The connotation of "genius" usually relates to entrepreneurial success, creative achievement and/or academic intellect. And that makes sense. There shouldn't be genius "participation" medals. But, are our connotations broad enough?
At 826LA, I've seen field trips where kids create stories through the guidance of 826LA leaders. I've seen their excitement when they leave with their very own book. Creating that happiness from achievement might not meet our highfalutin "genius" label because those moments occur in classrooms across the world, but it's as beautiful as watching "Citizen Kane" and as inspiring as a Horatio Alger story.
This week, I met with two such creators of genius: Jonah Bautista, AmeriCorps VISTA Member and 826LA Volunteer Outreach and Support Assistant, and Kristin Lorey, 826LA Echo Park Programs and Outreach Coordinator. We went to Taco Zone, a taco truck that arrives around 8 p.m. near the corner of Alvarado and Montana in Echo Park next to a Vons parking lot. It is a place where, no doubt, plenty of drunk hipsters have found genius in a well-prepared burrito.
Jason: What is it about Echo Park that you like?
Jonah: Much more so than in any other part of the city, I think it has the most small town vibe. I like running into people who are co-workers or running into our friends whenever we stop by the grocery store, and I feel like that's not something I would have originally expected of an L.A. life. When I walk down the street I can say hi to all my friends who are also my neighbors.
Kristin: Yeah, totally. We have friends that live right across the street from here and I think that everyone I know in L.A. is in a three-block radius. It became a very fast community here and I think 826LA is a large part of that.
Jonah: And they have Taco Zone.
Kristin: Well, Taco Zone just popped up within two minutes. That was really impressive.
Jason: Yeah, it's already ready to go. I've only been to the Taco Zone I think twice. I'm going to have to ask you guys for recommendations. I know one time it was after some drinking, so...
Kristin: That's often when Taco Zone is visited.
Jonah: Well Kristin is a vegetarian, so I don't know how useful she's going to be.
Kristin: The veggie burrito is the best burrito here.
Jonah: It's not bad. I like ordering it though because every time you do, it seems like they think, "We don't do veggie burritos."
Kristin: I was here one time and I ordered a veggie burrito and they ran out of veggie stuff so they just put together a regular burrito and were like, "Sorry."
Jonah: But, they can't really run out of veggie stuff because there actually are no vegetables in the veggie burrito. It's just the absence of meat.
Kristin: They ran out of it.
Jonah: When it comes to Taco Zone, I always opt for the classic carne asada burrito. I think a lot of people would call me boring.
Jason: Whenever I think of taco or burrito meats, it's carne asada or carnitas.
Jonah: Here comes the most important part, Jason.
Kristin: Yes, the most important part is the salsas. Never skimp on the salsa.
Jason: What are the different ones?
Jonah: Well, we have your red and your green. I don't know.
Kristin: Yes, there's the red and the green and the guacamole salsa and then the pico de gallo.
Jason: It's very good. I think you're right about the salsas.
Jonah: It takes what would otherwise be another taco truck burrito...
Kristin: A pretty good burrito and turns into a fantastic burrito.
Jonah: I'm no expert by any means, but damn if I don't like Taco Zone burritos.
Jason: One of the questions I was thinking about asking you guys, because of my experience with 826LA, the kids are really inspiring, they're pretty amazing what they'll come up with.
Jonah: It doesn't take much of a stretch of imagination to see that happening just because what we're asking from the kids -- especially at a program like Field Trips -- is just for encouraging kind of unadulterated imagination and for them to be as creative as possible. The only limits we ever put on anything the kids write is just that we never want things to be too violent, especially for the younger ones. Sometimes they really want to write about gross things and we just cut them off there, but otherwise even if they just want to write about sharks and zombies and vampires all the time, you know, it's really amazing and inspiring when you ask a kid who is unrestrained by...
Kristin: The notion of having to write something perfect.
Jonah: Yeah, or having to be self-conscious about what they write, we just tell them to write about what you want to write about. Not everything they produce is a masterpiece, but very often they hit on really poetic things. Like, they wrote a book called, "Watch Out for Mr. Couch" and it was about an evil couch and, of all things, he goes around sitting on people. That's the extent of his deviousness. It comes alive. Then we're just there, all the volunteers are there and all the staff is there and saying to every single idea they have, "That's an awesome idea and that's really cool. We're going to write that down."
Kristin: I think that's secretly what everyone really wants to have, their own cheerleaders encouraging them, that what they are doing is good and right. Even making a mistake is on the path to making something even greater. I work with Field Trips and I work with a lot of younger kids but it's been such a pleasure to have high school students in and really see their approach to writing about things that can often be really difficult. I've had field trips where students come in and we have to write about bullying, so we did anti-bullying PSAs and stuff like that. Even that -- things where you would not necessarily want to write about as high school students -- seeing them really work with their volunteers to break down anything cliché and really come up with something poetic and meaningful to them is really, really amazing. I think that's what a lot of the in-school projects do and the personal statement stuff as well, where a lot of individualized attention and the volunteer help that we have really pays off. Not all writing when you grow up is going to be full of imagination ... I hope that the projects we do really encourage them to write in really fun ways.
Jonah: I say it a lot and I hear a lot of volunteers say it, but I really wish I had something like 826LA when I was growing up that would encourage me in the way that we try to encourage the kids. I think everyone could use that kind of support in different points and in different ways throughout their life. Just people encouraging you to you know, just do it and worry about fixing it later. Which is basically our whole approach to writing at 826LA. We never host field trips so kids can learn exactly where to put commas.
Kristin: That's never happened. It will never happen under my watch.
N. Alvarado St. & Montana St.
[Photos by A. Rios/R.E.]