The Louisiana Weekly
By Michael Patrick Welch
Some writers toil their entire lives without ever seeing their work appreciated, or even published. A few rare, fortunate writers have their writing published before they even know they are writers. This past May saw the publication of the book History Between These Folds, written by the 11th-graders of George Washington Carver High School.
Last winter, Big Class, the organization behind the popular “Pizza Poetry” project, put out a call for high school teachers willing to help students write and publish a book that would document their school, their city and their young lives — not unlike the famous Neighborhood Story Project series of books written by kids, New Orleans Black Indians and other important community figures.
Though he is not an English teacher but a history teacher, Eric Parrie nonetheless accepted Big Class’ literary challenge on behalf of his students.
“I was working to help them see the similarities between the history we’d been learning and the writing we’re doing for the book,” says Parrie. “I tried to help them understand that their moment of U.S. history is right now. I saw this project as a way to connect the normal work we were doing in history with events from their own pasts, to show them the importance of what we remember, and how we remember it.”
Parrie also thought this particular challenge would be a great way to teach his students the history of the land on which they live, so that they could in turn teach that history to others through their writing.
“At the beginning of the year I talked to them a lot about the history of our school, Carver,” says Parrie. “We’re across the street from a landfill, which to me is very symbolic; Carver’s creative contribution to this area was teaching farmers how to use depleted soil. We too are on a site of exhausted soil, and the students are giving it life with this book. I see this project fitting into that legacy of Carver.”
After a winter spent brainstorming, producing feedback and conferencing one-on-one with the students, Parrie brought in author Kiese Laymon, who workshopped with the kids and helped give the book shape, in the form of seven categories: Parade and Funeral (Stories of New Orleans), David and Goliath (Stories of Overcoming Obstacles), Sanity and Insanity (Stories of Tragedy), My Blood and My Enemies (Stories of Family), Gone and Here (Stories of Rebirth), Yesterday’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow’s Yesterday (Stories of History), Yin and Yang (Stories of Identity).
Parrie says Laymon provided much more than just structure. “There’s electricity crackling across the classroom when he’s there,” says Parrie. “He loves teenagers and working with them.” In that way, Laymon’s presence was important in motivating a class that had signed up for a history course, not a writing course. “His presence indicated to them that they were working on something big and meaningful,” Parrie says. “Initially, I found some of the students hesitant to write, they had some trepidations at first. But over time, the project really transformed the students’ idea of what was possible in their classroom. Expressing what was important to them, for some kids, it really helped them forge a new identity as a writer.”
Paris Johnson, a Carver junior whose letter to New Orleans opens the book, agrees. “Growing up I always made poetry and I wrote many pieces,” says Johnson. “I even went to some open-mic nights with Mr. Parrie before I wrote and we did this book. But this book project really helped ignite was what already in me.” And what was in Paris Johnson was profound, as evidenced by her rumination on City Park:
Many of those trees the families sit under were trees where slaves/ were hung for “being bad,” but boy oh boy you gotta love New Orleans/ with all the parades, food, and memories left behind./ I love and hate New Orleans at the same time. Many different/ things turn me off about New Orleans, but the major one is police/ brutality. New Orleans is paying $13.3 million to deal with different/ cases of police brutality, which is sad because we trust these men in/ blue uniforms to protect us. But hey! Gotta love New Orleans.
“I was originally writing a letter to New Orleans to put out how I feel about everything that is going on… then it hit me that I wanted to tell the story of my sister,” says Johnson, who wrote of her deceased sister, “Since you’re gone I want to let you know that I know it was painful, living with people who accepted nothing about you or anything you. Did you ever try to talk to them?”
Johnson also learned some technical trade tips, while serving on the book’s editorial board. “The board was there to make sure that the stories were up to date and ready to be put in a book,” says Johnson. “That’s after I read and categorized all of the stories.”
Johnson says this one experience publishing a book has encompassed many experiences. “I feel like this project could get me very far just by me having the experience of writing a book and seeing how it’s all put together,” says Johnson. “I now feel like I can do any job dealing with writing. If I want to write another book I could — I mean, I know it will take a lot longer because I’d be doing it by myself. But still I know I could do it.”
Most valuable of all, however, may be the feeling the project has given the students, including young Paris Johnson. “Being so young and having a book with my name in it,” she says, “is really awesome.”
This article originally published in the June 5, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.