Picturing Penn

By Cameron Beach

KIPP Durham is not your average elementary school: the students stay at school until 5PM, are subject to long class hours and strict rules, and are almost all from low-income backgrounds. Fifth grade isn't easy for anyone, but for students at KIPP, there are even more challenges to face and hard work to complete. Luckily, though, Penn isn't your average class the strong bonds between the students of this one, fifth-grade unit gives each member of the community the support they need to work through that last tough math problem, help a classmate with spelling, or maybe just to have the confidence to be themselves. Fifth grade is a lot about fitting in, but that's not what Penn Class is about: each student is a unique story a maybe goofy, maybe challenging, always dedicated story and each story is a piece of the fiber that weaves Penn together. Penn Class challenges each other, teaches each other, laughs with each other but most importantly, they care for each other. And that's what makes this kin of individuals so special.

When I first began this project, I was documenting a single student in Penn Class. With such a narrow focus on her, I wasn't paying much attention to what was occurring around the classroom I connected with a few of the other students, but they were only the background to my subject's actions. That all changed when I noticed Gabriela, a student in Penn, leaning across the table during science class and whispering to her friend Yenifer. I was confused: any of the other students would have been disciplined for talking during silent time, but the teacher in the room seemed to accept what was happening between Gabriela and Yenifer. When I stepped closer to listen into their conversation, I realized why the discussion wasn't in English, but Spanish. Gabriela was translating the science worksheet before Yenifer into Spanish, then proceeding to discuss the answer with her friend and translate it back into English. At that moment, I decided that the stories of Penn were too compelling to ignore. As I opened my eyes and began to reach out to the other students, I found myself meeting the most idiosyncratic, hardworking, hilarious and caring children I'd ever met. Each student was truly a story whether they struggled or excelled academically, their personalities and tendencies sparkled. I've been so moved by my time with them, I hope to come back next semester as a tutor.

I came into the project with previous photography experience; my time at KIPP, then, was a different kind of learning. I discovered that the most meaningful things might be a little off the beaten path; that if something is calling you, you should pursue it full-heartedly, even if it means a change of plans. I learned that the most beautiful moments often go unnoticed, happening in whispered conversations during science or a glance shared across the lunchroom.

And I now know that there is nothing more gratifying than telling the stories of the people you care about.