At the end of the year, the students present a monument project to the rest of the class. After our trip to DC and a whole year dealing with lots of big ideas, it seems to be the best culminating project. The students act as if the rest of the class is a committee which will choose which monument they will fund and build. They have to make a convincing argument for their proposal including strong visuals, list of materials, and a real budget. They also have to determine possible locations. The students can work on this alone or in small groups. They have free range in what they can memorialize though we spend some time in class talking about a variety of possibilities from specific people and events to more abstract concepts like freedom.
This morning I put the list of projects on the board, closed my eyes, and randomly picked who would go first. It was FG, HK, and ST. “The Asian girls are going first,” FG said. I smiled but was a little surprised at the forthright self-labeling. They came to the front of the room with a visual that had been prepared on Sketchup, a free three-D app, and they gave an astounding, committed, solid presentation on their memorial to Maya Lin.
We had seen a video documentary on Maya Lin, A Strong Clear Vision, before we went to DC to help prepare the students for the Vietnam Wall Memorial and to familiarize them with the process through which public sculpture needs to process. In fact, it is this documentary that helped to inform the monument project itself. In the footage and interviews, Lin, who was only 21 when she won the competition and was still a student at Yale, describes the racism and antagonism she experienced on the road to getting her memorial built. “She beat her professors and 1441 other applicants in this competition. Some members of the National Endowment for the Arts Board were also hesitant to allow her to build this monument because Maya Lin was Chinese American and the Vietnam Memorial was for veterans who came from fighting in an Asian country, especially the unwilling people who were drafted for the war” (from FG’s, ST’s, and HK’s proposal). — “I am a woman. I’m Asian. I was young,” Maya Lin says in the documentary. And her design was not literal, not a typical memorial. All these factors caused a very heated controversy.
FG, HK, ST said that the reason they wanted to build this memorial was that no one ever builds a memorial to the person who designs the memorial and they thought it was important to do so. Their monument was thoughtfully designed and it was clear they had done research to learn as much as they could about Maya Lin. When their presentation was over and they sat down, FG said, “Well that’s not the real reason we wanted to build this monument.”
ST said, “Shut up.”
FG wanted to talk but was nervously glancing at her friend.
“I can guess, ” I said, “but it’s out in the open now. You have to share.”
FG stumbled a bit and then she said, “We’re the Asian girls, and well, Maya Lin is Asian.”
The documentary on Maya Lin is powerful and moving. I have seen it dozens of times but it still affects me emotionally. I had no inkling of how powerfully it affected FG, ST, and HK. They saw themselves in Lin’s story, their own struggles, their own possibilities. Sometimes our whiteness makes us blind to the power of role models who look like our students. Sometimes our whiteness blinds us to the needs of our students who are not white.
I can only imagine what FG, ST, and HK were feeling when they walked the Vietnam memorial in DC. I never thought to ask them.