Summer of 826

Feature

September 16, 2010

Last summer we headed over to 826NYC in Brooklyn where we found some new friends in a secret book-lined room behind a Superhero Supply Company (yes, you heard us correctly: SUPERHEROES).

The group of high school students ventured there to become more inspired and heroic writers, as you would naturally expect in such a place. These vigilant and true individuals shared their stories with us—about dancing in Bangladesh, girls that rock, acting on the stage, art in the street, taking on challenges and learning from the best—and now we’re sharing them with you.

I moved from Bangladesh when I was seven. I was very young, but every day things bring me back to Bangladesh–like the smell of chicken curry and seeing cows and chickens running around an open field, and celebrations.

The way people celebrate important days in Bangladesh is amazing. It seemed like every two weeks my family and I would be invited to a wedding or an engagement party. In Bangladesh, weddings are not held in the same way as in the U.S.—they are usually four or five days long. Sounds strange, but there are so many different kinds of ceremonies that it can’t be done in one day. The soon-to-be-married couple doesn’t get to see each other until the end of the wedding. Instead, the bride and the groom stay in their own homes and perform the same ceremonies separately. The final wedding ceremony takes place in the bride’s home, and that’s the one time when the groom is allowed to come to the bride’s house. This is also when the performances begin–which is why it’s my favorite part of all weddings.

Before coming to the United States I went to my cousin’s wedding. The girls either wore salwar kameez, which is a dress that comes down to your knee and is worn with a long scarf and pants, or saris, which are long sheets of cloth wrapped around a girl’s body. And let me just say, these outfits were serious. Some of the dresses were made by hand. They all came in different colors and shades, and the designs—different colors of shapes, patterns, flowers and polka dots—were out of this world. The guys wore sherwanies, or suits, which were not as exciting. But the party made up for any lack of excitement in the guys’ clothes.

I remember sitting with my mom and my aunt, watching the guys try to sing. I really didn’t understand anything they were saying so I was bored, and then grateful when my uncle came out and stopped them. He announced that he would call on some girls to dance on the stage. I really, really wanted to go up there. I was very young but that didn’t mean I was not allowed to do the things my older cousins did. My cousins were great dancers, but they were too shy to go in front of a big crowd and dance. On the other hand, I love to dance and to make a crowd dance with me. When I dance I’m in a whole new world and I feel like everything is under my control. I dance in my own way. I am not a professional dancer so there is more I could learn about Hindi dance but I don’t think that would give me the same satisfaction as when I am going crazy at a wedding or in front of my mirror.

I waited and waited for my uncle to call me up, and it seemed to take forever. I sat on my mother’s lap anxiously waiting, shaking my legs. My mother told me not to worry and said she would make sure that I got up there after the four girls who were already dancing. Watching the girls dance was something to learn from because the way they were dancing looked like they rehearsed. They danced to Bengali music, which mostly has a slow beat and sounds like the type of music for a couple dance not group, but they were really good. There were not a lot of hip movements although they moved their hands a lot. The girls mostly stayed in one spot until the ending when they started spinning a couple of times. At the end, the crowd clapped and cheered.

Then it was my turn. I got off of my mother’s lap and started to walk towards the stage. My mom caught up to me and held my hand and told the DJ to play our favorite Hindi song. Hindi music, which is has a lot of fast beats and makes you want to get up off your seat and dance. Hindi music is different from Bengali music because some songs are made for wedding dances and showcases but that is not the case when it comes to Bengali music. Bengali music is either sung for a movie or by a singer for his album–most Bengali songs are sad love songs, which I am not interested in. Hindi music, on the other hand, has a variety of styles and even if the song is from a movie and it is about love you can still move to it.

Without looking at who was watching me, I started to dance. The dancing was like something the people had never seen before because in my country not a lot of people dance to that type of music. It felt really good to be up on the stage and dance because I felt like it was my moment to do something different and to show people that the music they listen to is not the only kind. I started with a spin and went off with my different type of hand and hip movements, also while dancing I had to lip sync and show facial expression to make the audience believe that I wasn’t just dancing to entertain them but that I was dancing from my heart. One minute into the performance everyone started to get up off his or her seat and cheer and dance with me. When I was finished all I heard was cheering and clapping, I felt so good about my dance and myself. It was a great night.

A lot of times New York feels really, really far from Bangladesh. Sometimes when I think about being there I dance in front of my mirror and it brings back the memories. Now my mother does not let me dance as much at weddings because she says I’ve gotten older and it does not look right. So instead, I dance for myself and maybe with my friends, and living like this makes me happy–because no matter who is watching me dance, they always have a smile on their face.

I love boy bands. Not only is their music good—the singers are cute too. Most of the time I can relate to the music because there is not much of an age difference between the boys and me.

So when 826NYC came to my school last year to make another issue of STEW, a magazine my school’s been publishing for three years, I pitched a story about boy bands, thinking that writing would be interesting.

Poetry has always been my favorite form of writing. I’ve been writing since I was 10 — about people, my surroundings, my feelings, even song lyrics. So when I started working on STEW, it was a totally different experience. The process was pretty overwhelming. In the beginning I was scared to be a part of the project because I felt like it was too difficult. I had no experience writing for a magazine, but since I loved writing so much, I was up for the challenge.

The assignment was to create a pitch, make a nut graf (which is the heart of the story), get an interview, and start forming your article. I really did not think I was going to be able to handle all the work. For the first time, I had to interview a stranger, which was tough—especially if it was going to be a boy in a band.

As it turns out, contacting chart-topping boy bands is not as easy as I thought. I had a lot of help from actual journalists who would come in about once a week as volunteers. But all the boys that I would listen to on my iPod were even more out of reach than I thought.

Luckily, just when I was losing hope, I was introduced to the band, Care Bears On Fire, a punk rock girl band—based in Brooklyn, of all places. And my interviewee, Isadora Spillman, was very friendly. We did not have a ton in common, but learning about who she was and what her life was like was amazing.

A few days into the project I started to really enjoy it and wanted to get more involved. So I joined the editorial committee, which was volunteer-based, after school and on weekends. Apart from writing the actual article, this ended up being one of my favorite parts of the whole experience.

Being a part of the committee taught me so much. I learned how to edit a piece properly and how to organize an article. The editing process was most important because it was just a few of us editing the entire magazine. We worked on grammar and organization, decided on the style of the cover and added additional pieces. We worked as a team and successfully finished the magazine, which felt rewarding.

Writing for STEW was one of the greatest experiences I’ve had because it introduced me to a completely different style of writing. I continue to write poetry but I’ve also realized I want to be more involved in journalism. It’s amazing what you can learn from a young artist who is living the dream.

When I was six I was a total diva—I wanted to be that superstar, that model, that actress. I encouraged my friends to play games where we had to act and pretend or imitate a certain somebody or something. I loved being the center of attention, pretending to be someone else, wearing my mom’s makeup and high-heeled shoes–and, most of all, acting.

It wasn’t until I was in the first grade that I tried out for my first school play. I was so excited to be getting a part where I had a chance to act, be on stage, and bring a character to life in front of people. That’s when I really got a sense of what acting was. The lights, the cameras, reciting lines—everything was captivating. And I always aimed to get the leading roles in different performances.

The first play that I acted in was Alice In Wonderland. I was seven years old. The role I took was Alice, which was kind of intimidating. I was a bit nervous because all the other girls in my class were fighting to get that role, and after my effort I got the part. This being my first performance, I decided to take it seriously and dedicate myself to making my role near to perfect. When I stepped onto that stage I looked out at the audience staring at me. I saw the other actors and said to myself, “There is nothing to be scared of. I worked hard for this and I’m going to do my best.” And the play went great. I did not get nervous, I felt like I really was in my character’s shoes, and most of all I had fun.

I went on to perform in a few more plays that sparked my interest, but stopped acting for a while when I was fourteen, since school started to get more and more serious. Time was not sufficient for me to pursue what I truly wanted. But of course I hoped that I would find more time and opportunities and get involved with acting again.

In high school I got back into acting and participated in the play The Scarlet Letter, where I took on the role of the lead protagonist. This play was not as intimidating because it was much more intimate—we only had to perform in front of our classmates rather than a huge audience. I got up on stage and it felt great to get back on my feet and finally do some acting again. Everything felt perfect.

But it was not until this year that my drama class really blew my mind. The big assignment was to perform a monologue in front of an audience. Suddenly I wasn’t in first grade anymore. I couldn’t just memorize my lines, or just go on stage and perform, or expect the teacher to tell me what I was doing wrong or right. This wasn’t a play with other actors, it was only me. I had to make sure I was the character. I had to get my message across in a way that made the audience could sympathize or empathize with me. There was work to do. I had to focus.

I thought about it, and then selected a monologue from one of my favorite movies. The scene I selected was where the protagonist decides to recite a poem in front of her classmates that expresses her feelings for the boy she likes. I chose it because I thought I could really convey the character’s feelings to the audience because I could relate to it.
To prepare, I researched my character’s past and studied how I could get into her shoes and form an emotional connection with her. After a month of practicing, I had adopted her style, her emotions, her dislikes, her interests and her main obstacles. The big challenge was bringing all this out and conveying it to the audience, alone and on stage.

When the performance day came, I was a bit scared, excited, yet pumped and ready. Beforehand, I practiced my lines and took a little walk. I tried to avoid talking to other people or looking around at what others were doing. I didn’t want to get distracted and instead picked a corner in the auditorium to go get into character. I got a bit nervous so I started taking deep breaths to help me relax. When it was my turn I slowly walked up the stage steps. I had so many things running through my mind, but I thought to myself, “I practiced my lines and I know I can do this.”

As I performed, my mind was clear and I concentrated on the meaning of the words I was saying. I felt like what I was saying came out of me—and not just as words I had memorized. Everyone in the audience seemed really engaged with my performance. The room was silent, and everyone kept their eyes on me. In the end everyone applauded. It turned out great.

Acting has had a very great impact on me. Now that I have had more acting experience I plan to stick to it and take any upcoming opportunities. My next step is joining a drama class outside school and continuing to find outside performances where I can interact with different audiences and get different kinds of feedback about my acting. I’m definitely going to continue my path with acting, instead of just waiting for the next great thing to come to me.

I love writing, I love reading, and I love books. But until last month, I hadn’t completed a short story in over a year or so. I’d just never had enough of something to complete anything I’d started. And even though I’ve always loved writing, I hadn’t ever taken the idea of being a professional writer seriously—until recently and in such an unlikely place: Iowa City, Iowa.

But first, a little about how I got there. I first met 826NYC about three years ago when they came to my school to launch STEW, a literary magazine featuring articles written by my classmates and I. I have done a lot of stuff with them for the past three years, including STEW, helping with workshops and making a film. Dave Eggers, the guy who started 826 and a famous writer (though I didn’t know just how famous until recently!) asked me if I wanted to also get involved in a program with the Iowa Youth Writers Project’s up-and-coming non-profit, The Summer Writing Project. It was a chance to work on our writing, edit, workshop and meet other writers from other 826 chapters around the country. Of course I jumped at the chance.

Our group consisted of three other 826 kids, one from 826Valencia, 826Seattle, 826LA along with two young ladies from Iowa City where the program was based. To say the least, it was amazing. The kids from the other 826 chapters were incredible and I fell in love with them all. It was great to meet other kids who were in love with writing and reading as much as I am. We spent so much time together (sometimes from 8am until 11pm), and we got so close before the week was over. Between the jokes and the intensive workshopping it felt like we’d known each other for years. They made the experience that much more amazing.

At The University of Iowa, we worked with the school’s competitive graduate program called the Writers Workshop. We shared, wrote with and learned from graduates and current students there who also happen to be published writers in the program. I was immersed in the writers’ world for the entire week with intensive writing and editing, workshops, book readings, meetings with real live poets and fiction writers, and a bunch of other amazing stuff. It was truly remarkable. I’ve always been a reader but in Iowa I learned how to read differently—to read as a writer and to be more conscious of writing with a style. It may seem odd, but the experience really opened my eyes to different things. It made me more conscious of my own writing style along with writing more purposefully instead of just telling a story.

My biggest takeaway, however, was confidence. In addition to all the great feedback on my writing style, being taken seriously as a writer was the greatest confidence booster—that, and realizing I could actually complete a quality story. My passion, enthusiasm and excitement for everything all at once is usually what prevents me from completing anything. My mind is all over the place most of the time. I’ve always lacked enough patience, enough inspiration and enough focus. But after a week in the middle of the country, I feel more focused and inspired than ever. Iowa changed everything for me.

Right now, I’m working on a vignette based on one story I wrote in Iowa and I’m hoping to get it published after some feedback from people I respect and admire. Iowa showed me that I can make a life full of writing, the only thing that I’ve ever loved consistently in my life and the only thing that’s really made me feel grounded in a world full of so much insanity. In writing I find clarity. Writing saves lives—including mine. Yay Iowa, for reassuring me and making me believe in a dream that seemed so unreachable before.

I began blogging around thirty days ago, when my best friend told me about her blog and explained how it worked. Immediately I became excited, as well as fascinated with the idea of being able to write about whatever comes to mind.

What interested me the most was something called the Thirty Day Challenge. For thirty days I would blog—but not just about anything. Instead, each day I would be given a topic to write about freely. For example, Day One’s assignment was to introduce myself, Day Two was to write about my parents, and so on. Each day I wrote about something different.

The great thing about the Thirty Day Challenge was that by the time you finished—or had completed the challenge—you had basically shared a piece of yourself with your audience, who probably did not know about half the stuff you wrote about yourself.

Through taking the Thirty Day Challenge, I learned about the differences between writing for a blog and writing for school. Mostly, it’s the freedom of not having to follow guidelines or rules. When you write for school you’re given rules that you have to abide by. But when you write for a blog there’s no one over your shoulder telling you what you can and cannot do, what’s correct or incorrect. When I blog there are no boundaries, no limitations, no restrictions. It’s just me saying whatever happens to be on my mind at that moment, whether it’s writing about a bad case of boredom or completing a day of my challenge.

I love everything about blogging. It’s beautiful to write about or show or expose a piece of you which people may not know enough about—or at all about! Blogging is my own personal space where I am able to express myself however and whenever I want.

Whenever I blog, I get this rush of excitement, because I know that I can express myself without having to follow certain guidelines or rules. I can completely be myself without having to edit or revise. My blog is completely raw and open to everyone. And you know what makes it even more exciting? The thought that someone might be curious enough to read what I write and post and then maybe encouraged to begin a blog themselves.

Park Slope is known for its wide variety of restaurants, shops, diversity of people—and for Brooklyn’s very own Prospect Park. It’s a fairly quiet neighborhood where people go about their business. Most people spend their time on 5th and 7th Avenues, which are full of trendy clothing stores, ice cream vendors and book stores. On the other hand, 3rd and 4th Avenues aren’t as popular, probably because of their many car washes, pizza stores and gas stations. But those are the streets I walk on.

Ever since my teachers introduced me to picture books, I was hooked on shapes, colors and art in general. I always wondered about the process of making a picture book or the making of my favorite cartoon shows. To this day, whether I’m with my friends or by myself, if I find some painting that attracts my eye, I pause and look at all the aspects of it. I wonder about what made the artist want to pick the certain spot to paint their artwork? How did they start? What was it like when they finished? Did they work alone? Or was it a group effort?

I pass by a few pieces almost daily that always catch my eye. There is one piece on 5th Avenue that is made up a tree with its branches holding up little kids with the word “FREE” on the top left corner. Another piece includes a school on 4th Avenue where they painted how their hard school kids work to earn their grades and the diversity in their school. This painting includes kids in suits, a man working hard on gathering his crops, and a child dressed up in a variety of flags. Everywhere I look, there are things to see and think about. The people of my community show themselves on the walls of my neighborhood and inspire me as I make my way through the places that we share.

826NYC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting area students ages 6-18 with their writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. Based in Brooklyn and affiliated with McSweeney’s publishing house in San Francisco, 826NYC offers tutoring, workshops, in-school projects, and student internships out of their Brooklyn Superhero Supply Co. storefront. Find out more at 826NYC.org.

Comments (10)
  • alexitha I LOVE CONVERSE.... Tue Feb 08, 2011
  • alexitha I LOVE CONVERSE... Tue Feb 08, 2011
  • .J. Life Innertainment http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J2NidyStFI&hd=1 Tue Feb 01, 2011
  • nichole cannedy i would love a pair of heather gray high tops. Wed Dec 15, 2010
  • anjali shinde Wow! I've always loved books, but i'm not so great a writer.... you guys got your gang all figured out: the dancer, the 2 writers, the actress, the blogger, and the picture book maker!!!!! tee hee hee!!!!!!!!!!! Sun Nov 28, 2010
  • bilalfazal hi i love you Mon Oct 18, 2010
  • Brian Wenckebach Incredible! I am so proud of all of you! Tue Oct 05, 2010
  • salauddin heyyyyy guyz i like how u guyz did da it is cute and cool...hehehehe Sun Oct 03, 2010
  • Sanaly Cruz I am Amanda's mother, I am proud of you girls (you did a great job). We need more programs like this to keep and help the young teenages to do great things for themself and others. Thank you for giving them the chance to show everyone what they can do. Sun Oct 03, 2010
  • Chica lol i love the animal head gladys lol Wed Sep 29, 2010
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