Stephen, Photographer, Journalist, CA
Stephen is a documentary photographer based out of Oakland, Calif. He has a background as a journalist, and has worked, with, around and for youth throughout most of his career. He is a Catalyst for RE-ENVISIONED and was interviewed by his Mentor Catalyst and friend, Erin.
We start by asking you to think for a moment about a child that you care about - So I’m just going to give you a little bit of time to reflect, and then you can tell me about them when you’re ready.
I may have told you about him before, but Kavi is 10 years old and I met him when he had just turned 3 years old. The minute I met him, I knew that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum, and that’s come to be something that his mother has accepted and he’s been diagnosed with it. He is incredibly bright, incredibly perceptive and he has always had issues with sensory overload: light or sounds will set him off. Too much light, too much sound, too many people talking at once… and that has made his education challenging.
From the time his mother was considering sending him to preschool and then considering sending him to kindergarten and then he started in first grade and second grade and third grade - we’ve known that he was going to face certain challenges in the school environment because he’s not good with a lot of stimulation, and he’s not good at sitting still, and he’s not good around a lot of other kids. He doesn’t play well with others, essentially. He has a very strong will. He’s right about most things, he’s really smart, and he doesn’t put up with kids his own age who don’t know as much as he does.
That, coupled with his inability to sit still, and his inability to deal with noise and light stimulation has made it so that he hasn’t so far been able to go to school. He had about a year and a half of going to schools and it didn’t work well. On many occasions he just ran out of the room; he ran out of the school and took off. That happened enough times that eventually the school asked his mom to have him not come back. It wasn’t a good environment for him. His inclination was to just sit down in the middle of what was going on and just start doing whatever he wanted to do, and what was going on might have been the teacher talking or kids doing things as a group and he would just go off and do his own thing. Often times he would just sit in the doorway and just do his own thing, and people would have to walk around him and step around him and he was oblivious to them.
He’s someone that I care about very deeply, I have a really strong connection with him, and I see him being a challenge to the educational system – and, in some ways, it failing him. He’s being home schooled now. That’s Kavi.
So, when you think of Kavi when he’s grown up. Maybe he’s in his 30’s, out of school, living his life - what do you want for him? What’s a good life?
I think the main thing I want for him is for him to find peace. He has a hard time with peace. It doesn’t take much to set him off and he gets very angry. I have been on the receiving end of that anger on many occasions because I lived with him for a year, and before that I spent a lot of time with him. I want him to find peace and I want him to find a place in this world where his talents, which are many, fit in, and his challenges, which are also many, don’t get in the way of him doing what he wants to do.
When I think about how I could see that happening, which isn’t the question you asked, so maybe I shouldn’t answer it, but he and his mom live on a farm now and he milks goats and he works outside and he’s a very outdoorsy kid, and I kind of see him that way. I see him growing up as a nature guide or something like that, but I can’t see him fitting into any kind of more traditional urban business environment, and I don’t think that he would want that.
I really want him to find what he wants and to be at peace with it and I think that he can do it! I really do. I think he can find ways where he doesn’t instantly go to that place, I think it’s a long road to home before he gets there, but I think he will get there.
So, it’s interesting because some of these questions now deal with school. My next question is - in an ideal world, what is the role you think that schools should play in getting him to the kind of life that you want him to live?
The role that I think schools should play...I think that Kavi, as different as he is… I think all kids are different. We tend to see them as, you know 90% all the same and then there are these outliers. I just don’t think that’s the case, I think most kids are malleable enough and adaptable enough that they fit into that 90% really quickly, but I don’t think it has to be that way.
I think schools’ role should be to help kids learn, in as broad a sense as possible, who they are, how to think, who they want to be. Learn about what exists out there in the world, and how they can fit into it or not fit into it, and I think that schools should be able to do that for someone like him.
I’ve never been a teacher - I don’t know how hard or how easy it is but I don’t have to be realistic right now because you said ideally should, so I think schools should be able to take a kid like him and find a way to show him all the things that they are showing everybody else, show him that he’s not all that different, and help him find ways to deal with the challenges that he’s facing in the school environment so that he can learn that he can overcome challenges. So that he can learn, like, “okay I have a hard time with the sounds and with all the kids talking but I’ve learned that if I raise my hand and go into the corner, or if I raise my hand and...do whatever it is I do, then I can deal with it”.
Then he not only learns what the other kids are learning, but he learns that he has control over his life, and he learns how to cope with things, with different situations. That gives him tools to go to a new situation and apply those same tools and say, “okay, this is a little bit different, but I’m going to raise my hand, maybe metaphorically, maybe literally, and make a space for myself”.
I think maybe that’s it. I think more than anything else, schools should help children find their space. And I think that’s what will get him where he wants to be, or where I want him to be. Someone who finds a place in the world, because if you can’t find your place in a classroom full of 30 kids, you’re unlikely to be able to find your place in the world. I think it’s harder. But if you feel different, and you feel like things are difficult and you’re able to find your place in this classroom, and you see everybody else being different and finding their place as well, then I think you learn that you can fit in - that it doesn’t matter how different you are, you’re a part of the world and you’re a legitimate part of it the way you are, just like anybody else. And then I think that’s what gives you peace.
And, the main thing is schools should not make him feel like there’s something wrong with him. And I think that’s what happened for him. He’s terrified of schools now, because they made him feel like he was broken.
That’s beautiful. I like that idea of finding a space.
Yeah I do too. That’s kind of what we all want in our lives, really. Just to find our own space. And I think we learn a lot of that stuff in school. I know there’s a lot of stuff I learned in school where I still operate under the auspices of that ideology.
Like what kinds of things?
Do I have to tell you? So, kindergarten, I had this teacher - Ms. Turner - who I had an enormous crush on, and she was really sweet to me. I think that affected me. It’s like you feel this way about somebody and they feel this way back and that that’s the way the world is supposed to be, and that’s okay. Because I don’t think I ever had a crush on anybody until Ms. Turner, and she was crushworthy. She seemed nice. So that’s one of the things.
And then some of them were that I always felt like an outsider at school. All the kids made me feel like I was different. Teachers made me feel like I was different. Not in bad ways, necessarily, but I was still singled out and I think that contributed to my feeling that I don’t fit into a lot of things as an adult. But, again, not in a bad way. No one ever made me feel overtly bad, like “oh you’re weird”. I was just smarter than the other kids in ways that they couldn’t get and they thought it was cool, but I felt disconnected from them because of it. I think I still have that disconnection from people, and I think it stems from that.
It’s interesting. When you think about Kavi, this is the first instance in one of these interviews where it has been true when you said he’s not in school, and it kind of already begs the answer to this question which is - do you think schools will do what you think they should for Kavi, and then whether you think they will do that for all children. And if not, why not.
Do you have something to add about how schools work for Kavi or what you think they were doing or not doing for him and then could you speak a bit to the broader picture?
I think that there was nothing about the structure of those classrooms, or the structure of those schools that would have prohibited them from providing Kavi with the same type of educational experience that everybody else was getting. I think it was more the philosophy they had about kids adapting to their ideas of what a classroom was, rather than their adapting to kids needs. That was the stumbling block to Kavi being able to have the same experience that other kids did.
So I think school could do that, and I think those classrooms could have provided that. Whether it was something that was endemic to that school district or to that classroom or to that teacher or whatever it was, I don’t know. I wasn’t that intimately connected with it. I don’t think there’s any reason that it has to be that way. I think the overwhelming majority of kids can go to class. So the broader question of… what was the broader question?
Whether the schools will do what you think they should for all children.
Whether they will or not? Monkeys in a cage. You know the monkeys in a cage story, right?
So there’s this, certainly apocryphal, story about a zoo keeper who has 4 chimpanzees in a cage, and he hangs a big bunch of bananas from the top of the cage, out of reach of them, and they jump and scream and chirp and whatever monkeys do, and they can’t get it, and then they see these cartons over in the corner and they start pulling them over to stack them up. And as soon as they start pulling over these cartons to stack them up, the zookeeper who’d been standing there with a high pressure hose that has freezing cold water in it sprays the chimpanzees really hard, and they’re terrified and they never do it again.
Then, later the zookeeper takes one of the chimpanzees out and puts a new chimpanzee in. The chimpanzee’s like “hey guys, what’s going on”, sees the bananas, starts jumping and going “aah I want the bananas.” Then it’s not gonna work jumping and he starts stacking up the cartons. The other chimpanzees know what’s gonna happen, so they jump on this chimpanzee and beat him up, and he’s like “oh I’m never doing that again”, so he doesn’t go after the bananas anymore because he knows he’s gonna get beat up. And then the zookeeper takes another chimpanzee out and puts another new one in and she sees the bananas up there and is like “oh, I gotta get those bananas”, goes through the same thing, and then when she starts stacking up the cartons all 3 of the other chimpanzees go “I’m not gonna let you do that” and they jump on her and beat her up.
Then the zookeeper takes another chimpanzee, and then eventually none of the original chimpanzees are there. It’s all new chimpanzees, and when he puts a new one there, they’ve never been sprayed with a hose, and when that new one goes and starts stacking up boxes all the other ones jump on her and start beating her up and the reason they do it is because that’s the way it’s always been done.
I think a lot of what goes on in any institution stems from that chimpanzees in the zoo. People do things a certain way because that’s the way it’s always been done. It is admittedly not easy to say “wait a minute, what if we do it differently?”. I think it takes a lot of will and a lot of strength of character to stand up and say “I’m gonna run my classroom differently”, but I think there are a lot of teachers who do it and do it brilliantly. But for the most part, like most people in most professions, most people don’t have that strength of will to do that. So no, I don’t think they will the way things are currently structures because it involves an effort of will to do something that is different.
And that you might potentially get punished for.
Yeah. The chimpanzees will beat you up.
Yeah, if the zookeeper doesn’t get to you first.
Yeah, exactly, and in most institutions you will be punished. “Oh you can’t come in late and stay late so we’re going to dock your pay” or “you didn’t publish in the right journal so we’re not going to give you tenure” or “you didn’t”...whatever it is. Every profession, every industry has those things built into it. Not deliberately and with malice and with design. It’s design without design, and that’s the hardest kind to break. It’s those things that no one has put into place but everybody adheres to that are the most difficult things to fight against.
Was that the right answer?
There’s no right answer.
Do you think people generally agree with you on what a good life is?
Most people? No.
No, why? How do you imagine they might think different?
I think in our culture, a good life is one where you do well, where you have a good job and a good retirement and you have a nice house, and you have a nice car - this American dream. This concept of more and more and more and look out for yourself and do the best for you and your family. And again, that’s perfectly fine, but I think a lot of people go through that and they miss out on actually being happy and doing what they want. So on a very surface level I would say no, I think most people don’t view what a good life is the same way that I do.
But I think that if we deconstructed it, and looked at it differently, I think those people would say “well what do you want for your kids?” “well I want my kids to be happy and to do well” - and they are just often constrained by the thinking of the time and place in which they were raised and in which they were socialized. For them being happy and doing well is a good job and a good car and a nice neighborhood and kids who go to college.
But I think if they stopped and thought about it and they really saw some alternatives, they would stop and say “yeah, I do want my kids just to be happy, even if it means being a theater major and working with puppets for the rest of their life”. So I think if we deconstructed it for everybody then maybe they would but on the surface I don’t think most people agree with me.
Do you think people diagnose the problem of schools the same? The “if not, why not” question.
Good question, I don’t know. I think people tend to use schools as a scapegoat. Teachers in particular. It’s easy to look at society and say, “oh, who educated these kids? How come these kids don’t know anything. Johnny can’t write. Shanequa can’t read.” Whatever it is. It’s easy to blame schools. And it’s easy to blame lazy teachers, and it’s easy to blame bad administration and bloated budgets that aren’t doing what they should be doing.
I think that’s what people diagnose schools as: as institutions that have failed. I’m not necessarily saying that they haven’t failed but I think that’s sort of a facile way to look at it.
I think that to a great extent schools are an extension of the society in which they evolve. They reflect the values of our society so it would be really shocking if our society had the values that it clearly has based on all the reality television shows out there, and yet our kids are raised to just think for themselves, to care about others, and to just do what makes them happy. I think that would be the greatest disconnect in the history of the world. Doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. I do think it could happen, but I don’t think that’s where we are.
That’s a good thought. I like those three. Think for yourself, care for others, and do what makes you happy. It’s a nice trifecta.
Ever since I was a little kid I’ve always thought that’s what was important to do. I don’t know where I got it, but it came from somewhere. But I remember being in the second grade and thinking “this is what’s important”. I didn’t get it from my parents. Not directly. Not through some maxim, like my father sitting me down and saying, “look son, this is what you need to do.” There are very few things he did that with. Very few, and that wasn’t one of them. And there were not people who were like “take care of others first”. That’s not what my family was. They weren’t bad people. My father was a great man. But he’s not that. He’s not that guy.
I think that happened in school. We don’t always know where these things come from, and some kid right now who was in school earlier today and she heard her teacher say something and it’s going to stick in her head consciously or unconsciously and it’s going to determine the course of her life. And we don’t know what it is, and it happens a million times a day I think. Maybe not a million. A hundred thousand. Fifty thousand times a day. That’s a good number. J
When you think back on your life so far and different kinds of learning experiences that you had - what is one that you found to be empowering. And it could be in school or out of school.
That’s an interesting question. A learning experience that I found to be empowering? Oh I know! So growing up I had a gift for mathematics. I was a precocious child in terms of mathematics and was doing college level stuff in first and second grade, and that was who I was. It was clear to everybody that I could do things in second grade that my teachers couldn’t do. I never doubted that’s who I was. That’s who I was in elementary school and middle school, and in high school. I started going to Berkeley when I was in high school to study mathematics and I would take these big national math contests and do very well. Then, I got into college and I went to Berkeley, and I … well, just before that I realized I can’t write. I mean, I could write fine but I wasn’t good at it. And then I got into college and I started taking some classes and I had this TA - Joanna from Romania, and she taught me English 1A at Cal, which is like a remedial composition class and I really worked at it. I took that and I took one or two other writing classes.
Then, I transferred up to Davis and I had to take the qualifying exam one more time for some reason so I wouldn’t have to take the class over again, and I took the exam and I got a little postcard back in the mail from the woman who graded it. You normally just get a note back that says you passed it or whatever. She wrote this note on it saying I just want to tell you that this essay is so incredibly strong that we’ll use it as a model for the other essays that this a high 5 but also that most other high 5s wouldn’t be as good as this.
And so the whole process of learning to write was really empowering for me, and I never realized that I could write. I ended up being a journalist because of it. And it was one particular T.A. at Berkeley who took an interest in my writing and was really brutally honest with me. I would sometimes come to class and I had written my essay right before class, and she’d write back and say “Boy this looks like a rush job. You’re way better than this. I’m not going to read it. Do it again.” She was really critical of me, and it made a difference. I don’t know why. I kind of had a crush on her so that might have been why. I’m generally motivated by that most often. She was no Miss Turner. Don’t get me wrong.
I don’t think you can ever go back to your five year old crush.
Who was a teacher who really had an impact on you and why?
Yeah, ok. Mrs. Gill. When I started 5th grade they moved me to a new school because they wanted me to be in this special class. It was a special 5th grade class and there were 25 students and we were separate from the rest of the school, and we did all these smarty pants things. Some of us went to the high school to take computer programing, and Mrs. Gill was our teacher. She was kind of cool. She was probably in her early 50’s I’m guessing. She was a big football fan and she loved the Oakland Raiders and she was just different from most of our teachers.
And like I said, all of the other teachers I’d had always treated me differently because I could do things they couldn’t do, and they loved that but they were also … I don’t know some of them seemed like, afraid of me or something. But Mrs. Gill just - in a way she did the same thing, like when we were having math lessons if she needed something done she would just have me do it in my head like, “okay Stephen what’s the answer to this problem” and I would tell her so she wouldn’t have to do it out on the board and figure it out and she would have me check her math on the board. I could still do things that everybody else in class couldn’t do but she didn’t treat me any differently other than that.
I never thought about that before. There were lots of smart kids in that class, and I didn’t necessarily feel more connected to them that I did with the other kids that I’d been with because I still felt different, but for the first time I felt connected to a group of people because of the way she treated me, I think. In a way that I don’t think I have since then, interestingly.
Can you pinpoint any of the things that she was doing?
Hmm, how did she do that? I think part of is was in other classes I’d been in because I was so different I got away with things and I didn’t in this class. In some ways I think she was harder on me than she was on some of the other kids. Like my other teachers - because I knew so much, because I was so good at everything else - I was bored, and that’s not a normal situation, you know kids get bored and she didn’t let me get away with that. She would have me do more stuff.
She would have me do more than the other kids. Whenever we had Easter break she’d say “okay you have to do this. You have to come back and you have to have done 50 pages in this and you have to have done an experiment with this” and I didn’t get away with not doing as much work as everybody else. Before that, and honestly, ever since that point up through middle school, high school, college and graduate school I barely paid attention. I didn’t have to study things. I didn’t have to work as hard as everybody else, but in that class I did - for those two years. I’d look her up but I’m sure she’s long dead. I could try. She’d be in her 90’s now.
My grandmother’s in her 90s!
Is she? Maybe it’s your grandmother. I wonder what she’s doing. If she were alive she’d be in her mid to late 90’s.
You could find out! It’s possible.
That’d be a hard one to search for. All I know is Mrs. Gill. I don’t even know her first name. I know the school, I know the year.
You could just call the school.
I could. Yeah. Good idea. Maybe I will.
Is there anything you feel I didn’t ask about and maybe I should have, or some ideas that you didn’t get a chance to express as we were talking?
I mentioned this briefly. I think a big thing schools should teach us to think, and I think there are few people that really know how to think. It is crucial to the functioning of a lot of things in our world. It’s crucial in ending all of the hatred and discrimination and small mindedness. It’s crucial to a functioning democracy. It’s crucial to making good decisions about big issues, and we don’t. We don’t think critically. We listen to people like Donald Trump and just take it in. Or we watch reality shows and think that they really are reality. To say it’s disturbing doesn’t quite cut it. It’s terrifying to me. It’s utterly terrifying.
I think schools, if they did nothing other than to teach us to think critically, would be the best institution we have in this country. The other stuff - the knowledge, the data, the what happened when and “how do you spell this word?” - is secondary.
Not trivial, but not as important as being able to think critically. That’s my biggest thing about schools. Because I think they are, because of the way they’re positioned, the bottleneck to our society. They are the silver bullet. You fix them, and everything else falls in line.
If you stop to think about it, there is no other animal on this planet that has the ability to do what we can do. When you compare human beings to other animals physically we are really pathetic. We don’t run that fast. We don’t jump that far. We’re not that strong. The only thing we have over other animals is our ability to think, and yet to a great extent a lot of what happens in our society lionizes athletic accomplishment, and I think that we’re missing the boat on that.
Being able to think, to be aware, to ask questions, to say “why”, is something that we’ve been able to do for a few millennia - ten, fifteen, twenty millennia - that you would think that there would be nothing more important than that. I don’t think there should be, honestly. Long-distance running. Humans are good at that. We can beat all but two or three animals in long distance running. Maybe not you. But other than that there is nothing physically that we do that most animals can’t do a whole lot better. It’s our mind, that ability to ask that question “why”. And we don’t ask “why” enough. Politicians say things, authority leaders say things, business leaders say things, movie stars say “vaccines cause autism”, and we just lap it up like it’s manna from heaven. It’s disturbing. We need people who can think.