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Here He Comes To Save The Día: Super Rico Is Born


June 11, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

After they heard the roar of Flight 11 over their classroom and watched on television as the World Trade Center crumbled, the students in Nina Anastasia's class at Public School 721 on the Lower East Side wondered if the people would have been saved if Superman had swooped in from above or Catwoman had scampered up the towers.

Then, in April, when the promotion of "Spider-Man" also spilled into her classroom, Ms. Anastasia moved to capitalize on her sixth and seventh graders' fascination with superheroes. She decided to have the students create their own comic book superhero, one that might give them a lesson or two in writing and grammar and along the way help them work out some of the feelings lingering from Sept. 11.

After considering Spiderboy or Superboy, the class of nine sixth and seventh graders came up with Super Rico, an all-powerful Puerto Rican tree frog, or coqui, who wears blue briefs and a red cape and can leap tall buildings and hurl razor-edged lily pads. No other comic book character has his compassion, Puerto Rican street argot or incredibly sticky tongue, the students say.

Ms. Anastasia's class may be following many others throughout the city who have been exploiting Sept. 11 as a teaching tool. But its take on the event is its own. For Ms. Anastasia, Super Rico's most amazing power is his ability to help the students write clearly, often about their own experiences and fears of drugs, family abuse, violence and terrorism.

P.S. 721 is a special education school. Ms. Anastasia teaches at a branch of the school at the Puerto Rican Family Institute, which runs the special education program jointly with the Board of Education. That branch has 19 students classified as emotionally disturbed, either because they have behavior problems or are easily frustrated in their attempts at learning.

Each student wrote one chapter of the story, which tells of a frog who gets his powers after a scientist takes him from the rain forest into his lab. He escapes from the scientist's evil son, El Doctor Gringo, and goes back to the rain forest. After learning to harness his powers, Super Rico defends Puerto Rico from El Doctor Gringo's attempt to destroy the island.

The adventures are filled with allusions to the students' own experiences. Super Rico saves his future wife, Mamita Coquita, from an abusive lover. Leaper, Super Rico's brother, betrays him when he collaborates with the evil doctor. The hero even saves the island from terrorism when El Doctor Gringo threatens to blow up a Navy ship.

When the students began voting on the hero of the class comic book, Ms. Anastasia encouraged them to honor their heritage. Seven students call Puerto Rican culture their own, so it wasn't difficult to agree on a muscular coqui, the loud tree frog abundant in Puerto Rico's forests.

Three days after she began the project, Ms. Anastasia was not sure if it would work. But as soon as the class decided that the chemical 2K0 would morph Super Rico from a frog to a hero, the lesson morphed, too.

"It was all they could talk about," Ms. Anastasia said. "Normally, I would get groans and complaints."

Grammar lessons became ways to make the story understandable. When Ms. Anastasia explained that if the students were speaking about the past, they should say that Super Rico threw, not throws. Writing in a distinctive voice, a skill that can elude college students, was a cinch when the students noticed that some of them wrote in the first person while others used a narrator. (They chose third person for the final draft.)

"Not only did they get it, but they got excited about it," Ms. Anastasia said, recalling the perfectionist attitude the children developed.

Ms. Anastasia, who has taught at P.S. 721 for four years, never expected to find so many lessons from one project.

"I really hit the jackpot on this one," she said. Essays about Colonial America and even comic strips had never captured their attention so well. "I could make lesson plans forever and never stumble on something this good."

Most of the students have difficulty concentrating in class and working cooperatively, but Super Rico had a way of bringing them together as they helped one another invent vivid verbal descriptions and use bright green paint for illustrations. While Ms. Anastasia did not plan for art lessons, the comics are meticulously drawn, each one showing Super Rico in action, destroying an evil lab or escaping from a burning forest. The students took great care to make sure their drawings looked similar enough to be in the same book. They colored every inch of the page with the brightest colors they could find.

The idea for the book was to teach writing, but the result was also therapeutic, said Yolanda Alicea-Winn, a director of the Puerto Rican Family Institute, who oversees the psychologists at the school, at 145 West 15th Street.

"It helps them manage their issues," Ms. Alicea-Winn said. "It shows they have a safe place to talk about difficult things."

The school psychologists speak with the teachers daily about the students. They would not give details about individual cases, but Ms. Alicea-Winn said some students had said that they knew somebody who had been punched by a family member. Other students have dealt with drug-taking or emotional abuse at home. After speaking up in class, the students seemed to be more willing to talk openly with their therapist.

Christopher Guttierez, 13, does not limit his imaginative writing to the classroom. At home, he writes personal stories, he says, to feel better when he is lonely.

His most recent story was about a hero who could go back in time.

"I write about journeys and voyages, places where nobody goes," Christopher said. "I create my own superheroes all the time. There are people in our minds who can solve the problems."

Though the stories' characters are based on his mother and his eight brothers and sisters, he rarely shows his writing to his family. But in the comfort of the small class, he can be open.

He said: "Sometimes at home what I write is more private. Here I can talk." He carefully drew an illustration of Super Rico cien por cien boricua (100 percent Puerto Rican).

Another aspiring writer, Carmen Vega, 13, created Mamita Coquita, a buxom female frog who wears a white bathing suit on the sandy beach. Super Rico immediately falls in love with her and saves her from her abusive boyfriend. Carmen, one of only two girls in the class, was determined to write her chapter about romance.

"Everybody needs somebody to love them," said Carmen, who sometimes writes love poems for boys in the class.

Like all good superheroes, Super Rico can fly, or jump, into any situation to save the day. He will knowingly put himself in danger to help somebody else, just like the firefighters of Sept. 11 who entered the twin towers, said Mellissa Figueroa, 13.

"They save people like the superheroes save people," she said. "They want to help people in trouble. Those are the people this book is for."

Last week, the class wrote the dedication for the front of the book. "To the families that lost the loved ones in the twin towers. To the real heroes of NYC: the firepeople and the policepeople."

Next week, the students will hold a party to distribute copies of the illustrated book to their parents, classmates and teachers. Ms. Anastasia sees it as the perfect ending to an anything-but-perfect year.

In the end, Super Rico is reunited with his estranged brother. He marries Mamita Coquita and has a happy coqui family. With his knack for throwing lily pads, he stops El Doctor Gringo from destroying the island. Like all good superheroes, he saves the day.

"This way they got to rewrite their own ending," she said. "There are still the things out there happening in the world, but this is their own ending to the school year."

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