Second Opinions : Turning Trash Into Art, Students Find Themselves : In an after-school class, middle school students compose thoughtful self-portraits from litter, offering a glimpse of the passion and insights of young people.

<i> Janet Bernson is a free-lance writer who lives in Sherman Oaks. She teaches in Millikan Middle School's after-school enrichment program, which is free to all the school's students and financed by campus fund raising</i>

Other people’s garbage is a wonderful medium for reaching young people. Instead of collecting aluminum cans or newspapers for cash, I encourage my students at Millikan Middle School’s after-school enrichment “Found Art” class to comb the halls, classrooms and even gutters for objects they can use in art projects.

I believe that trash holds the power of transformation and understanding. That is what I want these kids to hold for themselves: the power to transform their emotions and thoughts into art.

We gather once a week in a room that was recently trashed by vandals. Our first project was to collect the litter around the classroom. Any concerns I may have had about finding materials were quickly dissolved as students amassed piles of candy wrappers, paper scraps, clips, staples, sticks, shoelaces and more. Anything too gross to use I asked them to deposit in the trash can.

“Now what do we do?” piped one anxious teen-ager.


“Make a picture of yourself,” I said.

“Do what?” a boy asked.

I gave them each a piece of illustration board, some markers and glue, and right to work they went. The only sound coming from our room was the jazz on the cassette player.

As if I had opened a gate for a dam, these kids silently and quickly produced some of the most profound self-portraits imaginable. Forty minutes into the project I told them to wrap things up, so we could talk about what we had created. We gathered in a circle.

First to present her work was a girl whose portrait included words of anger and frustration, pieced together from candy wrappers. She criticized herself and her work.

Next was a boy whose picture was divided in half, one side black and dark gray, the other side colorful. “It’s my bad side,” he said, describing the dark side, “the part of me that is mean and has angry thoughts.”

How do you feel about this bad side, I asked him.

“I feel good that I can look at it, and not just feel it, even though it scares me,” he said.

“And the colorful side, what is that?”

“Oh, that’s my good side; I’m having fun here and I am glad to be alive,” he responded.

The next to present her work was a girl, who had used the front of her board to present her immature self. Pieces of garbage were cut and pasted, scattered around a crayon sketch of a girl, as if gravity had all of a sudden dissolved. She described the back as her “grown-up” self. Here was an orderly picture of a well-kempt girl in a suit.

“Which feels better to you?” I asked.

“Well, it’s really hard growing up,” she answered. “This is my grown-up side and it’s what my parents and teachers want me to be, but I am not ready to be this all the time. I really want to be a kid for a while longer. . . . I guess that’s why I cause trouble in class.”

We went around the room, each student presenting his self-portrait. Even those reluctant to share were encouraged by the others. There were no put-downs or harsh criticisms. Each portrait was an eloquent vision of an inner view. All from trash.

These young people are creative and deeply feeling individuals who are ready to freely express themselves. I discovered that this is the first time most have had the opportunity to do so. Through this medium I am convinced that each student will gain a better understanding of himself.

One hopes that their teachers, parents and fellow students will also benefit from their work.

The feelings and thoughts of young people are too valuable to throw in the trash, which is something we might think about the next time we put out the garbage.