Written by Dermot Connolly
Here is the cover of the book, “111th and Roberts: Where Our Stories Interact,” which was written by students at Stagg High School about their life at the school and to honor the late English teacher Mary Ogarek. A documentary was also filmed.
An effort to hold onto the sense of community and empathy that enveloped Stagg High School following the death of popular English teacher Mary Ogarek in 2014 has resulted in a book written by students called “111th and Roberts: Where Our Stories Intersect.”
Kenneth Erdey also filmed a documentary following the two teachers and 60 students involved in the senior English class project, and more than 300 people came to its first public showing on Aug. 2 at Stagg, 11100 S. Roberts Road, in Palos Hills.
“It was a very special event. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” said Principal Eric Olsen last week.
Mary Ogarek, who was 33 when she died in 2014, following an illness, got the project started herself when she and fellow teacher Lisa Thyer applied for and received a District 230 Foundation grant for $5,000.
“We taught the same type of classes, and although we didn’t co-teach, we collaborated on things,” said Thyer, explaining how she became friends with Ogarek.
“Our idea for the grant was to create a class where students could learn to ‘write for the real world,’” she said.
“Mary was there for the early planning stages, but she missed a lot. She was told she needed a liver transplant a few months before she died,” she said.
After students and faculty came together to mourn and share stories following Ogarek’s death on April, 2014, the decision was made to find a way to hold on to the “sense of community and empathy that formed” said Olsen.
“After Mary’s death, the school community could have gone a lot of different directions. They chose to make something positive out of it,” said Erdey, whose wife, Carla, is the communications director for School District 230.
After meeting with people from Voices of Witness, a San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to promoting human rights and dignity by collecting oral histories, the faculty created a class doing something similar at Stagg. Thyer and fellow English teacher Christopher Wendelin agreed to teach the two sections, with a total of 60 students.
“The students who agreed to take the class deserve a lot of credit, because we didn’t know how it would go,” said Wendelin. “Some gave up AP classes to take it,” he added.
“Many of the students said they took it for the challenge,” said Olsen, describing them as “courageous.” The classes were as ethnically diverse as the school population, with everyone from honors students to those in special education getting involved.
Wendelin said that seeing the documentary brought back a lot of memories of what went into putting together the book over 10 months. “I don’t like seeing myself on film but Ken did it so well, without being intrusive.”
The documentary follows the students through the process of interviewing each other, and writing and editing each other’s work before the book was ready for print.
In segments available on YouTube, one student said she thought she knew about 80 percent of her classmates, but through the interviews, realized that she hardly knew them at all. The students found out that whether they came from the Middle East, high rises on the South Side of Chicago, or their families had lived in the suburbs for generations. They all had struggles to overcome.
Erdey, an instructor in the University of Illinois College of Media in Champaign-Urbana with 20 years of experience in TV news, called making the documentary “a very unique and life-changing experience.”
“When you film a short news story for TV, you never see the people again. But I was involved in this on a daily basis for 17 months,” he said. “I am going to try to incorporate what I learned from these students into my own classes.”
He said he really appreciated being introduced at the Aug. 2 showing by Molly Nagle, a graduate of both Stagg and U of I who was taught by both Ogarek and Erdey.
“She works on George Stephanopoulos’s program now (This Week), and flew in from New York to specifically to do this,” he said. “She was my student when we began the project, and was going to help me but she didn’t have time,” he explained.
“I’ve heard that (that there was not a dry eye in the house) during the showing, but my intention wasn’t to depress anyone. I hope they were all not bringing anyone down. I hope they were all good, happy tears,” he said.
Erdey said he plans to have the book and documentary included in a panel discussion at U of I in the coming months. The movie isn’t currently for sale, but he said he is working on copyright and other details that will make it possible.
Thyer said she is already looking forward to teaching the next “voice of witness” class this fall with Wenderlin. “There are only 30 students this time, because the classes had to be chosen in January and no one was sure how the first class would turn out.” She and Wendelin both said that after the book came out in May, a lot of juniors were trying to get into the class, but it was too late. But it shows there is a promising future ahead for the class.
“We are not going to write a book again, but we might do a podcast. We will see how it goes,” said Thyer.
More information about the project is available at www.staggvow.com. The book is available through the school and a few local bookstores. Erdey said he is planning to show the documentary at a U of I panel discussion, and is working on getting it copyrighted for wider release.
All proceeds from book sales will be donated to Voice of Witness San Francisco and to The Mary Ogarek Memorial Scholarship Foundation.