Tijuana's Blue Tarp School Captures The Imagination
The Park Dale Players will perform the new musical based on the children's book "Armando and the Blue Tarp School" on Saturday, November 14, 2009, at UCSD.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. As bad as our economy is right now, sometimes it's also important to remember how prosperous we really are living in the United States. Even during hard times, there are things we take for granted that people don't have in many parts of the world, for instance, schools with computers and books and desks and walls. Several years ago, a teacher named David Lynch started an unusual school at a dump in Tijuana. He gathered some of that city's poorest children together on a big blue tarp and started teaching. The story found its way to many news organizations and David Lynch was able to start a foundation to help establish other schools. And, the story of that blue tarp school is now the subject of both a children's book and a children's musical. I’d like to welcome my guests. Edith Fine, co-author of the children’s book, “Armando and the Blue Tarp School.” Edith, welcome to These Days.
EDITH FINE (Author): Thanks, Maureen, hi.
CAVANAUGH: And Pat Lydersen is playwright for the musical adaptation of “Armando and the Blue Tarp School,” to be performed by the Park Dale Players, a group of local young actors. Pat, welcome to These Days.
PAT LYDERSEN (Playwright): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Edith, if you could, tell us just a little bit more about David Lynch’s Blue Tarp School. When did he start it and how did you hear about it?
FINE: In 1980, David was a teacher in New York and he went to volunteer just for a summer at Tijuana, the Colonia near the dump. And he realized that there was no school, so he spread a blue tarp on the ground and that became his school. He was going to be there only for one summer but now in the year 2010, he will have been there 30 years.
CAVANAUGH: Oh, good heavens. How did you hear about David?
FINE: In 1985, Judith Josephson, the co-author, and I were working for the Los Angeles Times, freelancing, and her Girl Scout troop was gathering things for David’s school and we pitched it to the editor. We went down with an LA Times photographer to the dump in December of ’85, and then wrote the story. And a reader said to her husband, I don’t want anything for Christmas except a school for those children at the Tijuana dump, and she sent money. Six months later we went back and there was a school. Nothing like a school that we would imagine but a plywood building and they were out of the rain and away from the smell and the noise of the dump.
CAVANAUGH: Now in your book, “Armando and the Blue Tarp School,” who is Armando?
FINE: Armando is a fictional boy based on the children that we met at the Colonia. Obviously, Senor David is David Lynch.
CAVANAUGH: Exactly. Now, in the book, Armando, what is his situation?
FINE: His situation is that his family and many of the people who work there at the Colonia are pepinadores (sp), they are trashpickers and that’s how they make their living. They find copper wire, they find bottles and cans, they find things that they can use themselves, and that’s how they make a living. And…
CAVANAUGH: And, therefore, that’s how they make a living and that’s why they’re not going to school…
CAVANAUGH: …because they’re needed by their families.
FINE: That’s right, to help support the families.
CAVANAUGH: Now, in the book, these children, as you’ve already told us already, have a very hard life. They’re very poor and they have to work and sometimes their families can’t afford to send them to school. But also, something happens in the book and in, I imagine, real life to the Colonia. Tell us about the fire.
FINE: There was an actual fire in 2004 when 40 homes burned. No one was injured, fortunately. But we did include that story in the – in our book. It gave a high point to this picture book.
CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly. And I wonder, has David Lynch, the original teacher, has he seen this book?
FINE: Oh, heavens yes. Oh, heavens yes. He’s the star of the book.
CAVANAUGH: Yes, indeed. And what does he – what is his reaction to it?
FINE: Well, you know, David’s very modest. He’s one guy who has done so much it really proves the power of one person to make a difference. But we’ve used the book for fundraising and that’s what’s also going to happen with the play.
CAVANAUGH: Now I want to move on to the play. Pat Lydersen is here. She did write the book for this children’s musical based on “Armando and the Blue Tarp School.” Why did you and composer Wendy Wolf decide to write a musical based on this story?
LYDERSEN: Well, it was really almost fate. I got a phone call one time and it was a wrong number. It was by a reporter who was doing a story on theater in North County. And she happened to mention this book. When she heard I wrote plays, she said, oh, you should do something with Edith Fine with this Blue Tarp School. And Edith, it turned out, I had known Edith for years. I hadn’t seen her for a long time because I had moved away from that neighborhood. And so I called Edith and it just sort of happened. It was just by accident, really. And…
CAVANAUGH: Now, this being a children’s book, obviously it’s not very long and the plotline is not exactly complex because you don’t want that in a children’s book. So I wonder how do you translate that…
CAVANAUGH: …to a play?
LYDERSEN: And, you know, it’s funny. I had – Once I got the book, I thought, ooh, yikes, you know, I have to write a play, you know. I had two things I was worried about, the shortness of the book; I had to expand it into like an hour and a half long play. And the seriousness of it because I’ve always written comedies. And I solved the comedy part by going to Shakespeare and doing comic relief. I have two rats and a seagull in the dump. So they’re the comic relief because it’s a very serious story…
LYDERSEN: …and it’s an important story. And then when I really started really delving into what’s actually in the book, there’s a lot more to it than the 16 pages or so that it is. And I – Actually, the rest of the story, other than my little rats and seagull, are – it follows very closely to Edith’s book, you know.
CAVANAUGH: It’s an expanded version.
LYDERSEN: Yes. And then, of course, with all the songs and everything. I had a ball writing the lyrics to the songs. I write the lyrics and Wendy does the music, and Wendy’s music is spectacular in…
CAVANAUGH: Well, you brought one of the songs for us to hear…
CAVANAUGH: …from the musical. Before we play it, tell us what we’re going to be hearing.
LYDERSEN: Well, this is the one quiet song in the play. Most of them are big production numbers. And this one, Armando has a friend Isabella, and she’s able to go to school so she, after school, in the evening when Armando’s finished with work, she comes and teaches him everything that she learned at school. And he says, this is wonderful but I wish I could really go to the real school with Senor David. And so the name of the song is “Someday Maybe.” And she’s singing someday maybe you will be able to go to school.
LYDERSEN: So that’s…
CAVANAUGH: Let’s hear it.
(audio of song “Someday Maybe” from the musical “Armando and the Blue Tarp School”)
CAVANAUGH: That’s a clip from a song from “Armando and the Blue Tarp School.” And it is a children’s musical. The music is by Wendy Wolf, lyrics by Pat Lydersen, and the singers are Aubrey Bush and Jack Blumenfeld. Can you tell us a little bit about the singers? It was delightful.
LYDERSEN: Well, it’s Aubrey Bushé…
CAVANAUGH: Bushé, sorry.
LYDERSEN: …and these – The Park Dale Players is a group of elementary, junior and senior high school students, and these are our older students. We’ve had them since third grade and now they’re in eighth grade. And there’s five of them that are going to be doing a shortened version of the play at this big fundraiser that we’re having for Responsibility, Inc. And they’re just wonderful young singers and actors and I can’t say enough about them. They’re just so much fun to work with. And the others are Benjy Mellings, Cassidy Miyeda and Lauren Cook, and, well, Edith has gotten to know them and…
FINE: It’s been remarkable to watch the – through the rehearsals, watch the play evolve because I’ve been at every rehearsal, and it just grows and grows and they – they’re so strong. But I have to tell you that Wendy and Pat came to my house and David Lynch came up so Judith and I were sitting there with the other three, and Wendy and Pat went through the whole musical and Wendy – Wendy sang the songs. I thought David was going to fall out of his chair. It’s a beautiful – it’s a remarkable thing that they’ve done.
CAVANAUGH: You know, I don’t want to leave, Edith, without talking about the illustrations in your book, the book version of “Armando and the Blue Tarp School.” Tell us who did the illustrations.
FINE: Well, the publisher is Lee & Low Books. They’re known for their multi-cultural books. They’re in New York. And they got Hernan Sosa, who’s a wonderful artist, who lives in Colorado. And they’re quite unusual. He put a white outline around a lot of the pictures and what we feel is it almost has a stained glass look because, as Pat has said, it’s a difficult, challenging topic, and it almost softened it. He also added a dog. Children like to look for this dog. There’s one on the cover. And wherever Armando is in the book, very often the little Pero is following him.
LYDERSEN: Like I added the rats.
FINE: Yes, exactly.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us a little bit more about David Lynch and his organization. How many – Do you know how many schools that he’s been able to build now?
FINE: He now has built four schools and he’s actually starting a second expanded project down in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. He began with water and now is preparing a pre-school or a building that can be used as a pre-school during the day and a night school for the adults at night. So the four schools, now the children there at the Colonia have computers, they learn art, they have regular kindergarten curriculum, so he’s giving them such a strong start.
CAVANAUGH: And who runs the schools?
FINE: David is the superintendent now, and one of the boys who sat on the blue tarp school, Profe Philippe is now a principal and a teacher at the school, which gives you goosebumps, doesn’t it.
CAVANAUGH: It certainly does. Now he’s not the only former student who’s involved in teaching now. Philippe Gonzalez…
FINE: Well, that is – that is…
CAVANAUGH: Oh, the same…
FINE: Profe Philippe, right.
CAVANAUGH: …the same young man.
FINE: But, you know, he’s in – David is in contact with a number of the students who are adults so if they are running a business in Tijuana, then he can take his students to tour these businesses and they can see that there is a life beyond the boundaries of the dump.
CAVANAUGH: Well, that is fascinating. Yes, he must have a whole – there’s a whole generation now of children. Do you know if they’ve gone on to higher education or what are some of the success stories involved?
FINE: He knows some of the stories. Certainly, there are business owners, there’s a young woman who owns a bakery who was one of his students. And the thing is, is that he’s also involved high school students from this country who can see, take a walk in another person’s shoes and get a sense of what it might be like to be living there. But those students are fabulous students at the Colonia. We were astounded. Their handwriting is great. Their manners are beautiful. And they want so much to learn, they’re absolutely primed and ready to learn.
CAVANAUGH: Pat, did you also visit the Colonia?
LYDERSEN: No, I haven’t. I would like to someday but I haven’t been there.
CAVANAUGH: Tell me, when you took on this project, did you – were you moved by the seriousness of the topic at all? Did you wonder whether or not…
LYDERSEN: Oh, my gosh.
CAVANAUGH: …the students would be able to do it justice?
LYDERSEN: Well, I didn’t worry about that because we have an extremely talented group of young actors and very, very experienced young actors. They’re not what you would expect if you go in to see a play done by children. This – They’re not, they’re actors. So I wasn’t worried about that. And just dealing with – like writing the story, it was, as I said, most of my plays are comedies. This was just a wonderful experience and I am so, so impressed by the work that David has done that I feel good that I was able to, you know, maybe able to like contribute a little bit in getting the word out so…
CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank you both so much for coming here and talking to us about today. We’re actually going to close on some music. And…
FINE: Could I just…
CAVANAUGH: Yes, please.
FINE: …say that it is up for a California Young Reader Medal for this year.
FINE: And bluetarpschool.com.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. Edith Fine is co-author of the children’s book, “Armando and the Blue Tarp School.” Pat Lydersen is playwright for the musical adaptation of “Armando and the Blue Tarp School.” The Park Dale Players will perform the new musical based on the book “Armando and the Blue Tarp School.” That’s on Saturday, November 14th at UCSD. You can go to KPBS.org/TheseDays for more information. And coming up, we’re talking pets for the rest of the hour. Stay with us as These Days continues here on KPBS.
(audio of clip from song “Someday Maybe” from the musical “Armando and the Blue Tarp School”)