BY KERRY EDELSTEIN
“Can you imagine….?” Jimmy Valdez asked the overcrowded classroom of high school students and mentors. The students and volunteers of Venice High’s POPS the Club sat still, waiting. “Imagine what?” the room wondered.
Jimmy, the day’s guest speaker, furrowed his brow. “Who here can imagine?” he reiterated.
The room erupted in nervous laughter, as we each realized there was no caveat to the word “imagine.” He wasn’t asking if we could imagine something specific, he was asking if we could manifest the act of imagination.
Imagination had saved Jimmy. A 29 year-old actor and creative director for Los Mayores, his teen years were focused on gang life and a subsequent prison sentence. He was the exact manifestation of the school to prison pipeline that permeates media stories today. It was during his time in prison that he began to imagine what his future life could be. A filmmaker. An actor. A t-shirt designer.
He imagined it, and then he found a volunteer prison mentor who helped him manifest it. All of it. He hasn’t looked back.
As I listened to Jimmy talk about his journey, it occurred to me that prison had been more successful than school in motivating, preparing, and cultivating him for a adulthood. It was in prison, not school, where he began to imagine and realize a life path that didn’t involve crime. I wondered to myself, “How did school go that wrong, that prison was a better path to success?”
Like Jimmy, I began to imagine. Or rather, re-imagine, the possibilities of what school could look like. Especially for an energetic, entrepreneurial mind like Jimmy’s.
I imagined, for example, that school could look a whole lot more like summer camp, with crystal lakes, rustic cabins, archery ranges, star gazing in open fields, and campfires with counselors strumming their guitars.
Despite the fact that I personally quite enjoyed the traditional public school path, camp remains the only place in my life where I woke up and was excited to get up. At 7:00a. To the blaring bugle horns of Reveille. Even as a teenager. I’d bolt out of bed thinking, “What am I going to get to do today?!”
Imagine if every kid and teenager woke up that excited for school. Not some days, not just on assembly days or field trip days. Every day. Imagine that kids learned physics from sailing, mathematical trajectories through tennis and archery, marine biology through snorkeling. Imagine that kids from high-crime neighborhoods or abusive families could go to sleepaway school, and not only if they were rich. And they’d not only learn, but have fun.
Imagine, then, that each kid became an adult who woke up excited to get out of bed and go to work. Excited for what he or she got to contribute and learn, every day.
There’s no doubt that in education, business, or research fields (or in my case, all three) it can be easy – instinctive even – to focus on what we cannot do, instead of imagining what we could do. It’s a dangerous trajectory of rejecting possibility and accepting the status quo, even when we know the status quo isn’t working.
So like Jimmy, I can and I will imagine. I imagine that, one day, an option as far-fetched-sounding as “sleepaway camp school” will be taken seriously as an educational alternative. Especially when the alternative is sleepaway prison.