The Slightly Sentimental Diary of a Rookie Media Teacher and His Trial-by-Fire Training

Countdown to Day 1: A Full Circle

I just got a job at the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC), a San Francisco nonprofit that works with the local independent film community to teach all things related to video. They asked me to teach the YouthLink program, a 13-week beginning course on video production for underserved youth. I said yes a thousand times.
My love affair with film started when I was a dweeby teenager taking my high school’s yearbook production class. Back then, I spent hours and hours (and hours) of VHS tape recording the little, inane thoughts of my friends and myself.
So here I am, over 15 years after I made my first film in high school, about to teach a bunch of high school students the merits of expressing oneself through video. My life has come full circle.
But I’m still a dweeb.

Day 1: It’s All Coming Back

It’s been 14 years since my last teenage thought. I was a bit worried about this. Would I, a white man in the prime of his old age, at 33, be able to understand my culturally hipper, more diverse students?
But today, when I met my class of 10, it all came back to me: adolescence. The passion, the opinions, the emotional roller coasters, the crisis-inducing bad haircuts. My students are engaged in the larger-than-life struggle of taking ownership of their lives, starting with their minds.
Now, suddenly, I realize how liberating it might be for them to produce a film project about the way they see things. By helping them articulate their ideas, filmmaking might also help them figure themselves out, just like it helped me discover myself as a teen.

Week 2: So Far, So Good

To break the ice while getting my students using cameras, I had them use images, sound, and video to tell me what it is like to be a teenager today. Now I finally understand why teens wear their pants down around their knees, and that “bling bling” means “CA-ching! CA-ching!” (In other words, a display of wealth.)
I, in turn, told them about the importance of ripping holes into shirts and jeans when I was younger. (Does anyone else proudly remember the birth of punk in the 1970s?)
After that, we discussed my students’ first video pieces. I encouraged them to concentrate on what they want to say about their lives, to follow their passions.
I’m particularly interested in what Maria, an intense, poltical, and angst-driven teen, intends to do with her first piece. She wants to educate the public about the living conditions of illegal immigrants.
My worries about connecting with my students now seem totally baseless. By asking them to tell me what it’s like to be a teenager today, I think I’ve let them know I’m receptive to what they have to teach me, just as I expect them to be receptive to what I teach them.
So far, so good.

Week 3: Hair Loss and Leaps of Faith

I hope I don’t go bald from scratching my head so much. Many of my students’ projects seem, on the surface, brilliant. But concern about how they plan to approach them has me worrying about losing hair in clumps.
Maria, passionately inflamed about her project, expects to change the entire world with her first five-minute film. I’m encouraging her to pace herself, reminding her she has at least another 50 years to reach that ambition. That’s when she reminds me of that old, wise teenage philosophy: “I’m not planning on living past 30.”
Well, gee.
Eventually Maria agreed that because she doesn’t have the resources to explore living conditions for all illegal immigrants in the U.S., we should find ways to tell the story in San Francisco. That’s when she taught me something that, I am embarrassed to say, I simply did not know.
I used to live near Cesar Chavez street, a major throughway in the city with a corner near the freeway. A group of immigrant men stand and sit on that corner all day. When I lived there, I’d see them. Sometimes they’d be drinking or smoking. I never knew why they were there and, shamefully, never gave it much thought.
Maria explained that they are looking for work. They flag down U-Haul trucks so they can make a few bucks helping people move. That’s when the class and I saw Maria’s angle for her first film. She will do a piece to educate the local public about the gentlemen standing on Cesar Chavez.
Charles, a jokester, had a local angle from the get go. He wants to explore why Bay Area teens street race despite how expensive and dangerous it is. To film it, Charles said, he wants to shoot an actual race.
Well, I wasn’t excited about that. Shooting a bunch of 16-year-old drivers careening down the road at 80 mph sounds a bit, uh, dangerous. Maybe he could just interview peers at school about their racing experiences? I was relieved when Charles agreed.
Jamal’s decision to explore what makes a leader intrigues me, possibly because of my ongoing struggle to emerge as a leader in this class. Jamal intends to title the piece “Our Deepest Fear.” It is rather terrifying to step up and to set an example and to lead. When you lead, you set yourself apart, making yourself vulnerable.
That demands a leap of faith. For me, I took that leap when I began teaching at the Academy. I am hard of hearing, and my biggest fear was whether I would be able to hear my students or interact with them in a positive way. So right away, I took the lead, telling my students that I have hearing loss, what I would do for them to overcome that, and what I needed from them. For me being a leader meant admitting my vulnerability up front.

Week 4: Wise Words and Wisecracks

Riding the bus to a shoot, Dan said he didn’t know what he wanted to do, so he didn’t see any use for college. Jamal agreed. I did what any proper role model would do–I talked about how, when I was their age, I decided to go to community college. “College is the place where people learn about the world around them, and discover what interests them about the world,” I told them, thinking I sounded wise. I explained how I discovered astronomy in college and loved it, and how that was something I would have never realized if I hadn’t gone to school.
Jamal looked at me calmly and said, “It took going to college for you to find out that you loved pastrami?”
I looked at Jamal closer, not sure if I detected a twinkle in his eye.
“You learned you love your meat, huh. You still lovin’ your meat now?” he added.
“A-STRON-O-MY.” I said. We left it at that.

Week 5: Lights, Camera, Action!

Maria decided to interview several kids in class about the gentlemen on Cesar Chavez Street. Camera wielded like a weapon, she asked Charles, “What do you think of illegal immigrants?” Charles stammered and sputtered to answer such a loaded question.
We all talked about being kind to the subjects in front of the camera, as they are doing the filmmaker a favor. Gamely, I went to the guillotine next. When she asked about the men on the corner, I said, “Well, until you had told me why they were there, I was wondering why they were there, drinking and smoking and looking like they were partying. It’s an odd place to have a party.”
I didn’t realize I’d live to regret that.

Week 6: Charles’s Film Confiscated by the S.F.P.D.?!

Wild-eyed, crazed teenagers! Everywhere!
Charles returned from his weekend shoot, telling tales of police chases and how he was arrested.
WHAT!?!
I sit down with him and he explains in one long breath how he went to shoot a race at 1 a.m. on Saturday, and there was a crash, and the police came, and everyone ran and he had a camera so he couldn’t run, and the police caught him, and arrested him, and he left the camera rolling, all while being arrested. Whew!
After he took a breath, we went over it again. Turns out he wasn’t arrested, he was questioned. The police confiscated the footage he had shot at the race and use it as evidence.
My supervisors and I discussed whether we might be in trouble, legally, since Charles is our student … MY student. We decided that we had done the right thing by encouraging him NOT to film the race, and it is not within our power to control what he does at 1 a.m.
Still, the fact remains, he did do it, and I have a lot of mixed feelings. As a teacher, I wanted to scold him. As a mentor, I wanted to both smack and hug him for being so courageous and curious. Privately, as a filmmaker, I thought it was gold.

Week 7: Maria Edits Me into a Pig

Maria did an excellent job interviewing the men of Cesar Chavez Street. Listening to them explain how employers had taken advantage of them, I became enraged myself.
Then she showed me what she did to me.
There I was, on film, saying, “I always saw these people just standing around and drinking and partying all the time…” I sounded like an intolerant lunatic—all due to the fine editing I’d helped teach her. I was both pleased she’d discovered the secret of editing and manipulation and disturbed she’d used it on me. She and I are going to have to have a serious discussion.
Turns out that cameras with teens behind them are dangerous weapons. I want to put a sign on my classroom door reading: “WARNING! Media Education of Teens in Progress!”

Week 9: Winnie the Pen Saves My Day

I don’t know whether to love or hate this job. When I nudged Dan to take notes on my feedback about his piece, he feigned a surprised “Oh!” and scribbled in his pad. After the class ended, I saw Dan had “accidentally” left his notes behind. So I took a peak. All he had written was:
“He’s making me write this.”
“Why is he making me write this?”
“I really don’t like writing.”
Then there are moments when I am just awed by my kids. Like how the super-prepared student, Winnie, has become the person everyone else goes to when they’ve forgotten a pen, and so one day it suddenly occurred to me: “Winnie, can I call you Winnie the Pen?”
Half the class snickered, the other half rolled their eyes. Maria laughed hysterically at my idiocy, and Winnie bashfully growled: “No!”
We all laughed.

Week 10: The Ex-Boyfriend Takes the Hit

Maria and I keep struggling over her desire to use me to play the white intolerant pig. I told her as I am her teacher, and since we will be showing these pieces during graduation, in front of a live audience, it probably wasn’t a good idea for the audience to get the impression that I was this horrible member of the human race. Eventually she relented, saying she would interview her ex-boyfriend instead who, she casually says, “Sorta looks like you.” Hmmm.
The next day Maria’s eyes glowed with enthusiasm as I watched footage of her ex-boyfriend. And there he is, on film, reciting the exact same words she had edited from my interview with her. She had him read a script. For her documentary. Not so ethical.
She explained she wanted to portray white people as dumb and ignorant. “Besides,” she said, “I hate my ex-boyfriend.” Needless to say, we talked quite a bit after that about truthfulness and integrity in filmmaking. Eventually we reached our compromise–she could use my voice but not my picture.
Now her video is rather startling to experience. I’m proud of her.

Week 12: Feeling Misty-Eyed

All the students have their projects in the final stages of editing, and I find myself becoming sentimental as we approach the last week of class. I am realizing what a huge responsibility and privilege it has been to be a mentor to my kids these past few months. I feel sad to know my kids will be leaving my lair soon. Hopeful that they will continue to come back on occasion to say hi.
Just today Jamal came by looking for me in my office and sat next to me to chat. I got the feeling he just wanted to be near me and to talk it up. It was a warm, pleasant feeling, kind of like when a bird perches itself on your toe while you nap. (This happened to me exactly once). Then, like now, I felt surprised, delighted, and warmed, unexpectedly blessed and honored.

Week 13: We’ve Come So Far

I can’t stop smiling when I remember the first day of class. A group of uncomfortable, zonky, befuddled kids entered my fold, curious to learn where I was going to take them. I remember how, as I was giving them the tour of BAVC, I called them “kids,” then paused and looked at them. “I’m struggling with what to call y’all,” I admitted. “Do I call you kids, students? What’s good for you?”
“Young adults! We’re not kids!” they said.
For a while I did as they said. But after a couple of months I began calling them “kids” again, even “children,” kind of as a joke, kind of as a term of endearment. They seemed to appreciate it, as though now I had earned that right. And I think I have. I’ve taken my responsibility as their leader seriously. It feels natural now for me to give guidance and encouragement to my students, to be compassionate but firm.

The Last Day: Keeping It Real

Today, one of my kids came up and thanked me after class for being “real.” Next week we will gather one final time to celebrate our accomplishments at a public screening of their work. After that, they are off to summer internships and to the rest of their lives.
Maria’s piece about illegal immigrants will be screening at a UN convention. Charles’s piece about street-racing teens has been picked up by UthTV.com. (He is also expected in court next week to testify about the car crash.)
Dan’s piece, on homework, came out, well, like he didn’t do his homework. His written comment about it was, “Pretty much another teenage piece.” I could sense the snarky disappointment he had in himself for not pursuing something more challenging.
It’s taken a lot of effort for all my students to work through what they wanted to say and how they wanted to say it while learning filmmaking. Through it all, I have seen some amazing turns in some students. Winnie has turned from a soft-spoken girl to a more engaging and outgoing person. Adel has touched me with his tenacity and ability to follow through when the going gets hard.
I’m going to miss them. Their emotional swings, their willingness to share and to listen, their childlike adultness, their inquisitiveness.
At the beginning of this class, I was fearful of whether I could connect with my students and build a culture of openness and acceptance. Those fears vanished, I believe, because of what my student said: I was “real.” On the first day I told them what I needed from them, and what I would do for them. I carried through with my promise. That’s all it took.
Dillon Thomas is an award-winning filmmaker and an instructor of filmmaking arts in the Bay Area. He has taught at the Academy of Arts University, and San Francisco State University, and he currently teaches at Bay Area Video Coalition.

All student names in this article have been changed, except for Winnie’s.


Cameras with teens behind them are dangerous weapons.