Isaiah Batista first came to my attention when I asked Sue Silverstein at Bishop Gibbons High School if she was running out of the granola bars and instant noodle packets that she keeps in a special place for children who are hungry or who have not had any breakfast.
I know she had to be running out; the Army Of Good sent a bunch of healthy snacks to the school in September, and many kids come to school without having a healthy breakfast. Sue has always tried to feed them; many come to class early to get something warm to the heart.
“It’s funny you mentioned it,” she said, “I have a terrific art student, a senior named Isaiah, and he decided on his own, without mentioning it, to raise some money, and when she came to work one day, there was a box of instant noodles waiting for her.” Isaiah is a committed Boy Scout about to be an Eagle Scout (the highest badge in scouting).
When I asked Sue what he was working on in art class, he said he was making some pants for his grandmother, who had been so good to him. I said I wanted to meet him.
There has been a lot of handwringing lately about TikTok and the damage done by social media to children. Every generation, I think, rolls their eyes at “young people today.” I don’t buy that young people are dumber or less creative than previous generations, including mine. However, many parents and teachers are sounding alarms about how social media platforms harm their children and slow their education.
Last Friday, I met with and interviewed the 17-year-old Senior at Bishop Gibbons High School that Sue was telling me about. He is a very enthusiastic student in Sue Silverstein’s revolutionary new art program, different from any he and his friends have ever taken.
“In Mrs. Silverstein’s class,” he told me, “we get interesting assignments, but she also lets us make the art we want to make and encourages us to use our heads to come up with ideas we want to do. That’s exciting,” he said, “it’s never happened to me before.”
It hardly happens to any students anywhere. Many schools canceled their art programs in recent years due to economic issues and the pandemic. Art classes have vanished from countless public schools. Sue teaches us all how much art can matter in her program. It was a source of comfort and learning for the refugee kids who flock to Sue’s classes.
Isaiah is not a refugee but has much to teach us. One thing is not to always dictate art work – let kids figure out what they want to do, and within reason, let them do it. I’ve seen it work at Bishop Maginn and Bishop Gibbons. Sue Silverstein taught art at both.
Isaiah Batista’s story is about art, but it is also about values and character, making for a perfect Thanksgiving Or Christmas Story. Isaiah understands the meaning of family in a very particular way.
Isaiah is impressive, the kind of kid disappearing from America in the mass Tik-Tok hypnosis, driving many teachers and parents to distraction.
He was raised by his grandmother and grandfather, who have, he says, “been so good to me.” He loves them both. He was joking with his grandmother about Christmas, and she said that she would love to see him make something of his choosing rather than buy something for her.
He loved the idea and talked to Sue about it. She said an Army of Good soldier sent her a box of flannel fabric, and Isaiah decided to make her some pants. He cut out the fabric himself and did the measuring and sewing. He is almost done.
Like all of the art in the program, the fabric comes from donated discarded things. His next project will be something for his grandfather.
Sue has been telling me about Isaiah for a while, and I was glad to meet him. Sue was not exaggerating; in many ways, Isaiah embodies what most of us hope our children will be as they grow up – thoughtful, conscientious, and empathetic. Wherever he goes, Isaiah told me, he wants to do good and help people who need it. He learned this in the Boy Scouts. He is one badge away from Eagle Scout.
This is his last year at Bishop Gibbons; he hopes to go to Sienna College to study either accounting or Civil Engineering.
(Above, Sue Silverstein)
I asked Isaiah if he spent much time on social media, and he smiled and shook his head. He said he goes on Instagram at times but not TikTok. He noted that between sports, his scouting, and his community service work (raising money for people in poverty), he doesn’t have time for too much social media and thinks most of it is a waste of time. And he doesn’t have much time to waste.
I kept thinking, I wish members of Congress were like this.
He’s been working on his grandmother’s pants for three days. “I love that Mrs. Silverstein says as long as you do your assignments, you can do whatever you want.” That, he said, got him interested in art, even though he isn’t looking to be an artist. He says art has been good for him, building his confidence. It has taught him a lot, including that art is essential.
Isaiah is deeply grateful for his grandparents. “They have always cared for me,” he said, “teaching me to do good, protect me from the bad, and look for the good in the world. I want to do something for them.”
The Boy Scouts have had a significant impact on Isaiah’s life.
Instead of going on social media when he gets home, he, friends, and other scouts go out and cut down trees for people who can’t afford to hire professionals, deliver soup and food to the homebound, clean lawns, clear away garbage, and ensure poor kids and older adults have food. “It’s more interesting than social media,” he said, “and more satisfying.”
Isaiah didn’t need social media to be engaged; he had his ideas about what is essential and meaningful.
The Boy Scouts, he told me, have helped him to learn about character and responsibility.
I told Isaiah that the Army Of Good would donate $100 to his program to help people in need and the vulnerable. I’m sending him a check (if anyone wants to help support his program, you can do so by donating to me, [email protected] or Venmon, Jon Katz@Jon-Katz-13, or by check, Jon Katz, Isaiah Fund, P.O. Box 205, Cambridge, N.Y., 12816. Make sure to write somewhere that it is “for Isaiah.”
I was very impressed by Isaiah; he is a role model for children and adults in challenging times. He understands ” character ” and has a lot of it, along with a strong sense of morality and compassion.
We agreed to stay in touch with one another when he goes to college, and I would love to meet his grandmother and grandfather one day. They sound lovely as well.