Hanif Abdurraqib on the genuine, youthful curiosity that fuels Kim Leddy and the Mosaic high school program
I meet with Kim Leddy on the last day of summer, outside of the Neil Avenue strip mall that once buzzed with much more activity than it does these days. Summer is earning its final moments. Even in our merciful but small plot of shade, the humidity of the city encircles us, prompting Leddy to take a long drink of her iced coffee before pulling off her button-up shirt to reveal a T-shirt with the words “LOVE ME ANYWAY” stretched across the torso.
“I got this from a street artist that I follow on Instagram,” she tells me, laughing at our shared fondness for the shirt. “At my age, this is just what you've got to tell people.”
We're here — old stomping grounds for us both — to talk about Leddy's role in Mosaic, a program founded in 1990 that offers an alternative, humanities-based learning experience for high school juniors and seniors in Central Ohio. The program is simple enough on its face, but Leddy's vision for the program has expanded its possibilities and the rigor of the work and worlds it introduces to young people. But mostly we're here to talk about how Leddy, at age 50, has stayed engaged with young people by channeling a desire to interact with her own youthful curiosities.
“I started reading Harry Potter years ago, back when I was tutoring at the Homeless Families Foundation,” she tells me, starting one of many stories that shines a light on not only her institutional memory of moments, but how she sees herself as someone shaped by young people. “I was going through this really bad breakup. And there was this kid named Michael, who was really into Harry Potter. And during lunch one day, I was on the phone and I was crying, and Michael noticed me and walked up and — I'll never forget this — he says, ‘What can a brotha do?' And he started talking to me about Harry Potter, so I got the Harry Potter books so we could have something to talk about together.”
This, primarily, is how Leddy operates. Often in pursuit of anything that will make her someone who can engage in trusted dialogue with young people. Before the ink dries on her Harry Potter tale, she jumps directly back in. “And then I started reading Twilight, because everyone was reading Twilight, and I just didn't understand it….” She tracks a car crawling by with her eyes, thoughtfully.
“I think that's when I realized that every generation gets the vampire it deserves.”
Leddy's path to teaching was winding and took part in multiple geographies. “I first came to Columbus [from Massachusetts] to study dance,” she said. “But then I got really nervous about having a dance degree. And then I had a leg injury, which made me even more nervous. So I picked up English.”
After her time at Ohio State, Leddy began working at the Bermuda Onion, a deli in the Short North. While there, she was approached about writing a nightlife column for this very publication (then called Downtown Alive.)
“It was the '90s, so it wasn't the Short North like it is now. The nightlife scene here was different,” she said. “It was back when there was a rave scene here, like at 700 High and Valley Dale. It was fun. When you're in your early 20s, who wouldn't want to do that?”
After the column found success, Leddy got a steady position as the arts editor at Alive before burning out. She noticed an article in the Accent section of the Columbus Dispatch about adults going back to college to become teachers. “I thought to myself that I was older, and I loved being in school in general,” she said. “And I thought high school would be the best place for me.”
Because she already had an English degree, she went to Otterbein University to take teaching classes. “The first thing they do is put you in a classroom so that you don't take all of these classes and realize you hate teens. So I'm in some middle school in Westerville,” she said, laughing. “And that's when I realized that knowledge of pop culture will help you in the classroom. The kids were watching “Dawson's Creek” at the time. So I started watching it, and then I'd go in the classroom and talk about it. And that made all of the difference in the world. Because I thought that something these students were interested in was important.”
After bouncing around some Columbus City Schools for a bit, Leddy went back to school at Lesley University in Massachusetts in 2004 to get a master's degree in education. “I have a master's in education, in creative arts across the curriculum, with a specialization in multicultural studies,” she said. “And I was there that year the Red Sox won the World Series.”
By the time she returned, Columbus City Schools had gone through a small upheaval. Schools had closed, funding had been cut and students were departing for charter schools. Due to these factors, the schools were not hiring. After subbing and working at a charter school for a year, Leddy applied for a job at the newly established Metro School in 2008. “The principal called me and told me that my application looked great, but that she thought I'd be good for another position at this Mosaic program,” she said. “I loved this idea of blending the arts and academic subject matter, sewn together as a woven tapestry, instead of just one class after another after another. We can't pretend that history has nothing to do with literature.”
Beyond that, Leddy's aim as director has been to shape Mosaic into a place students come to not only learn about, but gain an affection for the city they live in. “I came in, and I wanted to give students a true engagement with the creative pulse of this city,” she said, kicking the ice in her cup around with a straw. “I think it's important that students realize that writers, street artists, musicians and poets can come from where they live. I cheerlead for this city, and that's become part of this program. Students have to go out into Columbus and do things in this city, for a grade. Not going to the movies, but going to the Wexner Center. Or going to 400 West Rich and talking to an artist. A lot of students come in the door talking about how much they hate Columbus, and how boring it is. And by the time we're done, they don't want to go [away] to college.”
If you were to walk into Mosaic at any point, as I have over the last several years, you will undoubtedly be greeted by a rampant curiosity, a vibrant interest in anything that can be read or spoken or acted out. It is as if these young people, free from the rigorous mundanity of high school, have unlocked a truer version of themselves.
“You know, people forget that before the testing frenzy, education was a lot more interesting,” Leddy said. “You could go to Whetstone and take things like Germanic literature. There were a lot more fascinating things happening.”
A lot of the work of Mosaic, too, is to blend together high school juniors and seniors from vastly different backgrounds, and grant them the autonomy to discover the world through each other's lenses. “There are students from New Albany, Groveport, Hilliard, the West Side, Bexley,” she said. “So you have this diversity of race and gender — the things we think about when we think about diversity — but we also have a diversity of class, which is the thing we never think about when we think about diversity.”
The goal, it seems, is to tear down some of the city's geographical bubbles in an attempt to further the students' knowledge of the city. “Kids self-transport, too. So we can have classes all over the city,” she said. “Instead of school, we can meet at the Buddhist temple. And the kids can get in their cars and get lost and see Columbus.”
All of this — from the self-transporting to the engagement with the city and its arts — serves the greater vision Leddy has for Mosaic: a place where young people can learn to take control of their own visions and passions. “We live in a really interesting culture, because we celebrate youth, but we don't really like the young,” she said. “Every commercial out there features young people, and women are supposed to be buying creams to make themselves look young, and we watch movies about high school. But when it comes time to actually interact with teenagers? Adults freak out. They follow them at the mall. When I tell people I teach high school students, they visibly recoil. Everywhere we turn, everyone wants to be young, look young and act young. But when they have to interact with youth, people don't like it.”
This, by itself, isn't a new concept, and Leddy understands this. We've seen it before — one generation resistant to the next. The difference this time, I imagine, is that the youth are better equipped than they have been in the past. They are not only more politically articulate, but they can get their messages out without having to rely on their older peers for much other than building pathways for them. In this way, educators like Leddy are vital.
“I always wanted to teach teenagers,” Leddy said after bouncing back and forth on the topic of being surpassed by brilliant youth. “I connect with young people because I have a genuine interest and respect for their cultures. I ask them to make me mixtapes. I ask them to tell me what's going on in their lives. It's easy for adults to dismiss a teenager going through a breakup, but to that teenager, that breakup is the most important thing in the world, and it's worth paying attention to. I love what I do. I never wanted to teach young people how to read. I wanted to talk to them about the things they were reading.”
“You know, it's interesting who makes the choice to come to Mosaic and not come. Because it is… it is a choice.”
Leddy says this while looking a bit longingly past me. We're talking about MarShawn McCarrel, the activist and poet who Columbus lost when he died by suicide on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse in February of 2016. McCarrel was a Mosaic student, one Leddy pushed to get involved in the poetry scene, where he flourished.
“I remember the first time MarShawn went to Writing Wrongs poetry night at the Method Gallery years ago,” she recalls, laughing. “His mom sent me an email asking, ‘Is this real? Is this something he's really doing, or is he out doing something else?' And I had to say, ‘Yes, it's real.'”
In a way, McCarrel was a perfect representation of what Mosaic can afford a young person: growth, empowerment, the confidence to take on the world, or at least a world. In talking about his evolution from a high school student to the activist and artist he became, Leddy tells me, “I loved watching him get more in touch with his feelings. I loved watching him become freer and more vulnerable. He went through a lot for someone so young, and in a culture that is increasingly hunkering down in their own foxholes, he was able to climb out of his to give of himself, and that is such a precious beacon.”
She pauses a bit. “MarShawn and I just shared space in the same way. We were really close. I loved watching all of the work he did with Feed the Streets, and I especially loved how Feed the Streets didn't want any outside help. They were determined to give back to their community on their own. It was really empowering.”
I wonder out loud where someone like MarShawn could have possibly gotten the idea that he could reshape a community all on his own, without the help of adults, and then I wonder out loud how many other MarShawns could be ushered into the world, spilling from the arms of Mosaic.
Leddy tells me she'd never take credit for any movement or youthful revolution. That she just does her best with what she has. And she does. She truly does.