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Gordon Parks inspires students at namesake school

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Painting piano
On Nov. 28, 2012, students at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul, Minn., paint a piano that will be unveiled at a celebration marking the 100th anniversary of Gordon Parks' birth.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the late Gordon Parks, a groundbreaking African-American photographer, filmmaker, writer and musician who spent his teen years in St. Paul. 

Over the past few months, celebrations have been held in places like the Minnesota History Center and the U.S. embassy in Paris. But Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul honors the legacy of the man every day of every year.

Still, balloons and streamers filled a hall there recently where students were making signs to commemorate Parks.

"A hundred is good in any kind of way," student Peter Rodriguez said. "One hundred percent, $100, 100 years old. It means you kick butt!"

Decorating piano
With the help of artist Jesse Golfis, students at Gordon Parks High School decorate a piano with murals of photographer, filmmaker, writer and musician Gordon Parks.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Parks has been called the most influential African-American photographer of the 20th century. Best known for his images of poverty and racial segregation, Parks was also an author, composer and activist.

But most interesting to student Dallas Jackson was Parks' role as a Hollywood director.

"He made good movies like "Shaft" and "Shaft 2." Those were good movies," Jackson said.

But it isn't just Parks' fame that students like Linyell Scott admire. 

"He struggled a lot through his life to be successful," Scott said. "And he did come out to be what he wanted to be."

Gordon Parks High School is technically an alternative learning center. Principal Micheal Thompson describes it as a fresh start for those who struggled at other schools.

"Everybody here is, for some reason, behind in their progress towards graduation," Thompson said.

The way Thompson sees it, students at Gordon Parks, the school, have a lot in common with Gordon Parks, the teenager.

"Gordon Parks started out when he was 15 years old on the streets of St. Paul with no place to live, no job and no prospects. And then he became this international Renaissance man," Thompson said.

Thompson highlights Parks' tenacity in hopes of motivating students to find their own paths to success.

Performing
Student Peter Rodriguez, left performs during a celebration of the life of Gordon Parks on Nov. 30, 2012, at Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul, Minn. The piano, painted by Twin Cities artist Jesse Golfis and the school's students, showcases images of the late Gordon Parks, who once lived in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

On this morning, a group of students paints a mural to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Parks' birth. Their canvas: a grand piano.

As some students paint the instrument, others play its keys.

"It's like a tune which would set the tone for the painters and set their mind free and they would paint what they feel, which correlates to Gordon Parks because he loves music himself," student Tony Vang said.

"I'm just making designs for the piano. I think they represent me," student Pheng Lor said, continuing to paint.

Rodriguez agrees, "That's like putting our soul pretty much into the piano."

"It's hard to motivate students with grades these days... What can motivate young people is when real people from the community come in and react to the work our students create."

To mark Parks' centennial birthday, the high school opened its doors to the community to offer visitors the opportunity to meet students and witness the unveiling of the recently revamped piano.

Curriculum and media arts coordinator Paul Creager likes what the celebration is doing for the students.

"It's hard to motivate students with grades these days," Creager said. "What can motivate young people is when real people from the community come in and react to the work our students create."

And that's just what this day was about.

"I'd like to welcome one of our students, Peter Rodriguez, to come up and play the piano," Creager called out to cheers from the crowd. 

Rodriguez, 19, rarely showed up for class at his previous school. Gordon Parks got him back on track, he said.

"Education is everything," Rodriguez said. "It's hard enough for my mom. I mean, my mom's a single parent. She doesn't have an education past the eighth grade. That's why I'm over here. I'm taking the second chance to get out, to get a diploma as well as to make my mother proud. That's my main thing." 

Many schools are named after famous dead people. This school, Creager said, is one of the few where the building's namesake is a daily inspiration.

"I think some of the students may feel 'I'm behind in credits. I'm not going to take a risk,'" Creager said. "Gordon Parks, his story is very important for young people. It shows that, at any moment, you can reinvent yourself and go a new direction and be very successful with it."

Gordon Parks' legacy lives on through his photos, movies and books. But as far as Creager is concerned, it's also alive in the triumphs of students at Gordon Parks High School.