Finding Mona Lisa

Kylan Burrell, 18, is as big as a linebacker, trying to hide his huge frame behind a crowd of petite blond tourists wearing pink cotton. He wants a few minutes away from his friends, who are hyper with excitement, to think about what he's about to do. If he's actually man enough to do it.

His teacher, Jocelyn Rainey, spots him with her digital camera. She zooms in on his face. Beads of sweat pop from his forehead as he glances at the 81-story iron tower just a few yards away. Walking over to the group, he looks skyward at the 1,063-foot-tall Eiffel Tower. He's so nervous he can barely spit out his words.

"We're in the open, man. Look, when we were on the 20th floor of the Renaissance, didn't I nuh-nuh nut up?"

They tease him mercilessly for stuttering. "Didn't you what? Nuh-nuh up?!" Kylan's friends can laugh all they want, but when they don't know the camera's on them, their high school teacher Jocelyn Rainey catches cartoonish looks of terror on the teens' faces.

"You said we were going to walk the streets of Paris," Brandon Baldwin says. He prays silently.

"She's whacked," Timothy Lamitier adds later.

"Yeah, she's outta control," complains Montell Clay. (His friends call him '88 Jordan.)

"Mama, I wanna go back home," Brandon sings.

"We'll get through this," Rainey reassures her students. After standing in line for 20 minutes and shaking their heads "no" a million times over, the boys are now crouching in the corner of a crowded elevator as it shoots up into the orange glow of Parisian dusk. The young Detroiters have Rainey to thank for pulling them out of their comfort zone. At the top of the tower, she grabs Kylan's hand. "Look at the world! Look all over!" They watch the fireworks, a safe distance from the rail.

Taking time off from teaching high school and night classes at Wayne County Community College, coaching cross-country track, running her own gallery, working in her studio and exhibiting art, Jocelyn Rainey recently took five male students from her Loyola High School art class to Paris for a dose of high culture. She held her their hands as they bit their nails. She was scared to go to the top too. She would never show it though; she's got to be strong for the boys.

After Rosa Parks turns runs into Fenkell, behind warehouses and brown fields on the city's west side, the bleached and weedy street is lined with gospel tabernacle after Baptist church and Masonic temple. The strip is spotted with a few barbershops, liquor stores and a Zazz gas station. At Pinehurst, a Catholic church with a bright blue steeple architecturally recharges the environment. On the same corner sits Loyola High School. Inside, young men are so quiet during class compared to Detroit public schools that one visiting mom thought the students had the day off.

"Hey, don't brush your hair in here, that's nasty. That's personal hygiene," Rainey yells across her classroom. The boy puts his comb away lazily in his pocket. It's 12:25 p.m., the temperature outside is 90 degrees and everybody's white button-downs are untucked. Miss Rainey, as she's known to the students, has just finished dishing out chicken nuggets and french fries in the cafeteria before rushing to teach art to guys who would fight her every step of the way, if she let them. Her professional attire is what she also wears for a workout — silver pumas and a grey T-shirt that reads "Brooklyn" in white letters. With closely cropped hair and a tomboy outfit disguising her marathon figure, but for a face like a rare bird, she seems like one of the guys.

Conversation flows easily in art class, partly because it's as messy as a teenager's bedroom. Newspapers, magazines, tools, brushes, bottles of glue and paint tubes cover the large desks. Posters of Ethiopia hang in the front. Across the back, photos of Ella Fitzgerald, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Ellison and other prominent African-Americans watch over those who hustle in to learn painting, art appreciation and introduction to art — everything from ballroom dancing to Picasso and poetry.

"Don't start that loud talk!" Rainey warns the group after the bell rings. When boys get together, they brew like a storm. With students half her age and twice her size, Rainey is courageous enough to demand respect, but she gives it as well. She points to one student, confessing, "See now, he's the one I'm gonna give the one-two to — the class clown." She winks at him.

The Jesuit Loyola High School opened in Detroit in August 1993 "in an attempt to address the alarmingly high dropout rate of high school males," says the school's Web site.

"We seek young men who have the willingness and ability to excel, but the odds are against them," says Wyatt Jones III, a former student who is now Loyola's admissions director. With only about 170 students, the classes are intimate, with 15 to 20 students each. Although there's no government assistance to pay the $3,600 annual tuition, let alone the additional expenses administrators say cost a few thousand dollars per year, private donors and sponsors assist students without adequate funding. Approximately 98 percent of all graduates go on to higher education, be it college or a trade school. Miss Rainey puts it in plain terms: "We don't recycle seniors."

The beat of Shop Boyz's "Party Like a Rock Star" pushes through iPod speakers as Rainey's painting class finishes an assignment — self-portraits collaged with text. The class brushes a layer of gel over their paintings to give them a gloss.

Louis, a student everyone calls Arthur Ashe, due to his likeness, has just finished his. With words and phrases cut from the newspaper, he defines himself as "a perfect masterpiece. He's tough. Extreme. Special. Innocent." Another student glues down: "Young leader. Growing. Perfect. Super wild." Yet another expresses his love for Detroit's people and neighborhoods with a painted brick background. In white letters, he's titled his canvas 6 Mile, an ode to home.

The artworks aren't half-bad. The guys know how to use a blue undertone to make a black Afro pop and how to use orange and pink to warm up skin tone. "They're all poets if you make them write," Rainey says. On the backside of one canvas, a student has scrawled, "Just like anybody, I'm both loved and hated."

Accepting the Loyola gig was a difficult decision for Rainey. In January 1998, after receiving a master's in fine art from Wayne State University, the former gallery assistant at George N'Namdi Gallery had just started her own showplace in the Atlas Building, located in the Eastern Market area. But she wanted to keep art-making her primary focus.

Rainey was about to turn down the offer until her sister changed her mind: "I said 'I don't think I'm going to take it — there are 160 boys.' And she said, 'Well, you always wanted 10 sons.'"

At her Detroit loft, art subsumes her life. Crayola-colored wax rather than crusty noodles hardens in pots and pans on the electric stove. The jeans lying in piles on her floor are material to be glued, painted and sculpted, not washed or worn. It's a reflection of creativity that began at an early age. "I grew up in the kind of environment where whatever you do special, you gotta do it in front of the family," she says. With eight sons and two daughters, Rainey's mom made her brood's clothing by hand and encouraged each child to be an individual, buying them instruments every year, be it drums or a keyboard. They each had routines to perform when the family had company over. They'd put on the Temptations or James Brown — "you know, for the older folks" — and dance.

"If you wrote poetry, you'd have to get up and recite it. It didn't matter what you were into," she says, "If one day you said you wanted to be farmer, my mom would say, 'That's great! Let's look that up!'"

Without even knowing that much about art, Rainey enrolled in the bachelor's program at Detroit's College for Creative Studies. Artist Gilda Snowden, who had Rainey in a design class, recalls Rainey's inventiveness:


One project involved making a decorative mask that had pronounced three-dimensional elements. Most of the students stuck to the basics, making masks out of paper plates with objects glued or stapled onto them, then painted.

Jocelyn came in to class wearing a total headdress that covered her head, shoulders and flowed down her back! It was made of wooden beads that had to be sewn together. It totally blew the other projects away. She explained that she took apart one of those beaded seats that are used in cars and reconfigured it in the shape of the headdress. There were 600 beads in each one, she informed me.


Rainey's work has evolved into colorful painterly abstraction, inspired by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. In a show at Zeitgeist Gallery currently, her self-portrait is a vibrant painting in gobs of yellow, red and blue. A bumpy terrain of found objects, such as a glove, paintbrushes and scraps of blue jeans, define who she is, projecting outward while suggesting hidden depth. Snowden calls Rainey's work "demonstrative, vital, visually bombastic, humorously effervescent and, at times, very enigmatic." Her art is so alive it's coming off the canvas. Its energy cannot be contained.

With class almost over, Thomas Harvey raises his hand to tell Miss Rainey he's done with his piece and he'd like to stand up to recite his poem. She quiets the class and turns down Michael Jackson on the iPod. "This is a special poem," Thomas says, "that goes out to Thomas." The class laughs. His poem includes a couple of lines that pre-empt audience reactions, like "Don't look at me, boy, cuz I ain't finished." Everyone ooohs.

"I used to hear the word 'bitch' all the time," Rainey recalls, about her early days at Loyola High. "For me, those are fighting words." The first class she taught was full of big football players in their last semester as seniors. "They weren't ready for a young female, and I wasn't really ready, either. At first, I lashed out at them, but I had to mature."

Rainey's mom told her what she was doing wasn't working and she'd have to find another way. "The next time I came in the classroom and heard someone say 'I hate that bitch,' I said, 'Don't be so disrespectful — call me Miss Bitch.' They looked at me like —what? They never said it again."

Respect is about striking a balance between authority and friendship.

"There are no metal detectors here. I make them understand that they are the safe environment." The guys like to scuffle with each other during breaks, and a few too many pokes can turn into some hard pushing, but Rainey says they break it up themselves before it gets too vicious.

Sometimes protecting them from each other at school is a lot easier than protecting them from what happens at home. Rainey remembers dealing with one boy who was abused. "He was the kind of kid, if you told him to be quiet, he just wouldn't be quiet." She saw marks on his forearms, which he tried to hide with sleeves. "I think he saw me see it. I talked to him, and he told me his father whipped him. I took him to the counselor." Sad about it for weeks, it made her wonder whether she really wanted to teach. "You have no idea what kids are going through. You have to be sensitive enough to get it. But, man, you take on their problems."

Your own stress is usually derived from other people's problems — that's what Rainey's mom taught her. To deal with it she's an avid runner, getting up at 4 in the morning and starting her day off by jumping rope or painting. Then she heads to Belle Isle around 6 a.m. — the "good morning island," she calls it, because of the polite professionals running, biking and walking at that hour — before heading to work at 7:45 a.m. Her exercise routine also keeps her in shape to train with Loyola's cross-country track team, for which she became the first female head coach this year.

She stands in the doorway after the bell rings, knocking knuckles with students as they pass and yelling at the dawdlers to get to class.

"My class is the place to be," she boasts. Her face lights up when junior Timothy Lamitier stops by. "Look who's here!" Rainey punches him softly in the bicep, and he fake-flinches, like he's a soft peach who bruises easily. Timothy is part of the family. He's one of Rainey's sons. They bonded in the City of Lights.

It's a sunny Saturday morning in early May and the Starbucks across the street from Belle Isle is not exactly jumping. Inside, five Loyola guys slouch around a small table, reading the newspaper in aviator shades and Air Force 1's. It could be they're acting quiet because they're not early risers. Perhaps they're toning it down a notch because of the woman in khaki shorts and ponytail parked with a stroller at a nearby table. Or maybe the guys are playing it cool, pretending that getting interviewed by a journalist is no big thing, like jet-setting to Europe, not to mention flying for the first time, is no big thing. They each extend their hands and introduce themselves politely. Rainey rolls her eyes as she pulls out her wallet from her black canvas Fear No Art bag to buy the boys drinks.

Hanging out with their teacher has brought out a sweeter side to these high-schoolers. A die-hard Starbucks fan herself, Rainey has unwittingly gotten the guys fiending for little caramel things like frappuccinos and macchiatos. The guys sip their girly drinks topped high with whip cream as frilly as a ballerina's tutu.

"I woke up one day and said, 'I want to go to Paris.'" That's how Rainey explains her recent adventure taking five of her students from Detroit's west side to France. She went into class last semester and inquired if anyone had interest in joining her. None of them had been to Europe before, and a few were scared of hanging out for several hours 20,000 feet above the ground.

After sucking down Starbucks, Rainey drags the students across Jefferson to Belle Isle. A few of them mosey along (as you can guarantee they did in France), yelling jokes at Rainey yards ahead across the bridge. With the guys out of earshot, she breaks down the family dynamic they formed of the trip: Montell Clay, 17, is the grandfather. He's quiet, and most of the time he talks with his hands and uses phrases that you wouldn't think would come out of a teenager's mouth, like, "Oh, lordy" or "Watch out now." Kylan Burrell, 18, is Papa Bear, a big guy with a tough exterior who's a sweetheart.

"Kylan always wanted to carry my bag — my 'Barbie bag,' they called it — in Paris," Rainey says. "Some of these nuts, they carried it, but they didn't really 'carry' it. Plus, he bought his mother a purse in Paris." Brandon Baldwin, 17, the only senior of the bunch, is the big brother, keeping the boys in line. Charles Reed Jr., 17, has middle-child syndrome. "He makes a lot of noise," Rainey says, "and kept trying to get the attention of girls." And Timothy Lamitier, 16, is the baby of the group, kind of quiet and thoughtful. He wants to be an auto designer.

In order to travel to Europe, the teens spent months fundraising. Brandon Baldwin's mother, Allyson Johnson Peterson, says she paid for her son's trip, which cost roughly $2,400, with the help of family members and friends. She sent out a letter telling her sorority sisters that her son was selected to go overseas and how much it might cost. They each donated $50.

New St. Mark Baptist Church, the family's church on West Eight Mile Road, also donated. "Brandon's very close to our minister and his wife," Peterson says, "so he called them up. They said they would help, but he had to donate time to the church, if they needed anything." The Sunday before he left, the minister brought Brandon up before the congregation and the parishioners prayed for him to have a nice trip, then they gave him $100. With $12,000 raised, passports in hand and a little bit of French on their tongues, Rainey, admissions director Jones (who came along to chaperone) and the boys were on their way to breathe in Paris in the springtime.

"She's a beautiful lady for putting this together," Peterson says. "Miss Rainey, Brandon and I have had a rapport since Brandon walked in the school, in the ninth grade. I knew I could leave him in her hands. She's his eyes in the school, I always told her, 'At school, you're his momma.' To travel so far you have to trust them, and I knew he would be safe. I just can't wait till Brandon graduates, so I can finally be Allyson, Jocelyn's friend, rather than 'Brandon's momma.'"

While sitting on the grass swatting bugs by the Detroit River, the guys talk about how traveling by foot or public transportation was a new experience. In Paris, they "caught the sidewalk" most the time, getting in shape "thanks to the Rainey regime."

They owned the city, the students claim. There's some truth in that, in the way they casually refer to the pompous grounds of Palace of Versailles as "King Louie's castle." The Cartier store is simply called "Cart," and the incomparable Musée de Louvre shakes down as "loov."

Kylan sets up a joke about the Louvre with pitch-perfect comedic timing: "The Louvre is straight. If I go back, I could find my way from any block. You wanna know why? We visited it like 12 times a day walking in circles. We went to Champs-Élysées and the Louvre. Arc de Triumphe, then the Louvre. Notre Dame, then the Louvre. We went to the red light district, the flea market and ended up, somehow, at the Louvre."

"A lot of stuff is near the Louvre, you know that!" his teacher laughs. "They kept on saying to me, 'Miss Rainey, is that the Louvre again?'"

Brandon's favorite part of the trip was seeing the Mona Lisa because, at only 30 inches by 21 inches, he couldn't believe how small it actually is. Rainey is pretty proud that they caught videotape of the Mona Lisa. "We snuck in a camera, didn't we, Brandon? I put the videotape on Brandon's shoulder and a security lady was all 'No, no no!' so he slid it over to someone else. We got videotape, like three seconds, but we got it." Rainey's currently working on turning a week's worth of raw footage into a documentary with music that she calls Finding Mona Lisa.

The guys flip through pictures they've carefully placed in photo albums. There are classic tourist shots, images featuring Charles raising his arms in front of the Eiffel Tower, military men walking the streets (as they do regularly now) with fingers on the trigger and shots of Parisian taxicabs, which happen to be Porsches. There are also some "money shots" — a rainbow of Euros spread out on a hotel comforter with a few long fingers pointing at the foreign currency.

"What did you think about the Euros?" Rainey asks.

"The food was weird, alright," one of them says, thinking he was asked about the gyros over there. The preparation, more than the cuisine itself, threw them. The guys get riled up and share their critiques at once:

"The bacon wasn't done. It wasn't right."

"Yeah, it was heated up, like, in the microwave."

"Like they just cut the pig up and throw it right up on the plate."

"You get thumbs in your rice over there, too. My man's over there patting the rice into a scoop with his bare hands."

Rainey attempts to mitigate: "The things we think are really disgusting, they don't. But seriously, talk about the Euros."

"Well, I was mad," Timothy says. "I went to the currency exchange with $200 and came out with $115 Euros. I spent the rest of the day thinking about that. I feel disappointed and hurt by that."

"Your dollar is not strong enough," Rainey tells him. "It's weak, baby."

The subterranean life on the Metro taught them a lot about just how "public" public transportation really is. They all sing in unison, "Oooooooh, the Metro," before flying by an inside joke, something about a dude who was writing his name in cursive in boogers on the subway window. That's the French for you — dramatizing even that which is banal or vulgar.

"There was always somebody dancing, singing or hustling on the Metro, and for some reason, they would always go over to the big teddy bear over there," Rainey explains, referring to Kylan. "These two guys were dancing in front of him and they kept getting in closer, rapping and doing flips. What did he do? Mr. Sensitive," she shakes her head back and forth, "'Aw, come on, man, come on, dawg. Get out of my face."

"Then there was a guy on the train who had a radio on his shoulder. He was drunk and broke out singing." Rainey imitates the weirdo imitating Grandmaster Flash: "Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge.'"

The guys fall back in the grass laughing and clapping as Rainey recounts the scenario. "He kept playing it and rewinding, playing it and rewinding. Everybody moved from one side of the subway to the other, and poor Kylan's stuck over there with his 'Come on, dawg' and this French guy's like, 'Shut up! Shut up, boy! Shut up!'"

"I guess I'm just not used to their culture," Kylan says. "We were walking down the street, people were sitting outside eating and they weren't saying anything to each other." All the boys nod their heads in agreement about how quiet Paris is.

"And also," Kylan adds, "people just walk by you — boom boom, boom boom — knocking your shoulders, without even saying 'Excuse me.'"

"That's because they walk fast and you walk slow," Rainey says, in all seriousness. Kylan refrains from a comeback that you know could come quick. These guys adore her.

The slope of a curb or people eating out of their backpacks while biking —the small things about the way another society lives strike you. Even though this trip was an extension of art class, the students don't really blabber too much about tourist attractions. Instead they discuss what immediately impacts their lives: You have to pay to use public restrooms; you get charged for a glass of ice water at a café, forget about free refills. McDonald's sells liquor. Nightclubs have a collared-shirt and no-shorts dress code. If you saunter in sporting gym shoes, a sweatshirt or shorts, Parisians think you're uniformed to play basketball.

"Some people dress like they were from over here," Kylan says, "but you knew they were from over there because the fit on the clothes was tight."

"The clothes weren't tight," Rainey argues, "they just fit.

"Well," he adds, "There really wasn't nothing for me over there. You gotta be, like, 115 pounds. They don't eat. The portions are smaller and more expensive." Some of the boys tried Indian food for the first time in their life in Paris.

One incident in France blew Rainey's mind, but it made the whole trip worth it. In Halles Saint Pierre museum, a few dark-skinned men from Senegal attempting to be cordial and relate to the Detroiters as Africans threw up their arms and said in heavy French accent, "What up, slick niggas!"

The boys got mad. Rainey asked them, "Why are you mad? You say it to each other all the time." They said "Yeah, but they don't know us." She found her moment to say something that had fallen on deaf ears for nearly a decade.

"Now you see why so many of us who are a little older in the African-American community hate that word," she told them. "Those guys didn't know how to speak English, but they've obviously heard that phrase so much, they just repeat it without really knowing what it means. It does not have to be part of your speech." Rainey says she hasn't heard the students use the word since.

The teacher is headstrong in attempting to change students' attitudes about race, gender and sexuality. She does it by using stereotypes back on them. When she hears someone disrespecting a woman, calling her promiscuous or playing degrading music on the radio, she says to them, "Well now, here is what people think of you. Is that true?" But her best teaching method, which comes naturally, is consistency.

"I don't care if you're 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds," she says, "I'll put you in their place. They know I'll snap out. It doesn't matter who's in here — the principal can be in here."

The best example, though, of how Rainey acts with her "sons," is not a story she'll tell you herself. Her wobbly camera caught it.

She's waiting at the airport for the guys to arrive the morning of April 10. Timothy shows up first. His mother and he share an aloof hug goodbye before he travels overseas. Timothy seems to be sulking as he sits on a ledge outside the double doors at check-in.

"If I want to do anything, I have to do it myself," he mumbles.

"Why?" Rainey asks. He shakes his head and turns the other way.

"About what?" Rainey prods a little further — and this is no small thing — gets him to open up.

"I wanted to buy a camera," Timothy says. "And I had to put money on my card. It's not like she's gonna do it for me." He looks up at her. "You're making me nervous with that camera." Rainey cracks a joke and has Timothy smiling in less than a minute. A little while later, Timothy pulls out a box of candy Peeps that his mom had snuck into his backpack.

When dealing with her kids, one minute Rainey wears a smile and the next, a fierce reprimanding look in her eye. Snowden calls her a dynamo, a tornado; she's got guts, but she's always tender. It would be great if someone could show the whole city tough love like that. In 2001, Rainey ran for City Council, and made it into the top 50 runners-up. She had a big old school bus that she painted on. She let homeless folks stay in there overnight, as long as they cleaned up after themselves. It was towed away after a while.

Walking around the fountain at Belle Isle, Kylan holds Miss Rainey's hand as she steps over a ledge. "She takes no crap. She's like a big sister. Actually, she's an auntie," he says. Everyone's quiet for a minute.

"Yeah, a lame auntie," one of them cracks, under his breath. They might as well exhale. Nobody wants to seem too soft.

"In the African-American community, it's an honor to be called Auntie," Rainey pipes in. "So don't lie." They'd rather not let her know it, but the trip is life-changing. They now have a reference point 4,000 miles away. Allyson Peterson says, "I'll be talking with Brandon and out of nowhere he'll say: 'You know, in Paris ...'"

The most important lesson to learn as a know-it-all high-schooler is that you don't know everything. Traveling is the best way to see outside yourself. These guys wanted to see the world, and found out it's much quieter than they thought. Hopefully, it requires further investigation. Peterson says her son keeps saying he wants to go to Barcelona with the group next year, since Rainey's already got a plan in the works: "It's so funny, I have to keep reminding him, 'You can't go, Brandon — you'll be away at college.'"


Personal Abstraction, featuring the work of Jocelyn Rainey, M. Saffell Gardner, Alvaro Jrado and Gilda Snowden runs through June 16 at Zeitgeist Gallery, 2661 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-965-9192. JRainey Gallery is at 1440 Gratiot Ave., Detroit; 313-259-2257.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts and culture editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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