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In conversation with Mr. Martinez

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

The importance of journalism, experimental documentaries, and the purpose of high school

Photo by Claire Duarte

When I initially approached Mr. E. Martinez for an interview, he expressed a disinterest in the one-sidedness and basic questions of traditional interviews. Instead, he proposed to flip the tables on me and have a discussion in which he chose questions to guide the conversation. Throughout the hour-long class period, we touched on multiple different topics, from the Talking Heads to his time at UC Santa Barbara. Quotations have been lightly edited for concision and readability.

To start off, we talked about the nature of journalism itself.

EM: What … I always think [is] how could journalism play a role in school culture? And engaging students and then making students and maybe teachers like to engage with it and yeah, enter a conversation. This is one of the reasons why when you asked me for an interview, I didn't want to just have you asking me questions, right? … I want to talk about … how do we engage or how … do we start up a conversation with electronic media on a local basis that makes it important? … Maybe that question is, well, we don't just look at social media. Look at the way everything works now. We're just like, flooded with stuff. I don't know what percentage of it is useful … And what percentage is like fluff, but it feels like 90% isn't useful … Like what's useful? Like how do you start?

To be honest, I completely dodged the first half of the question and went on about the technology aspect of it, speaking about the Eagle's Scream's digital presence.

EM: [Here's a question] that my wife came up with: If there was a movie about your life, who would play you?

OT: I don't know too many actors off the top of my head. … I'm trying to think if there's … any movies that I … like a person's performance.

Sheepishly, I said Aubrey Plaza after failing to come up with a better answer. He laughed at me. In retrospect, though, I stand by it.


EM: So now I can ask you more stuff. What's your favorite music? Like I remember you were really nodding your head so some of the heavy metal stuff [that I was playing in class].

OT: Yeah … metal is weird for me because I never like voluntarily listen to it. But whenever I hear it … I like it.

I contemplated how to best sum up my experience with music.

OT: At first, I almost exclusively listened to video game soundtrack music, maybe some film soundtracks every now and then. And I'm still like, very interested in that. And I enjoy it a lot.

After a short digression, we returned to music.

OT: [When] I really started branching out and listening to more music was um, it was after the Get Back documentary came out … you know, about the Beatles?

EM: No.

OT: It was Peter Jackson. It was all restored footage from their sessions working on the Abbey Road and Let it Be albums. …People call it a documentary but it's really just about seven hours of footage of them just together and like their creative process and all the interactions. …It's really really worth watching even if you don't have much interest in them. But [when I] was watching that, you know, I knew like the most popular Beatles songs or whatever. But I just really liked watching their creative process. And that led me to listen to all of their music. And then from there, I sort of branched out into other [music].

EM: [Have you seen] the Velvet Underground documentary by Todd Jones? It came out somewhere around 2020. Check it out. It's an unusual documentary because it's not giving you a lot of overview. It's not like a voice over narration. It's just a bunch of guys talking and music and then you see images and he plays around with the panels like putting them together in different ways. Very impressionistic, where you sit back and listen.

OT: I still like a lot of older rock music, like 60s and 70s. …I like David Bowie a lot.

EM: I've just heard recently of a guy named, I don't know if it's a band or a guy that goes by the name James. It sounds Bowie-ish. I was playing it and I thought, "this keeps resonating with me. And I like it and I'm thinking it reminds me of something. I asked my wife again, "What does that remind you of?" She listened, goes "oh it sounds like David Bowie." I thought, "Oh, yeah, not completely but there is David Bowie-ish stuff in there."

OT: I like anything that's like… I don't know how to describe it, like an eccentric, like David Bowie, occasionally sort of extravagant but also eccentric. I like the Talking Heads. …They sound almost nervous but still very entertaining.

EM: They're an interesting group. I still don't completely get them. I like some of their stuff. But I remember when they came out, and we were in high school, and some of my friends were into it. I couldn't understand it. … And then as I grew up, … I started recognizing that people are writing about it and talking about it … these guys are, are very innovative, and they're doing something against the grain of what rock is. … You know, they're very thoughtful musicians, for example, lyrically … Okay, I like it. But it's still, for some reason, I can't … sink my teeth into it.

OT: Yeah, I find myself drawn to people who can be … sort of experimental and like, groundbreaking or whatever. But at the same time, provide … music that's actually enjoyable to listen to. … I feel like as I've listened to more music, I've become like, slightly more used to more experimental sounds and now I can listen to them a bit better.

EM: I think the more you play it, the more experimental [sounds become] more normal. …it's a matter of habituating yourself. I was always into just like pop stuff and you know, [the American] top 40. …They were all like traditional poppy songs. And as I grew up, I started listening to different stuff. And at first I was like, I don't understand what's going on here. I listened to jazz. I didn't get it. I didn't understand, you know, it's got no rhythm to it. And the more [I listened to music and watched film that was] out of the conventions of normal stuff, I noticed "Oh, I'm able to tune in better." And the more I do it, the better. I can tune in. I don't know how far that will take you. When I watch avant garde film, it's really interesting, and it makes a definite meta statement on the state of pop commercial stuff. But I still don't get a lot of it.

This last fact somewhat surprised me. Mr. Martinez is certainly a film buff: his classroom is full of movie posters and books about film history and analysis. To think that there are still films that he doesn't fully understand surprised me. Perhaps, like everything else, knowing more makes you think you know less. Someone as well-studied on film as Mr. Martinez is likely more aware of the things he doesn't know. I, on the other hand, can exist in blissful ignorance. Back to the conversation: we started talking about different experimental music that we found interesting.

EM: Do you know the band Ministry?

OT: I've heard of them. Yeah.

EM: They used to be like this pop synth group, along the lines of like, the 80s synth pop stuff like New Order. And then they reinvented themselves and became this completely electronic heavy metal grunge type of music for a couple of albums. They did some crazy stuff, really interesting messages you know, a lot of sampling of George Bush and political statements and the whole idea of the New World Order.

OT: Yeah, I always find it interesting when an artist will shift from having more pop sensibilities and become more experimental over time, or sometimes it'll be the opposite.

EM: Yeah. That's always interesting to me. Of course, David Bowie is a perfect example of that right the way he completely reinvented himself completely new and different. There's another band that I'm thinking of… you know Brian Eno? …Wasn't he with Phil Collins? And they split up and Brian Eno went his own path, and Collins became super super popular, all his albums were number one each time they came out. …I think Brian Eno was feeling confined. Just went their separate ways. They went completely in opposite directions. That's pretty interesting. What else about music?

OT: [To go back to the Beatles, they were another example of this.] Towards the beginning of the career they were really seen as just a sort of cheap pop band and then they were able to take more experimental sensibilities into the mainstream and expose the public to stuff that was for the time pretty experimental.

EM: It's a really interesting narrative. Of their travels, right? Borrowing from other other cultures, other musical styles. And their experience with drugs, right? [They're like, these] mod guys from England. And then seven years later, there's scruffy long hair guys, you know, with glasses, like "Peace, man." Yeah, it was really something that transformation. It feels like it wasn't even just strategic. It was whole body right? They became different people.

I talked about the Beatles a bit more, and the discussion came back to documentaries.

EM: I'm thinking about unusual documentaries. By Jean Luc Godard, the French New Wave guy, he made a documentary. Ostensibly, it's about the Rolling Stones, the development and evolution of Sympathy for the Devil. But it's also a lot of other things. We see footage of these guys who mythically are known as complete party guys and crazy guys, exploiting their groupies. But these guys are in the studio, working through Sympathy for the Devil and of course, just the development of it, and then the social commentary that Jean Luc Godard throws in in relation to the time and the place makes for really an amazing documentary.

OT: Something that I watched and I just couldn't really get [was this] documentary about Radiohead. Called "Meeting People is Easy", I think. One thing I can compare it to is, you know the Banksy documentary with Mr. Brainwash? He makes that film that's super sharply cut and really unintelligible. That's what watching the Radiohead documentary felt like to me. It'd cut from interviews to talk shows, fairly haphazardly. …I mean, it matched their whole ethos for sure.

Arts and education

As we wrapped up the conversation about music, Mr. Martinez brought up poetry. He showed me a poem by Charles Bukowski.

EM: "He was a drunk. He was a Barfly … but to me, when I read something like this, I think, Oh, wow. This guy, you know, he writes from the gut. He writes about his milieu, like being around a lot of drunk people, a lot of what we would call lower class people, right? But yeah, when he does this and he writes about this in the way he does it, I think this is the most relevant kind of art that we could have. Because it's not coming from high status. It's coming from a voice that's on the ground. And I think it's something that gives something about this poem that is, what's the word? Visceral."

OT: [What's interesting to me is] there's a whole art world with people selling things for millions of dollars. [It's] something which a lot of times is the voice of people who are less advantaged in society, and it's like, consumed and traded among those who are much more fortunate than society. I think it's really interesting.

EM: Have you ever considered going to an art school?

OT: You know Renarts, the school here? [My parents] always say "Oh, I think you shouldn't be committing to only doing art by the time you're in middle school." That's the reason I don't think that [art school or music school] is something I would actually end up wanting to do. I like a lot of different subjects. And so I would like to continue to study like not not just one thing.

EM: This comes up a lot, we always hear about people deciding after middle school to head over to a school that's focusing on the arts like Renarts, like Baffa, like LACHSA. And then there's the concern that higher level courses here, higher level programs are all about emphasizing written curriculum, emphasizing STEM. On some level, deemphasizing visual culture, oral culture, and other ways of thinking. And, of course, I don't know what a school like that could look like in this kind of institution. It might be that this institution, the way it's built and the way it's carrying its legacy, it's too hard to shift. It's hard to imagine what a school [like that] would look like, with these many students, these few teachers, and the way classrooms are organized, and the way schedules are organized. And the demands of families to say I want my kid to get into a good college.

The pressure in high school to go to college

OT: About college. I think I kind of get annoyed when … so many people will put the emphasis in high school that the only point is to prepare for college, or like, even further, to prepare you for a job. I think it should primarily just be to educate you and to create people into more well rounded citizens who can think critically about whatever. I guess that you can't blame school for putting such a pressure on going to college. It is what happens after high school.

EM: Me and my wife are older people. And we both ended up going to college. She went straight into Berkeley. I had to go to CC to get my grades up and then transfer, but our high school experience was nothing like it is now. It was, take your classes, do well if you want, if you don't you go the CC route, and then if you still don't want to go to college, you get a job. But it was more like, just learn, learn something. And it wasn't the greatest thing. You know, a lot of the things we were learning was a lower level form of writing. But ideally, it seemed like it would be a place to learn stuff. To find out about the world. Find out some practical things too. Like how to balance your bank accounts and how to write checks and how to pay your taxes and all that stuff.

Still EM: As you learn how to think about visual culture … we never used to watch film, good films. We just watched really old crappy films every now and then, as a way to kill time, not as a way to think. [You should] learn how to analyze the film, because films are everywhere. Shows are everywhere. And it might be helpful for you to be thinking critically about what is being fed to you. But we're very practical now, and it's hard to shift into something else because we've been a college going culture for a long time. Even if LA Unified broadly is not a college going culture, now they publicly always have to say we're a college going culture. They got in trouble for not being a college culture. Yeah, everyone's trying to get everybody to go ready to go to college. But this school is unique. The majority of kids in LAUSD are not preparing for college. So as an ideal related to the reality, what does that do? To say, "we're all a college going culture," but we're not. So what does that do? Is it devaluing the people who are not going [to college]?

OT: I think so. One thing I do feel, at least within this school, is that they kind of paint it as a one size fits all solution. I feel slightly naive talking about this because I don't have any experience with any sort of education or life at all past high school. But it feels to me that not every single person should need to go to college.

EM: On a practical or maybe an ideal level. I've met some people who are wondering, "is college for me?" I say, "Well, maybe take a year off but keep in mind: In general, the statistics show that going to college gives you more opportunities. If that's what is important to you, having opportunities, it might be something to really consider seriously. I had a friend that I met when I was at UCSB, I was doing internships. I did an internship at IBM, an internship at Hewlett Packard, and an internship at Raytheon, all these engineering firms. When I was up north, over at Hewlett Packard past San Francisco, I met this guy who was a really nice guy. And we used to play volleyball at rec center. He was talking to me because he was going to school, but he was kind of depressed. But he was also in an internship up there. And he said [something that] always stuck with me. It just really resonated, because when I went to school, I was just like, "Wow, this is like a playground, right? It's like an intellectual playground. There's everything here. This is my place." He [felt differently]. He said, "I feel like I'm doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons."

OT: I think that's certainly true. I feel like students themselves would be more engaged if they really felt like they wanted to learn for the sake of learning. Not just, "I'm doing this because I have to go to college, because why do I even have to go to college? To get a good job. Why do I even have to do that?" If it doesn't matter in the end anyway, I think a lot of the focus should be on just the experience itself. Always asking for what's gonna help to prepare yourself for the future is obviously [useful], you need that to an extent, but I think you should be able to live in the moment and be comfortable with living your life [right now].

EM: How would that look if we tried to nurture that? [It might be like], think about the present, think about the things we need to do. But, explore to figure out like, I think on some level, what you're saying is, exploring who you are, or who you want to become. Because we don't all want to be a teacher, a doctor, or lawyer or an engineer, or a psychiatrist. We don't all want to be that. We want to be a whole person. What in education might help you do that? To you, [Owen], you're a young person going through thinking about it, you're gonna go to a school. Go to college, you're gonna get educated, what aspects of your education here might nurture that opportunity [to explore yourself]?

OT: I think having teachers who you can tell are truly interested in the subject for what it is. I remember in seventh grade, I had Mr. Nuño [for math]. Mr. Nuño is the kind of guy you can tell he was so passionate about math itself. And I feel like all of his teaching came from a place of just wanting to share that with the students, and have them feel the same way he did about something that he saw as so beautiful. A lot of times in more recent math classes, especially with AP style, teaching to a test, I have to remind myself to appreciate the math for its own sake in order to get anything out of it. If it weren't for people like Mr. Nuño, who had taught me how to do that, I don't think I would be nearly as good at it because I just wouldn't care.

Comparing students' success and class segregation

EM: What math are you in?

OT: [DP]... analysis and applications, I think. I took AP Calc last year. I'm not [a prodigy] or anything, there are people who are ahead of me.

EM: Still, like that's pretty solid.

OT: I feel like we're all comparing ourselves to other people in [the Diploma Programme], but all of us are very far ahead compared to the rest of the [high school population, and even] the country. But I think because all DP students, for the most part, are sort of in their own bubble, they can't see outside of it. That's another thing. I'm not sure how to feel about stuff like the magnet program. I understand that you want to be more challenged or whatever, which is the keyword that parents always use. …It's not like DP kids never interact with non DP kids, they do. I do think that's one value of joining clubs and extracurriculars. I say that, I'm not in very many.

EM: When I look at the clubs, I see the clubs are made up of mostly friends. And that's interesting. You mentioned this about having an experience outside of DP. When I first started 11 years ago, I was teaching middle school to the regular groups. And I was noticing this return to tracking. You have honors groups, [non-honors], and some AP. [I was like], "Oh wow, we're segregating again." What happens is we're pulling all of the top students to dp to AP, to honors, and guess what's left in the regular is all the low achieving, low motivated. In 12th grade [non-honors] English, courses are about 75% boys. In general, girls are doing better in high school. It's tough work. You have to deal with the motivation factor, behavior issues.

Teachers' priorities; different definitions of success

OT: Motivation factors is what I was saying earlier. I have to feel like education institutions [could] really make an effort and let people know that learning things is in itself worthwhile. Yes, to prepare for college But also independent of that, it's just a fulfilling thing that I think everyone should experience.

EM: From a teacher's point of view; we're inundated with pressures [about what to teach]. We have to get decent scores, even though I can tell that administration doesn't worry about that too much. [I have that pressure] built-in. Maybe it's peer pressure. I've got to make sure that they're prepped and prepared. I don't want anything going back to parents and, and parents saying to administration: "We didn't learn anything for the test." But again, I don't emphasize the test. The test for me is secondary. What's more important is what you're saying. Critical reading, critical writing skills, being able to do close reading. That's going to help you for the test, and it's gonna help you for college, and that's what's important. How do you teach teachers to not feel the pressure to perform?

OT: I mean, this almost feels like a cop-out answer. I think changing the systems themselves that are pressuring teachers to teach in a certain way. I think if, as an overall society, if we were less focused on a very narrow minded definition of success: get a comfortable job and make enough money to support yourself and get married or whatever. I think part of that is, I guess it's like the overall culture as a result of the way that your systems are set up. I do sympathize with teachers who feel like they have no choice but to remain within the confines.

EM: Do you know Mary Oliver, the poet? She wrote that "the kind of work I looked for was the kind of work that wouldn't take too much of my time and energy, because I wanted to do poetry." That's a whole opposite take to the [the idea that the] job you do should be the kind of job that you're really passionate about. But on some level, I think I ended up teaching because, one, I finally figured out what it meant to learn and learn on your own and be autonomous, regardless of who was giving me work. I realized there's something inherently valuable about teaching. So I thought, oh, maybe I could change. Maybe I can change the way I taught, the people I worked with. That was a small dream. But to me, that idea that work isn't your priority, something else might be, and if something else is, then you figure out a way to make ends meet. And so you could do what you're passionate about. I like that as a different option. Like I think it should be thoroughly explored.

OT: Yeah. I suppose there's the argument of whether or not the, you know, economic system under which we live allows for that to happen.

EM: There's probably a class bias to what I'm saying. Some of us can't do that. Others, like they're struggling and we can barely make ends meet, [they] don't have that luxury. But I was talking to a student, one of my students from two years ago, recently, and she was one of the brightest students I've had, and she has this sense that "I'm not sure I want to go to college." She had tried to apply to all the top schools and because of some kind of financial background, they weren't accepting her and giving her any financial aid. So she took a year off, and then the next year before this year started, it sounded like she was like, "I'm not sure I'm gonna go, I'm not sure college is for me." And I just, I was just like, okay, that's fine. But with your capabilities, and what I've seen in your abilities: The world is yours. College magically opens doors for you. Just because you have a degree, you can be an idiot, but it opens doors because you have a college degree. That's the way the world works. So I said you should really consider that. But I was trying to tread lightly. From my perspective, college changed my life. And it's a good thing. And the people I met in college, great, interesting people, and I'm still in touch with a lot. But maybe other people have a different experience, thinking "College was a mess. College got me into debt. I didn't learn anything. I don't. I don't have a job because of my college degree."

Living in LA

EM: I was just telling my other class, I should be telling you guys too, but this Made in LA exhibit just opened up in the Hammer [Museum] again, over on the west side. I was asking people, "how many of you have been over to the west side?" About five people raised their hands. We stay in our area. LA's so huge, of course. To get over there, you gotta go to another country almost. But [the exhibit] is really something, they have up and coming LA artists. The hammer is free. This is great. It's great to just get out and see LA, because LA over by USC is completely different from here. The West Side is really different from what this is, East LA is different from all these places. The valley has a different vibe.

OT: I haven't spent any time in any other cities. But I have to feel like that's a fairly unique aspect of the city. I mean, I'm sure every city has different regions or whatever. But there's so many different cultures here.

EM: It's been gradually becoming something unique and a little prestigious, right? It's really become a capital of food culture. The food here is amazing. We were over in France this summer. And my kids were kind of complaining about the food, "It's not very good. Artichoke? This is not as good as California Artichoke." We did eat chocolate there one time, it was like what is this? What are they trying to do? We have all kinds of food here, some of the Chinese food, some of the best Mexican food.

Still EM: This is what's amazing about living in LA. You can never know it. There's always things to find out. I grew up in Santa Barbara, it's this closed little place. It's a great little place, but after a while, it's like "I've been everywhere, I've done all of this, there's nothing here, what else is there to do." LA is neverending. Even now, we're [me and my wife] more homebodies than before, we never go out, just the idea that we can go out is energizing. But again, we're kinda thinking, maybe we've had enough of this, maybe we should retire in Santa Barbara, a more calm place. I don't know, we'll see.

OT: What really blows my mind to think about is that there's so much going on in just this very small geographical region, and the fact there's that, multiplied by everywhere in the entire world, I can't even comprehend that.

Throughout our whole conversation, it was clear that Mr. Martinez is a thoughtful person, full of insights and wisdom about the world. While I was initially a bit nervous about how this kind of conversation would go, I now am sure that no other form of interview would have done him justice.

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