances like that pass.
Retta even shows up at the Roosevelt basketball team’s afternoon workouts to get in his own kind of shooting practice. He brings the camera to soccer, football, and baseball practices, too. (He usually doesn’t shoot Roosevelt tennis events, but that’s only because he’s the team captain and No. 1 player.)
“I want to be ready to take the shot when it counts,” he says.
Feel-good tales leak out of the D.C. school system these days at about the same pace they do Baghdad. But there’s hope to hear Retta talk of where he came from and where he is and who inspired him to try to get where he wants to go.
There’s plenty of plight in his story, for sure. Roosevelt, for starters, isn’t easy on the eyes. The same city that will raise more than $600 million for a baseball stadium (for Roosevelt alum Ted Lerner) and is now cooking up ways to find $50 million to refurbish luxury suites at the Verizon Center (owned by Roosevelt alum Abe Pollin) can’t work up any enthusiasm to give the approximately 900 students there a decent-looking place to go to class.
The school was built in 1932 and much of the plant looks like it hasn’t been painted since. Even the main hallways and ceilings are full of the brown stains and warping that poor plumbing and neglect bring. The students’ lockers are not only dingy but scarce.
“We all have to share,” says Retta, pointing out a row of battered and apparently unusable lockers.
To anybody whose only experience with public-school buildings is in the suburbs, Roosevelt may seem out of the Third World.
But Retta loves the place. Maybe because he knows what the Third World really looks like.
He arrived in America in 2000 from his native Ethiopia. His English is not only accented but very quiet and slow, and he thinks his speech and overall shyness are probably rooted in the bad things he saw as a youngster while waiting to join his mother in America. His homeland was overrun at the time by its never-ending war with neighboring Eritrea. His father was among several relatives killed in combat.
So, to Retta, Roosevelt is the promised land. He reminds those who find his current surroundings unsightly that there’s more to his school than the paint and plaster. There’s the flesh and blood, too.
“I come from a place where everything was messed up,” he says. “But here, this is where I found my dream. This is where I found Dr. Butler.”
That would be Maurice Butler. He started teaching at Roosevelt in 1975, and, except for a brief transfer to a middle school and a hiatus in the 1980s when he was laid off due to federal budget cuts, he’s been on the Petworth campus ever since.
He’s held all sorts of teaching and coaching positions at Roosevelt over the years, but Butler is now vice principal. He also teaches a journalism class, which grew out of a club that Butler started at Roosevelt.
On a dare from an Ethiopian friend, Retta signed up for that club as a 10th-grader. Butler began sending Retta to Rough Riders sporting events, and the student came back with a bigger and better stash of photos every trip. The more Butler told Retta he was good at taking pictures, the more Retta liked taking them. (Butler stored all Retta’s photos on a school computer, which suffered a severe crash recently that has put much of his portfolio in jeopardy. Retta fears he’s to blame. “I think it was because I took too many pictures, and he kept almost all of them,” Retta says.)
The teacher showed Retta’s work to other members of the class and got the shots into the school newspaper, the Rider. Retta’s pictures were also posted on billboards in Roosevelt’s hallways—the school’s main entrance now features a massive display of Retta’s shots of other students.
Butler eventually persuaded Retta to send his stuff over to DigitalSports DC, a wing of the Kimsey Foundation that provides financial and other assistance to professional development programs in the city’s high schools, including the Roosevelt journalism class. That group operates a Web site featuring the work of aspiring writers and photojournalists and donates all advertising revenues from the site back to the schools.
Monica Grover, director of DigitalSports DC, says seven of the 30 sports journalism students now participating in the program come from Roosevelt. That’s more than any other city school.
“Dr. Butler has made this program happen in D.C. Public Schools,” says Grover. “He’s helped gather students at Roosevelt and turned it into a class. He’s also traveled to other schools to get other students involved. Without him, none of this would be happening here, not at the velocity it’s been happening. And Fireu’s the superstar.”
Butler says he’s learned over the years to ignore workplace shortcomings and to dwell on the pleasurable things about his job. Mentoring Retta fits that bill.
“Yes, there’s the building here, the grounds,” he says. “But your goal is to get the job done, and there are no excuses, because you’ve also got kids, and excuses don’t get them anything. To see somebody who started knowing nothing [about photography] and work his way up to where he is now, that’s what teaching is all about, that’s the reward. Fireu works so hard at this, and now he’s reaping the benefits of his hard work, and other kids are starting to see that. Really, he’s helping me teach them the lessons I’m trying to teach. That’s a beautiful thing.”
The teacher has done more than provide assignments and motivation to the star pupil. Butler trusts Retta enough to let him use his personal camera, a Canon digital SLR that’s a better (and far costlier) piece of equipment than the point-and-shoot types the school system gives students to take on photojournalism assignments.
“I know that he feels like this is his baby,” Retta says while admiring the teacher’s camera during the Cardozo–Coolidge game, “and I better not lose his baby.”
Retta is now applying to colleges with photojournalism programs and trying to round up the money to pay for that education. Last week, DigitalSports DC named Retta the recipient of its first photography scholarship, and the Freedom Forum, the group that operates the Newseum, announced Retta as a winner of its Al Neuharth Free Spirit Scholarship. Each is good for $1,000 toward tuition or books at whatever school he attends. That’s a start.
And as his senior year winds down, Retta has decided it’s time to try to pay back Butler and Roosevelt for everything he’s gotten out of his school days. He thinks the best way to do that would be to find another student willing to devote a similar amount of energy and time to photography and to Butler’s journalism program. He admits that the field doesn’t have a lot of oomph among the cool kids at school, but Retta remains confident he’ll be able to persuade somebody to take his place, even if he has to use his secret weapon.
“I’m looking for the next me,” he says. “Students here ask me why I’m always taking pictures. I say, ‘Because I like it, because it’s fun.’ They say, ‘How can taking pictures be fun? It can’t be fun!’ But then I flash my press pass, and that changes it. People respect you for your press pass!”
Well, kid, you’ve got at least one thing to learn.