Writing the Walls: Berlin Then, One Philadelphia High School Now

The deeper into the school I travel the more I understand that the walls of SLA are both context and text, a place where a capstone project looks like a question stenciled onto a slate-blue wall.
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Monday. The weather is soup. I'm here at the corner of 22nd and Arch, at the Science Leadership Academy, one of Philadelphia's premier magnet schools, to talk to some inquisitive ninth-through-twelfth graders about walls. Barak Obama has visited SLA and its partner, the Franklin Institute. So has Bill Gates. It's been named an Apple Distinguished School, been featured on PBS, been called one of "America's Most Amazing Schools" (Ladies Home Journal, 2010).

But today it's just me, Philly enthusiast and guest author, and the topic is walls -- the Berlin Wall, in particular, which stands as character and catalyst in my new novel, Going Over. I want to talk about Berlin, of course. But I also want to talk about the divisions, obstacles, and burdens of right now. About all those barriers that stand between countries and neighbors, people and their dreams.

I climb a bruised stairwell to the school's second floor where I find myself in a land of unfettered conversation -- students gathered around tables, beside lockers, in one open expanse called a ballroom, and now another ballroom, and now here the students are, their backs against a brightly scripted wall they call the pool.

Down a bit, in a narrow hallway, two students are rolling paint -- one wall umber-esque, the other akin to tomato red. I ask the obvious questions, and the project is explained: This is a capstone project, a young man tells me -- a senior initiative designed to reflect the important things he's learned.

I want to know what things, and he discusses the persuasions and powers of color. He mentions the infinite capacity for human change. He speaks of the library (the walls he is painting eventually lead to the library), where, over the past two years, he has been the school's librarian, a job he stepped up and into when the vacancy remained unfilled. Alexander believes in books, he tells me. He believes they should be organized and read, that they must be appreciated for what they are: Books are not decoration. And then Alexander gets back to the business of dipping and rolling, and I leave him to his project.

The deeper into the school I travel the more I understand that the walls of SLA are both context and text, a place where a capstone project looks like a question stenciled onto a slate-blue wall: "What is an appropriate minimum wage for a single income family of four?" It looks like "Dreaming Awake," a poem by Sasha Sapp, and "Ode to Teenagehood," and a profile of the brain, and a pictorial history of the descent of man, and a very tall man with no legs. Capstone projects at SLA capture the art of the learn. They display the learn for all to see.

If we agree with Merriam-Webster that graffiti is "pictures or words painted or drawn on a wall, building, etc.," if we recognize that graffiti has been with us since ancient times, if we honor the fact that graffiti has been and can be, electrifying, illegal, political, domestic, tendentious, tenacious, if we celebrate the redemptive possibilities of graffiti-inspired initiatives like Philadelphia's own Mural Arts Program -- then we must also stop to read the walls of the seniors at SLA.

They're telling us something about who urban kids are when you set them free.

By the time I reach the classroom where I'm to read, I'm ready to talk. It's just me and the students and members of two local independent presses here -- no teachers. It's me and the girl with the hat reading Animal Farm (her dad said she should try it, isn't Orwell interesting? she says), me and the boy with the lilac hair, me and the kids who have come because they want to come, and not because they've been pressured. I'm not an assignment at SLA today. I'm not teacher vetted, or introduced. I'm here to talk about walls, to kids who choose to listen, and so I begin like this.

"Tell me about walls."

A hand goes up: Walls are prisons. Another hand: There's the rumor of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Another: Israel? Yes, I say. And yes and yes. All of this is true.

And once, I say, there was a wall snuffing out the city of East Berlin. It stood for nearly 30 years. It divided lovers, brothers, sisters, friends; it kept people from their jobs and their traditions. This wall that I am speaking of, this Berlin Wall, came down before the students in this room were even born -- 25 years ago this November. It was big as myth, as powerful as legend, but it was absolutely real. I've written about that wall, I tell the students on this soupy day. I've imagined into being a graffiti artist, who is about your age, who writes about the courageous few who stood tall and broke division's tyranny. The brave who found a way past, under, through.

My character's name is Ada, I say, and then, following some explanatory images, a little Bruce Springsteen in song, I read from Going Over, my novel, Ada's voice: You don't need the self-satisfying interlocks of Wildstyle when you have a story to tell, all those letters so secret and squished that no one but you knows their meaning. You just have to pop your colors, plant your outlines, and hold the can straight up so that the dip tube sinks deep into the butanes and propanes.

There aren't, as I have said, any teachers among us. There isn't any enforcing authority. There's nobody monitoring or doling out grades. But when I look up from my book, the students are looking up at me. They're thinking about their own walls, maybe, and how it feels to paint them free.

Beth Kephart is the author of 18 books, most recently Going Over (Chronicle Books), a 1983 Berlin novel that is a Junior Library Guild selection, a Booklist Top Ten Historical Fiction for Youth, a School Library Pick of the Day, and a top spring book selection at both iBooks and Amazon. For more, visit her web site

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