Fort Vancouver students share stage with professional writers

Young talent in spotlight with experienced artists at “Orpheus”

VANCOUVER — They shared the stage and the spotlight Tuesday night at Fort Vancouver High School.

The three adults who showcased their skills are professionals, known names in their craft. The eight students who read their work are not familiar names, at least not outside of their school.

All of them, though, are writers.

Students, professional writers and a teacher were all one on stage Tuesday night at the first night of “Orpheus,” the annual reading event at Fort Vancouver High School. An author, an essayist, a Pulitzer Prize winner and eight students read from their works. Photo by Paul Valencia
Students, professional writers and a teacher were all one on stage Tuesday night at the first night of “Orpheus,” the annual reading event at Fort Vancouver High School. An author, an essayist, a Pulitzer Prize winner and eight students read from their works. Photo by Paul Valencia

“Orpheus,” an annual reading event at Fort Vancouver, opened its month-long series, this week featuring an author, an essayist, a Pulitzer Prize winner and eight inspiring students.

“There is power in stories,” said Ben Jatos, an English teacher who started “Orpheus” in 2014. “To get kids to tell stories is an awesome thing.”

Jatos noticed the talent many of his students displayed, and he hoped to give them a place to share.

“I wanted the kids not just to write for me, their instructor,” Jatos said. “I thought, ‘We could do a show.’ Even if it was just for friends and family, that would be pretty cool.”

Jatos then imagined an evening with students on stage with professional writers. That first year, there were eight students and four professional writers.

“It was a pretty awesome night,” Jatos recalled. “The writers loved it. The students loved it. The parents loved it.”

Remainder of Orpheus 2018:

Fort Vancouver High School Auditorium

May 15, May 22, May 29.

All shows start at 6 p.m. and admission is free

The next year, Orpheus became two nights. Then three. Last year, it expanded to four nights. This year, too, will be four programs – this week and every Tuesday for the rest of May.

He sent out 23 invitations to professional writers this year, and 21 said yes.

One was Eli Saslow, a Pulitzer winner who writes for The Washington Post. He read from his feature “What kind of childhood is that?” – a story of a teenager dealing with the loss of both parents who died from overdoses.

“When Ben reached out and told me about Orpheus, it seemed like an incredible program,” Saslow said.

In fact, Saslow runs a small program designed to help high school students learn to write, called

“I also thought this would be a great way for me to learn about what Ben is doing,” Saslow said. “But, mostly, it just sounded fun.”

Tabitha Blankenbiller, who read from her recently released book “Eats of Eden,” has now performed at Orpheus four times.

“I was just so impressed with what this was, students getting a chance to see writers, real writers,” she said, adding she did not have anything like this when she was a high school student.

It is important, she noted, that young writers see everyday people embracing art.

Acacia Blackwell shared a story of her two fathers, her biological father and the man who raised her, as well as forgiveness.

Those were the “names” of Tuesday’s presentation. The students, though, are the reason for the event.

In the program for “Orpheus,” named for the great poet of Greek mythology, Jatos asks audience members to give applause, whoops, hollers and encouragement, but also reminds them that there is a “small degree of trepidation” for some who are about to take the stage.

“Tonight, they will share their words and some of their soul with you.”

There is also a warning that some of the material has adult themes. These stories come from the heart.

Esmarelda Ortiz talked, among other things, about how an insensitive prank can have a lasting effect on a relationship in “Smarter than That.”

Tristan Giard shared her story of teen pregnancy and the love of her son in “Henry.”

Anna Harrison reminded us of the bond between siblings as she recounted helping her younger brother through some trying times in “The Hole.”

Drew Weber explained to the audience what it was like “On Being a Spoiled White Kid” while attending such a diverse school such as Fort Vancouver.

Lindsey Luis, who Jatos said should run for President in 2040, shared her beliefs in “How to Fix The American Political System.”

Emily Phelps brought laughter to the auditorium with her “Meme Boyfriend’ presentation. (See below for the full essay.)

Justine Jacob reminded the audience that beauty comes in all colors in “Pigment.” (See below for the full essay.)

Navon Morgan told his story of how people use words and labels to tear others down in “Whitewashed.”

As Jatos pointed out, there is power in our stories.

Professional writers. Student writers.

All are one at Orpheus.


Here are two of the essays presented Tuesday night:

“Meme Boyfriend”
by Emily Phelps
(Name of the boyfriend has been changed)

For those of you who don’t know, a meme is a funny picture or video that can be sent completely in or out of context. It can be anything from a picture of a stick of butter to a young boy yodeling inside of a Walmart. Imagination is the key to understanding a quality meme.

When I was 15 my best friend and I made a meme account on the social media platform of Instagram to mainly post memes but also to talk to boys that we saw at cross country meets. It gave me an odd rush of adrenaline to direct message someone without them knowing who I was. I could say whatever I wanted to and I could do anything I wanted to do. So what does one do with the power of hiding behind a screen? Well ladies and gentlemen, I chose to send memes. I sent memes to every boy I thought might be a potential boyfriend to see how they would respond.  

All of them asked who I was? I answered your mom, a very mature response. Then most of them said no really who are you? But John was different, you see, he knew exactly who I was because a smart boy would do some detective work. I told him that we were just two dudes who went to Fort Vancouver High School and loved memes. But then I felt guilty so I told the truth and unveiled the identity of the meme account on Instagram for the first time. Then I sent him a picture of Steve Harvey zoomed in. After that came Dr. Phil, and what started as a short conversation became a nearly six-hour conversation on New Year’s Eve. That’s right! I owe my first high school relationship to none other than Steve Harvey. We brought in 2017 together over Instagram and the next day we started to text. I didn’t have to keep the conversation going, it flowed. He sent memes and I sent memes back.

When I came back to school after winter break I told all of my friends about John and they started to ask me to DM guys on my meme account for them. And what was once second period English became something more lively and thrilling than any paper we could ever write. The first time I met John in real life was at a Union basketball game. We sat together with his brother and I was sweating through my shirt. After about an hour and a half of yelling to talk to each other throughout the game, the game was finally over. I no longer had to smell the mixture of roller hot dogs and mint gum that the gym full of teenagers provided. As I hopped into my mom’s Honda minivan I gave him the most awkward hug I have ever given in my life, a sitting hug. I had forgotten to say goodbye because I had gotten nervous. I issued a waving motion for him to come over to the car so I could give him a standing hug but the seatbelt wouldn’t unlock. I received a sitting hug like a toddler and it was absolutely disgusting. My mom made fun of me for the entire trip back to our house which was about thirty minutes to be exact.

It’s hard to believe that we had a second date after that incident but the next weekend we went ice skating, then I took him to Tolo, then we had a movie night, and about 3 months later I decided that I had to break up with him. Not because he did anything wrong or because I stopped liking him. I think the truth was that I never liked him in the first place. I always act on my emotions because they match my true thoughts. But for some reason I contemplated breaking up with him because I did like being in a relationship, but not with him. And once I told myself that I only liked the idea of a boyfriend it became easier for me to break up with him. I wanted to text him a long paragraph over text but my mom said that would be too “cruel.” I had to call him at around 10am after I had slept on the idea of breaking up. I don’t remember everything said in the phone call but I do remember it lasting 20 minutes. “Hey I think we would be better off as friends.” And the “Ok why do you think that? What did I do wrong?”, that came with that. Followed by 19 awkward minutes of whimpering echoed through the phone directly into my ear. I now have phone anxiety. I still wish that I would’ve have texted him because then I wouldn’t have felt and heard his feelings. I guess that makes me a b—-? But I’m ok with that because it’s true.  

For weeks I contested that the reason I broke up with him was because my schedule was too busy but the truth is, I will always find time for the right person. Maybe he wasn’t the right person because he called dating, “courting,” which is dating for marriage. Maybe I didn’t like him because all of my friends said that he looked like the “string cheese man.” Or maybe it was because he always smelled like chicken and I’m a vegetarian. Or maybe it was none of these things. What else can I expect from a relationship that was based off of humor alone? I was blinded by the shininess of comedic value but I seemed to have missed the fact that he lacked motivation. And that was it. That was enough for me to end it. That doesn’t mean that he’s not a good guy and wasn’t good enough for me. It simply means that I wasn’t head over heels for him like he was head over heels for me.

To put it simply, I deserve to be knocked off my feet, head over heels for someone, everyone does. But that doesn’t always happen no matter how perfect it may seem. And breakups are definitely not perfect no matter how many memes you use.

A day after I broke up with him he texted me a long paragraph that said in short that he still wanted to be friends but that we should take a “sabbatical” from speaking for a few weeks. And that was ok. But I haven’t talked to him since and i don’t plan on it. What kind of hell do you call it when the next cross country season every time you race against his team which was eight times for the record, his teammates yell out John’s girlfriend as you run by? I’ve almost flipped them off a couple times but I don’t need to. Obviously I left an impact on him if over six months later his friends are still talking about me.

I still haven’t learned my lesson. I would still do the same thing all over again, memes and all. But John did teach me something though. He made me realize that I can never just date someone. They have to be extraordinary. Not do extraordinary things, but live extraordinarily. He has a new girlfriend now who probably adores his memes but I don’t miss him or his memes because they weren’t that funny anyways.  



by Justine Jacob

I was walking through an Asian market the other day and saw a box of papaya soap, the same brand I used when I visited the Philippines in the fifth grade. I remember because during the last few days of my month-long trip I had used that bar of soap religiously until I wore it down to a sliver. It had the type of sweet smell that lingers as if you never rinsed it off your skin, and it almost makes you want to take a bite out of the bar as if it were the real fruit.

To be honest, the sole reason I asked my aunt to buy the papaya soap for me because the box said it had skin whitening agents in it. I had gotten really tan during the time I was in the Philippines and I thought that I would get picked on if I came back to school ten shades darker than when I left. And yes, skin whitening products are a thing. You’ve heard of spray tans and tanning beds, but when you walk through the aisles of a Filipino store, there’s a plethora of soaps and lotions meant to help lighten your skin color.

Now, when you look at me I wouldn’t necessarily fall into what most people deem as the “dark” spectrum, but in the Philippines I am definitely on the dark side. I am well within the shade range in which I would face prejudice or discrimination from my own racial group. And you would think that in the Philippines that just because most everyone is Filipino, dark skin isn’t picked on in schools or underrepresented in the media. Colonial mentality is still prevalent and thick in the air.

To give a little history, my country had been under Spanish rule for 300 years and gained independence in 1898. During that time, people of lighter skin were seen as having a higher social status and being superior in every aspect. On the other hand, people with darker skin are viewed as lower class, less educated, and poor. It’s been 120 years since that time period and this way of thinking is alive and well within the minds of the oppressed. This is the basis of colorism and colonial mentality.

In turn, the Filipino beauty standard we know today are the mestizos, or the Filipinos with european features and most notably, the light skin (Think Pia Wurtzbach, Miss Universe 2015 who was born to Filipino mother and a German father). In other words, Filipinos who don’t look very Filipino.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the core reason as to why little boys and girls think that their dark skin is something to be ashamed of is because they have an image they can compare themselves to. They grow up watching light skinned celebrities on TV shows. They grow up surrounded by light skinned models on every box, billboard and magazine. Light skinned Filipinos eat up the vast majority of the representation in the media. This instills the idea in young minds that their dark skin isn’t normal, and that the only type of beautiful is achieved if you’re a certain shade.  But in the Philippines, it’s extremely sunny about ninety percent of the time. You can’t live in such a climate and expect to have super light skin unless you never step into the sunlight or there is something seriously wrong with your skin.

So, what’s so bad about being dark? Dark skin is caramel, it is earthy, it is golden. Most important of all, dark skin is normal. Little Filipino boys and girls don’t get told this enough as kids, so they grow up thinking that their pigment is something to be ashamed of. They get told to stay out of the sun or else they’ll get too dark. They are told to take an umbrella with them out of the house not because it is raining, but because the sun is out. They are told that light skin is the only beautiful skin. I want to tell these dark boys and girls to love and accept their pigment, that the color of your skin is merely a puddle on a rainy day and that their true beauty and worth is a raging ocean in comparison.

And I’m not saying that having light skin is a bad thing or that it makes you any less beautiful than having dark skin. I’m trying to say that there are more ways to be beautiful than just having light skin. Flowers are pretty, and so are the stars at night yet the two don’t look anything alike.

To all the parents of dark skinned children, please teach them that they should never wish to be any other color than they are now. Kids need to learn to embrace themselves while they’re still young in order to save them lots of heartache in the future. I’ve grown up despising my skin and wishing that I was a shade or two lighter because having light skin was the only kind of beauty I knew. It’s the only kind I was exposed to. But I know now that light skin does not translate into intelligence or worthiness or beauty. A beautiful soul is indiscriminate to the pigment of one’s skin.

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