As hundreds of students, teachers, and community members filed into the auditorium at Lynn English High School, 12 students prepared for short videos detailing their life stories to be broadcast in front of the audience.
For junior Stephanie Jolibois, it was the first time her peers would learn about how her home in Haiti crumbled around her during the earthquake in 2010, killing her grandmother and trapping her and her father. When they were extracted two days later, her father died in the hospital.
The videos were produced through the school’s Living in Two Worlds program, which since 2012 has helped students, many of whom are immigrants, process their own stories.
“When the kids get here, they put their heads down and do what they have to do to succeed,” said Ginny Keenan, the program director and peer mediation coordinator at Lynn English.
Keenan works with students to develop the scripts for their two- to three-minute videos. During one-on-one conversations with the students in her office, she asks them about their lives before and since moving to Lynn.
“It was flowing. I was crying,” said senior Lucy Quiroa, whose video from last year describes how she and her mother fled her abusive father in Guatemala.
They joined her older sister in Lynn, all living in the same small room until they saved enough to rent an apartment. When she first arrived, Quiora worked 60 hours a week at a fish factory in Gloucester. Now, she works a 40-hour week at an office in Boston in addition to going to high school.
After listening to the students’ stories, Keenan writes scripts for each of their videos. Once she gets the lines approved by the students, production begins.
The raw footage, which is filmed by two volunteers, is sent to a professional video editor who merges the snapshots into cohesive packages, with audio narration by the student.
In addition to the 12 students who produced videos, six opted to share their stories through a series of photos and captions. Keenan hires a professional photographer each year to take the pictures. The program is funded through a grant provided by the Cummings Foundation.
Keenan said the group serves as a bridge between the ways of life practiced in students’ homes and the more Americanized culture at school. Lynn English has a diverse enrollment, with more than 63 percent of students Latino, close to 10 percent African-American, and more than 8.2 percent Asian.
During weekly after-school meetings, the students learn about each other’s cultures. They also play a lot of Jeopardy-style trivia games created by Tiffany McFarlane, a teacher in the English Language Learners program. The questions help Living in Two Worlds students learn each other’s names, details about the school, and more about Lynn.
Many students experienced culture shock when they moved to the United States from their home countries, Keenan said. In her office a week before the film festival, Jolibois, Quiroa, and Zainab Abd Al Kaby considered the differences between Lynn and their homelands.
They noted that here, students moved from classroom to classroom throughout the school day, compared to the schools they attended as children, where the teachers were the ones who moved. They also said their education in the US has broadened their world view.
“I didn’t know other countries existed,” said Abd Al Kaby, who is from Iraq. “I didn’t know about Mexico.”
Then there was the weather, they said, laughing. They all come from areas where winter coats are not a wardrobe staple.
Abd Al Kaby fled with her family from Iraq to Kuwait after a taxi she and her mother had ridden in blew up not long after they left the car. Iraqis were not welcomed in Kuwait, so she and her family could not work or go to school.
“Everything changed in matters of seconds for me,” Abd Al Kaby said.
Every year on the day before the public film festival, the Living in Two Worlds students gather in the auditorium and watch each other’s videos for the first time. It is something Keenan and the students cherish, an intimate sharing of personal stories.
“Watching it all together is the best part. You don’t know about that person until they share it with you. You feel like a family,” said Abd Al Kaby, a senior who has served as Keenan’s assistant for the past two years after completing her video during her sophomore year.
Abd Al Kaby and Quiroa said that teachers and students who attend the film festival are often surprised by their stories.
“It teaches the teachers about being patient. Get to know your kids,” Abd Al Kaby said.
Jolibois, who typically only opens up around friends, was nervous to show her video in front of the hundreds of attendees. But she also was ready.
“I need to get out of my comfort zone and share that the Stephanie you see in school . . . “There’s a lot of Stephanie you don’t know.”
Julia Preszler can be reached at email@example.com.