James McSherry has an impressive resume. The 49-year-old Ivy League graduate published an award winning autobiography, “A Clean Street is a Happy Street,” in 2004. The Bronx high school teacher also won nine film awards, including one at the Manhattan Film Festival for his seminal work, “Poetry Man” in 2010.
The independent movie made on a shoestring budget was inspired by his childhood friend from Throgs Neck, who was arrested for a drug-related murder in the 1980s, while McSherry was at Columbia, studying for his masters degree in writing. It was at Columbia where McSherry was able to transform his cathartic hobby of creative writing into a professional calling.
He realized that poetry, and later, film had saved him from the poverty, drugs and violence that engulfed him growing up. So the Lehman High School graduate returned to his alma mater to teach kids like him. For the past 20 years, McSherry has created an encouraging environment for students to express themselves, something he wished he had as a teenager.
“I think it helps to have similar experiences, live in the area where you teach, and be able to connect with kids,” said McSherry, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. His students affectionately gave him “the pound” as they entered class. “You need empathy to be an artist and a teacher.”
In his fourth floor film and video classroom at Lehman High on East Tremont Avenue, McSherry sat one September morning with engaged teenagers as they edited videos. In the back corner of the room, he set up a simple, makeshift film booth made out of black construction paper.
Twenty large screen Apple computers now line the perimeter of the room thanks to the hours he spent applying for grants. Starting with virtually no resources three years ago when he was determined to launch the film class, McSherry fought hard for this equipment. He paid for the class’s first camera out of his own pocket.
McSherry is convinced of the value of art and mastery of language in education. “Art empowers on a completely different level,” he said in a serious tone. Art gives his student a voice. “McSherry’s class instills confidence in the kids,” said Karen Andronico, Lehman’s assistant principal of Media Arts and Communications. “They spill their guts into the work.”
Andronico heads up one of the five Small Learning Communities that make up the total Lehman student body of over 3,500 ethnically diverse teenagers. She said the socioeconomically disadvantaged students want to write about problems that affect their lives.
McSherry experienced many of the issues facing his students today. His alcoholic father was murdered when he was in the eighth grade, and his mother was left alone to raise McSherry and his four siblings. The family received welfare and they struggled to get by with the help of food stamps. His brother is a drug abuser and suffers from schizophrenia. And as featured in “Poetry Man,” his childhood friend went to jail for murder.
“I know what students feel like because I know what they are going through,” McSherry said, adding that he can relate to issues of poverty, drugs, mental illness, single parent households, welfare. His connections with the kids are particularly important since Lehman’s graduation rate in 2010 was 51 percent, 12 percentage points worse than the citywide average.
He guided his tenth grade students to create public safety announcement videos about their own challenges such as birth control and relationships. Last semester, his students’ Public Safety Announcement on teen dating violence won “Let Your Heart Rule,” a Verizon-sponsored, nationwide competition. The students won iPads, $1,000 for their school, and an appearance on the Dr. Phil Show.
More importantly, the recognition validated their hard work.
Demi Middleton, one of McSherry’s eleventh grade Media and Television Film Production students, said she and her classmates were in disbelief when they won. “Mr. McSherry has shown his students that you can do whatever you want to do if you put your mind to it and concentrate,” said Middleton. “That’s what we did with Dr. Phil and it was a great feeling!”
“One thing about McSherry is that it’s all about the kids and making them feel successful and supported,” said Adronico. “He’ll do anything for them.”
McSherry has even taken students on after school trips to the Tribeca Film Festival and coordinated internships at Bronx Net Television. Andronico said she would not be surprised if he somehow manages to take them to France, where his film was screened in the Cannes Film Festival this past May.
McSherry is also an innovator. Truth Booth is a project he thought up last winter. Students are each given two minutes to privately respond on camera to his chosen word: father.
There were no other specific guidelines–just to speak the truth.
“McSherry is a very loving person, and students were able to open up to him because they trust him,” said Teresa Matthews, Lehman’s teacher of Global Voices in Film. “He could very well be their father and he takes on that role sometimes.”
Just like McSherry’s popular classes, Truth Booth was an instant hit, so much so, that they spent the entire semester focusing on “father” rather than moving on to a different word.
And school counselors were even able to use the videos to help in therapy. The down to earth teacher said the documentary paid immeasurable dividends–one student reconnected with his father after ten years and another student’s father apologized to him after watching the DVD.
Truth Booth will continue this academic year but the word prompt has yet to be decided.
“Success,” suggested Middleton.
“It makes you think about the future and where students see themselves going,” she added. “I want to go to college and Mr. McSherry wants me to. He came from the Bronx, and we come from the Bronx. He says anyone can do it, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what school.”