May Day at Oakland International High School

It is nearing 8:30 am in the central courtyard at Oakland International High School and already there is a palpable excitement in the heady spring air. Today is May Day. International Workers Day. And the day art teacher Brooke Toczylowski’s 55 students will teach their entire school, 350 fellow students, to screen-print, stencil spray paint, ink linocut signs, fashion homemade maracas, and design t-shirts. The workshops will take place all at once in a simultaneous flurry, spread throughout the breezy outdoor campus hallways, every smooth surface claimed. After lunch, the plan is to march north 2.6 miles onto UC Berkeley, to participate in the rally for workers rights and humane immigration reform. 

Brooke grins when a volunteer innocently asks about setting up the single spray paint station. “There are nine!” she laughs, revealing two dozen cans tucked in a cardboard box. “We have forty masks. I am thinking of course, about fumes and vandalism. Let’s just say, we’ll stay vigilant.” She calls the audacious undertaking a feat of controlled chaos. But it’s just the type of atmosphere where the coolest creative projects can flourish most freely.

By 10 am, the auditorium is packed with shouts, giggles, and excited whispers. Thirty languages careen in chorus, mixing gloriously. OIHS is an oasis of sorts. Founded in 2007 solely for immigrant teens, 100% of the student body are English learners. 1/3 are recent refugees, having fled their home country to seek haven from protracted social conflicts or violent persecution. For a quarter of the kids thriving here, Oakland International marks their very first experience in formal education. The camaraderie is almost tangible. Student work flutters proudly in the airy halls and looms large on walls. A tended edible garden with persimmons, pomegranates, blackberries grows lavishly right outside the library. Subjects are structured to seamlessly weave in literacy and spoken competence. The faculty seems to relish the blessed mission of the school, serving with urgent, ingenious agility. Even after school lets out, a beloved organization, Soccer Without Borders picks up to engage students. A tremendous amount of good goes on here. Future dreams are readily shared; and yet, harsh hurdles still exist for these student’s families, who are working toward a better life.

To raucous cheering and whistles, celebrated Oakland born and raised artist Favianna Rodriguez takes the stage to kick off the day. “How many of you are artists?” Hands wave wildly. “You have a gift. How can you use it to help heal your community?”

Favianna’s vibrant art practice is graphic and gutsy. Raw and relentless. Some of her recent posters proclaim: No human being is illegal. Undocumented and unafraid. My dreams can’t wait. Migration is beautiful. Borrowing from the seasonal survival of the monarch butterfly, she uses swirling wings as a motif for natural journeys, declaring to the crowd, “What your parents did for you in moving here is a beautiful story.”

In the side yard, dozens of washed out cafeteria milk cartons are being filled with scoops of dry rice and loose lentils. A chopstick handle and generous strips of bright blue masking tape transform salvaged materials into an irresistible pile of festive shakers. The sun-dappled black asphalt of the yard is strewn with students grasping brushes and pots of paint. Fluttering banners of craft paper are rolled out and bold gobs of color washed across with delicate intensity. In one corner, one young man has written, “I am somebody, and I will be stopped by nobody.”

Past a chain link fence, an intimate semi-circle of classroom chairs is set-up. Here, students practice call and response chants. I find Henry standing on a concrete ledge, teaching “El pueble unido, jamas sera vencido!”

Around the corner, I spot a girl gingerly, on her own accord, picking up pieces of trash from the ground while gracefully balancing a bright blue crutch. Her name is Lupita, and with sweet shy exuberance she declared to me, “I love my school!” I ask her for a quick audio interview despite a group of adoring boys who resort to lightly teasing her from a distance while we chat.

After the hundreds of signs have dried under the watching sun, students find their own and take to the streets. Curious shop owners and honking cars energize the winding parade. When a semi-truck blasts his horn, everyone erupts in surprise jubilation. For a community of young people committing themselves daily to discovering words, gathering them like still foreign currency for a new land, letting them roll under their sometimes hesitant tongues as fresh minted coins, affirmation as simple as a horn must cascade like showers of cool silver. It feels good to be seen and heard and understood, to be vocal and free and applauded onward. As immigrant youth, we pray they will grow bolder by the day, not just in language, but in actions rooted in love. As for today though, at Oakland International High School, is was the paintbrush that rallied the lesson.