A few years ago, I read Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace. It’s a work about what makes some kids reared in desperate situations “resilient” while others in the same circumstances collapse. Even today, I find myself frequently using many of his insights when I try to make sense of what might be happening with our young people.
So it was that after spending some time with Nan Elsasser—the founder and inspirational leader of “ Working Classroom,” Albuquerque’s unique program for nurturing the sometimes-hidden talents of many of this community’s young artists, actors, poets and musicians—I couldn’t get one of Kozol’s observations out of my mind.
Invariably, he says, when a child seems to “suddenly” be blessed with “amazing grace” and becomes the rare success story emerging from a neighborhood of lost opportunity and hopelessness, you will find that child has at least two supportive, caring and understanding adults in his or her life.
Usually one is a parent (or parental figure like a grandmother or older brother) who blends love with high expectations and standards. But even kids with a wonderful parent need something more—another adult, teacher, counselor, Boys Club Coach, volunteer tutor or mentor, pastor or youth minister ... one not related to the child by blood who nevertheless spends some quality time with him.
For hundreds of resilient Albuquerque young people who’ve passed through Working Classroom’s programs over the years, that’s where they’ve encountered some caring adult who isn’t family but who nevertheless comes to believe in the young person, giving him a fighting chance to blossom.
It has blended activism for social justice with theatrical excellence.
Despite its name, Working Classroom isn’t a school. It’s one of those out-of-school programs that produce so much of the most important “learning” school-age youth acquire.
All over this community, there are volunteers in similar programs coaching sports; tutoring academics; teaching topics simply not offered inside typical classrooms: automotive mechanics, slam poetry, ballet, chess, robotics. In the case of Working Classroom, actors, directors, writers and artists are willing to take the time to channel raw talent into disciplined performance.
However, three things have for 20 years set Working Classroom apart from other positive youth development initiatives that helped create Albuquerque’s next generation of leaders. It gives special focus to reaching minority kids. It has from the start blended activism for social justice with theatrical excellence. And it has helped its participants pursue opportunity beyond Albuquerque.
Scholarships to colleges, conservatories, residency programs; performance tours to other cities, states, countries; access to careers and professional employment—all are examples of how those young people who commit to the requirements of Working Classroom will find that the rewards can be commensurate with the efforts expended.
This is a milestone anniversary for the program. Twenty years of survival is an accomplishment few youth programs anywhere can point to. Beyond that, this is the year the organization will buy its own offices and workshop/performance space in Barelas.
After years of leasing space on Gold, Elsasser and her board earlier this year took occupancy of the former La Mexicana Tortilla Factory on Atlantic, just west of Fourth Street. The building is undergoing renovations. Its history is a mottled one: Prior to becoming a tortilleria, it was a VFW Post—and even earlier it was an auto dealership (Nash/Hudson) during the glory days of Barelas as the railroad maintenance hub of the Santa Fe line.
Elsasser is not a school teacher. She was a writer, a professor, a linguist. But when she took a very temporary position as writer-in-residence at Washington Middle School in 1987, she stepped straight into a role in life that refuses to let her go. The school was not known as a cradle for writers, poets and actors; in fact, La Washa suffered under the cloud of a reputation for low performance.
Its student body was composed heavily of immigrant kids, many from families without “papers.” English was a second language for many, and even for those who spoke it at home, reading wasn’t their leisure activity of choice. But in this unpromising environment, some amazing stuff began to take root.
Elsasser called upon her wide circle of literary acquaintances to serve as mentors for those students who wanted to work on “projects” ... such as composing books for students in Bluefields, Nicaragua (the Albuquerque Tribune helped print thousands of copies and shipped them south).
They traveled to El Salvador and trained a group of young people there in street theater techniques, and they have maintained contact with them and exchanged visits every few years.
Elsasser was only at Washington Middle School for one year, but the people she met there and the kids she introduced to writing helped her form Working Classroom. Now, 20 years later, the organization is living up to its motto: Creating art, changing lives, transforming community.
There are many paths to success in life for young people. For many in our town, their path was routed through Working Classroom. On Aug. 15, the organization will celebrate those 20 years and all those young people whose lives have been affected by offering the world premiere of A Light In My Soul/Una Luz en Mi Alma, a work the Working Classroom youths have written. It will be performed at the National Hispanic Cultural Center at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $20.
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