A text can be anything: a poem, a map, an old letter. To spur great learning, it needs to be provocative, powerful, open to multiple interpretations, and, above all, it needs to teach something profound. I use one of the greatest texts imaginable—Theodore Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles.
Roosevelt High was constructed in 1923 in Boyle Heights. Like the neighborhood itself, Roosevelt has grown. Originally built to house up to 800 students, it is now home to more than 5,000 students. The original building sat on less than three acres of land but now engulfs more than 10. When I arrived in 1994, 21 years old and full of nervous excitement, I was amazed at the sheer size of it and intrigued by its many hidden corners. I remember wondering about the school’s ghost stories. Were they true or just urban myths? I always thought that there was a good assignment in there somewhere, but it took years to come to me.
As part of the school’s 75th anniversary celebration in 1998, glass cases were erected with paraphernalia from each of Roosevelt’s decades—prom photos, 1920s-style football helmets, old faculty photos. One year my students and I were talking about the political message of monuments and I thought about those cases.
“A monument can be anything from a statue, to a painting, to a park or project named for someone,” I told the students. “You know the display cases up front, near the main office?”