It's still a mystery what makes one human care about another. Scientific studies show even babies exhibit signs of empathy. But some psychologists say growing up in a violent neighborhood can mute a child's feeling of empathy. One Chicago Public School teacher wants to develop a sense of caring in his students with help from the Goodman Theatre.
Sydney Miller was only 10 when Hurricane Katrina hit.
MILLER: I didn't really think about it because they said, Hurricane Katrina, I knew what a hurricane was. I was like, how is Katrina a hurricane?
ADAMS: I really did not know anything about it. I just knew it was a big old hurricane that killed lots and lots of people.
Joshua Adams and Sydney Miller are students at VOISE Academy High School on the far West Side. Joshua says he vaguely recalls Katrina being on every channel on the news. He was 10, too.
ADAMS: I didn't know anyone down there, that's what really didn't get me, I don't know nobody down there, none of my family members, so I really didn't care.
TAYLOR: Kids don't really have a sense of history. They know history the way they read it in a book.
That's what brings Willa Taylor, the Goodman Theatre's education director, together with these students from VOISE and three other schools. Her goal is to make history come alive so kids care about it. She also wants people to understand that New Orleans is still recovering.
Taylor saw an opportunity to do this through The Johnstown-Katrina Project. Students here will research Katrina, see a play about another historic flood and then create poems and monologues of their own. The Goodman will take their work and other student work from Louisiana and stage a play in August.
TAYLOR: We want kids to understand history is not made by the rich or famous. It's made by everyday people just like them who make a decision at a moment.
Taylor says she brought VOISE Academy into the program because the principal there understands the importance of arts to kids. First-year reading teacher David Dublis has a strong sense of social justice. He figures if his students learn how to put themselves in someone else's shoes, they'll be more likely to unite and fight for change.
DUBLIS: Too often the kids, specifically in this neighborhood in this school, will read a book about something that happened to somebody else but then not really have a personal connection to it.
He thinks one reason, is the neighborhood that many of these kids are growing up in. South Austin's got a rich history, but there's a lot of crime.
Sophomore Joshua Adams lives right near the boundaries between two gangs.
JOSHUA: I didn't have sympathy for other people. Feeling sorry for other people was not my thing.
Joshua says he has to walk to school in a group so he doesn't get picked off. A friend of his was recently killed a few blocks from the school – one of a half dozen shootings in a week's time.
JOSHUA: And then walking past where his body was laying on my way to school was kind of touching. But dealing with things like that in Chicago, I have to get past that and continue on with life.
The community put up a memorial of teddy bears and candles. Joshua's one of the people who signed it.
This is a small sign of empathy. And it's the kind of thing his teacher, David Dublis, wants to help grow. Dublis hopes the process starts with a visitor to his classroom.
GRADY: Hi. My name is Linda Grady, and I'm here from New Orleans, by way of Hurricane Katrina. Come to share my story.
The students sit around Grady in a circle.
STUDENT: What was the worst thing you saw when you were at the hurricane?
GRADY: My friend, she had 3 kids. She had a baby in one arm and her other baby in the other, and she couldn't hold onto the other one, and the other one just floated off. I've seen a lot of dead bodies, I can tell you that.
The longer the conversation goes on, the more the students are drawn in, and the more sensitive their questions become.
STUDENT: Did you think it wasn't no hope when there was no help when the hurricane hit?
GRADY: Ooh, I didn't think there was no hope. I just thought it was the end of the world.
MILLER: I don't know if it makes sense, but I can relate to the feeling, the emotion. I've lost a lot of people, not to natural disasters, but to other things, and it's something you have to cope with.
Sydney Miller says hearing from someone who was actually there made Katrina personal for her. Now, every time she hears about it, she says she'll think of Linda Grady.
MILLER: She says she's more grateful for things that she has now. I should look at life the same way because tomorrow is not promised to anybody.
ADAMS: Really what sticks out to me is that I wasn't able to relate to any of the things she was saying.
That's until Grady told Joshua Adams and the others she never thought anything like this could happen to her.
ADAMS: I'm like, that's how I felt when I got robbed, I never thought something like that would happen to me. And that's when, as soon as she said that, that's when it started clicking, I've got to start thinking on her level, where was she coming from when she was in this hurricane.
DUBLIS: I was really surprised today in the level of empathy that was shown.
Teacher David Dublis:
DUBLIS: They had a genuine concern for this lady and her family and the amount of damage and devastation that was done. They were mad, they angry, why didn't the government do anything?
DRAMATIC PLAY AMBI
As part of their learning process, the students see a play at the Goodman. It's called A True Story of the Johnstown Flood, and it's a parable about Katrina.
Right after, students start drawing parallels to the story of Katrina survivor Linda Grady.
DISCUSSION ambi: So what do you think? They made it so real. That was weird. That sounds like Miss Linda's story.
After seeing the play, Joshua Adams and other students start creating their own stories about Katrina.
Clarencia King wrote a short play.
Both students say the projects made a dent.
JOSHUA: I'm no longer selfish because if I have it, you have it.
Now, Joshua says, he thinks before he speaks. Even his mom is surprised at the difference.
JOSHUA: She'll be like, why aren't you up in there messing with somebody? I'm trying to mature. It's something she was always telling me to act my age, and not my shoe size. That's something she no longer says to me because I act my age now.
Joshua says he now understands you never know what's going on with people at home or inside their heads.
JOSHUA: Don't take me for granted and don't use me. But if you need something, I'll be glad to give it to you because this program has showed me that a lot of people need a lot of things, and maybe you be the only one who can give it to them. It doesn't have to be on the material level, they probably just need someone to talk to. I can be that person. You can be selfish with more than objects, you can be selfish with your words and with your love.
CLARENCIA: If it wasn't happening near me, it didn't really matter that much.
CLARENCIA: But now I know that, even with things happening in Haiti, it's important to pay attention to what's going on in the world because there's always something that you can help with.
Her teacher, David Dublis, hopes these seeds of empathy will continue to grow.
Music Button: Tortoise with the song "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In" from the release, Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey)