High school Teacher Michael Steinman wants his students to wake up.
It’s not that they’re falling asleep in class – they’re wide-eyed and talkative.
Rather, the juniors and seniors in Steinman’s Advanced Placement Literature and Composition class at Village Academy High School in Pomona are struggling to finish the year strong.
This is after touching thousands with a heartbreaking video that brought President Barack Obama to the high school during his trip to Southern California in March.
Reflecting on the state of the economy and its effects on their lives, Steinman’s students opened up to the world under his direction, producing a DVD made up of little more than a montage of their reactions to the economic crisis and ongoing recession.
One by one, each student confessed something more tragic than the next in the video they called “Is Anybody Listening?”
The video now has almost 60,000 views on YouTube, and people are listening – the class has had many visitors, from Obama to Whoopi Goldberg, and even a little boy who was moved by their video.
“I don’t think they even know they did it,” Steinman said. “A door has been wide opened for you guys into the world. From the president of the United States on down, you’re known for having made a statement. Are you just going to let the door dangle in the wind?”
The video’s moving effects echoed throughout the country, as the students’ story soon gathered a frenzy of media attention that included a 20/20 special and coverage on CNN, BBC, CBS, PBS, KABC, KNBC and KCET.
“They were inspired by me, but they’ve become inundated with it,” Steinman said. “If they’re gonna get out there and be Ghandis, I at least want them to get a good grade in class.”
Steinman hoped all the attention would fire his students up, but the kids are more interested in graduating high school than worrying about how to change the world.
“I don’t think its hit us yet,” said Maritssa Barba, a 17-year-old junior who comes to tears in the video explaining how her father walked out on her family. “We did it, we saw it as a project, then it got really big. And now we’re just kind of like, ‘Whoah.’”
Barba, who wants to be an actress or an environmentalist, said her dad has come back and her family is doing better.
“My mom saw it before it became a big thing,” Barba said. “She was crying. To see teenagers and see how they’re struggling, she didn’t realize that it was affecting so many people.”
Rogelio Gutierrez, an 18-year-old senior, is still shocked by the attention the video has received.
“We didn’t expect it to go nationwide. It was just a video we were going to make before Obama took office,” he said.
Seventeen-year-old Jose Lopez knows what he and his friends did, realizing a visit from Barack Obama means they made an impact.
“I don’t think we’re important, but we are,” Lopez said. “I mean the president noticed us. If that doesn’t say we’re important, then what does?”
The idea for the video came from conversations regarding the American dream, a dominant theme in class’ reading at the time, “The Great Gatsby.”
With the promise from their teacher that either Obama or John McCain would see their statement, the high schoolers revealed sad, but candid anecdotes about their parents losing jobs, running months behind on rent payments, and having trouble keeping food in the fridge.
“I had 30 kids crying,” said Steinman. “I knew that was pretty powerful stuff.”
The future physicians, doctors and actors from Pomona are the voice of the youth in America right now, but they’re not sure what to do with their newfound influence.
“They haven’t really wrapped their heads around it,” Steinman said. “A kid just wants to be a kid and doesn’t really have burning desire to change the world.”
The students have started helping others.
With Steinman’s help, they have started the Village Fund to make use of all the donations they have received.
There is $13,000 in a bank account right now that the school is finding a way to use for future Village Academy students in need.
“I think this is important not just because the president stopped by here to shake your hands. But he might not be the one that makes change,” Steinman said. “You might be the ones who make the change.”