For some, it was their first time on a train. For others, it was their first time in New York City. For all of them, it was their first time on the red carpet.
Yes, that red carpet.
The one for the famous.
This one was at the TriBeCa Film Festival, where students from the Saratoga area were announced as grand prize award winners by Kerry Kennedy in the first-ever video contest by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Their uplifting video honors human rights defender Wangari Maathai.
The winners, from Washington Saratoga Warren Hamilton Essex BOCES, giggled and preened for the cameras on the carpet outside the School of Visual Arts Theater. They posed with P.S. 22 choir students, who had performed at the Academy Awards with United Federation of Teachers member Gregg Breinberg, and were the subject of a documentary shown the same day: "Once Upon a Lullaby."
"I feel like a movie star. All these people are here for us," said Saratoga student Angie Deming.
The video trumpeted Maathai's devotion to planting trees to help African women, where soil weakened by erosion and deforestation was not sustaining crops. Students also tapped into her efforts to keep plastic out of landfills by recycling and crocheting plastic bags into shopping bags and purses. Their project, along with Maathai's story, was told with heartfelt singing, brightly hued graphics and straightforward, non-scripted narration. A full house watched it on the big screen at the festival, including NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi and NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer Lee Cutler, who oversees the union's social justice initiatives.
"What's great about today is maybe we'll get the world to know to start recycling plastic bags. It saves the Earth," said Deming.
That day was her first time on a train. "I'm facing my fears," she said, snapping photo after photo as the train slid alongside the Hudson River.
Student James Hill said he was "kind of nervous" about the crowds and people because he'd never been to New York City. His job with the recycling project is to count the bags, weigh and distribute them.
"I'm not going to lie. I thought it was really dumb at first," said student Sarah Long, twirling her pink hair. "Who's going to want to carry around a plastic bag made out of bags? But when you add colored bags, it's just so creative." A future forensic science major, she marvels at how far their project has brought them. Not just to victory, and New York City, but to shifting self-perceptions.
"It's brought me to behave better," she said. "I have something to work for."
"With my two students in the project, their behavior has improved tremendously," said Jane Amorosi, who uses RFK's Speak Truth to Power lesson plans in core subjects.
"They talk about social justice issues, and they're much more involved now," said teaching assistant Laura Rychcik, also a member of the Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Educators Association.
Teaching assistant Sandie Carner-Shafran, a NYSUT Board member, said students had to participate in class and in recycling, with no absences, to attend the festival.
Sean Cross, who sang and narrated for the video, said students were also thrilled about going to NYSUT's annual convention.
"I learned a little bit about what teachers feel is important for students," he said. Cross was ready to drop out when the social justice project drew him back in. He bought a new suit jacket for the festival, showing up New York hip and fired up wanting to create more videos.
On the train ride home, student Wayne Drennan bubbled over with an idea: "How about doing a video project with P.S. 22? They could sing about recycling?"