Saving My Voice

Jun 21st, 2019 | By | Category: BLTN NextGen, Featured, NextGen Vermont, Summer 2019

by Eva Rocheleau

Eva Rocheleau (Williston, VT) will begin her second year at Hampshire College in the fall, where she is studying education. She credits BLTN for changing the trajectory of her life, and she hopes to someday become a “change agent” in education by creating empowering learning spaces for young people.

I distinctly remember the very first sticky-hot September afternoon, when I skipped an afternoon of school to attend my first session with What’s the Story? Vermont Young People Social Action Team. It was three years ago, and I was sleepy and sixteen. I remember the ring of educators who lined the back of the round room and chatted excitedly amongst themselves. I also remember the light enveloping the 20-odd students in the middle of the room, which flowed out of skylights nestled in the tall pointed ceiling of the McCollough Student Center at Middlebury College.

A few meetings after that inaugural one, I stood shakily in front of the group to pitch my documentary idea – the effect of climate change on the declining honey bee population. Long past sunset and way behind schedule, we sat in a darkened room illuminated by the blindingly bright glow of powerpoint presentations, of voices nervously uttering what would later turn into bold convictions. As my peers, before and after me, stood up and made their proclamations, I came to understand that I wasn’t alone in my passion to care for the world around me.

Before What’s the Story? (WtS) I didn’t realize I could speak my truth. I had a tongue, but it got all swollen by AP requirements, SAT books and grammar regimens. I couldn’t remember what I cared about, because it all became stored in preparing for the future. As if the words I was writing, the formulas I was memorizing, and the dates I was reciting were all dues I was paying for the promise of a voice when I got older. The taller people around me with stronger arms or peppery hair said I had to make these investments. They said that I had to make the right choices, to meet the right people, to get into the right colleges, to get the right jobs. My tongue was tied, and I was tired.

Fast forward to now, to 2019. After a grounding, inspiring and invigorating weekend at the Hazhó’ó Hólne’ Writing Conference in Fort Defiance, Arizona on the Navajo Nation Reservation, and four years after joining the Bread Loaf Teacher Network (BLTN) family, I sit in the passenger seat of a huge rental Chevy Suburban with four of my WtS family members as an arid and breathtaking Arizona landscape gallops past my window. Invigorated by a deeply moving weekend, full of poetry, song, laughter and thought, we discuss at length our experiences with NextGen, BLTN, WtS, and education in general, scheming ways to create accessible and fruitful spaces like WtS and their life-altering importance for students like us. Between these four would-be strangers, three of whom are high school students, bounce questions like What is the essential value of youth-driven experiential educational models? or Why aren’t educational opportunities such as this afforded to more students and why? or How do we change the hearts of our community members so we can change their minds? A full bodied calm overtakes me. I am certain that this is the most energizing and important work I’ve ever been a part of. Work that has dramatically altered my reality, my studenthood and my desire to change the world around me.

I tried dreaming up all the ways Bread Loaf School of English changed my life. I came up with a few names: Emily Rinkema, Dixie Goswami, Bill Rich, Tim O’Leary, Rex Lee Jim, Emily Bartels, Ceci Lewis (and more). I came up with a few words: earth-shaking, agency, voice, leader, youth, create, passion, change. I came up with a few things that I learned: critical thinking, public outreach, developing a story, writing from my voice, multimedia presentation. I have no doubt that these are many of the same names, words and phrases that pepper this journal to convince you that we’re doing something special. And, please believe me, we are doing something special. But, for some reason these signifiers don’t match their signs. For some reason, there is a big feeling in my chest that I can’t find in these small words.

Being a part of the Next Generation Leadership Network (BLTN NextGen) and listening to young voices all over the country engage critically with their communities has shown me that those of us involved with What’s the Story? are not special. I have heard the words of Navajo youth with La Casa Roja, claiming identity as resistance to the violence of settler colonialism. I have drank in the poetry which is both inspired by and inspiring brilliant youth in Lawrence, Massachusetts. I’ve witnessed the impact that groups in Aiken, South Carolina and Louisville, Kentucky have had on their home communities. I’ve been shown a world in which youth have been asked to speak, where their voices not only matter to their communities, but are the catalysts to improvement in their communities in nuanced and expansive capacities.

Every student has the potential to have their experience of the world dramatically altered; we just happen to be the lucky ones, connected to revolutionary educators. Every student has the power to be the catalyst for community change and self-empowerment.

When I was asked–allowed–to untie my tongue in What’s the Story?, I began to understand that I was my own creator. I began to peel back my understandings of education and consider deeply what learning was. I worked for two years on multi-media campaigns exploring the experience of gender non-conforming students in Vermont middle in high schools. With that came an endless stream of events that have since changed my life.

Eva Rocheleau’s award-winning film, Breaking Binary produced as part of What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team

After releasing our first documentary, and winning the top prize at a film festival, I was approached nearly once a week for over a year by folks telling me that these stories had changed their thinking and had brought them peace or understanding. While filming for my second documentary, I remember sitting in a mildewy library basement in Vermont, while a weeping mother told her story for my camera. The story of a young transgender child, mistreated and punished by her community. I remember sharing that story with my own community and weeping with them as we squeezed out all the hurt and filled it with stories of resilience. I found out that there is no rubric that exists to heal a hurting community. The responsibilities I took on reached well beyond what was asked of me as a student in a traditional classroom. I realized that I was a part of something much bigger than myself, and that the world is powered by youth that care.

Trans-What? A documentary film by Eva Rocheleau, produced as part of What’s the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team

So, now I know. I know that very first sticky-hot September afternoon changed my whole life. Since then, I have become a part of the WtS instructional team. I am working towards my degree in education and a teaching license. I wish to bring to more youth what was brought to me: an opportunity to use my voice, to know myself, to know my community, to speak with conviction and to find meaning.

Programs such as What’s the Story? and networks such as the BLTN Next Generation Leadership Network hold deep and irreplaceable significance within the communities they touch. The world needs youth leaders. A tidal wave of momentum lies within all the ties of this network, a chain reaction of youth inspiring youth inspiring youth to untie their tongues, and let their voices be heard.

Reaching to begin
A tower stacked with
Insurmountable word problems
Sticky-traps for believe-inners
Sticky-traps for
Push-harders and
Sticky-traps for want-fillers.
No footholds for bodies
No footholds for the caring, filling our skin up
No footholds for children molded like play-dough that look like scholars
Think! And THink! And THINK! And Think! DO SOMETHING !!!!
Yell it louder!!! To the backs of
Textbooks. To the backs of
Second period cramming. To the backs of
Do it for college
Or for your mom
Or for your sister
Keep YELLING to the backs of too-full filled-up containers
Pythagorus hates you.
Columbus hates you.
Your teachers hate you.
That is, unless you yell what is written
Back into paper
Scream it onto pages, folded and delivered like
Light yellow cake – frosted and dripping –
Into the mouths of deciders.
To be spit out for
Poor word choice and
Mis-calculated citation.
Scream onto these pages
But don’t use ‘you’
Or ‘i’
Or any
Signifier that would reveal you were thinking
That you were breathing
That you have blood cells too.

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