Beatrice Ursula Ruiz Seifert does not want Saturday's graduation speech to be about Bea, she tells me, sitting in a copy room at Definitely not.
"I haven't really started," Bea (pronounced Bay-Uh), 18, said of the speech. "I'm trying to get as much as I can from the seniors right now."
Hence the Nikon. She's trying to capture everybody, really absorb them. In Bea's world—and KIPP King is most certainly Bea's world—the lens is like a sponge, and life is the thing it's soaking up.
Bea is what KIPP King Collegiate's first graduating class would be if it were compacted and magnified—compressed into a .gif, or telescoped into a tweet. She is the 140-character version. The thumbnail.
For the legions of donors, filmmakers, administrators and journalists who tour the school, smart, articulate, self-possessed and college-bound Bea is the headline, the sound bite, the this that this is about.
She is also the school's resident documentarian, its auteur, collector and curator of thebeabook, a Tumblr that, while not explicitly or even primarily focused on KIPP, may nevertheless be the best window into students' experiences here—not least because everybody reads it.
It is not an unconscious thing.
The more I talked to Bea, the more I was reminded of the prologue to Zadie Smith's second novel, 2002's The Autograph Man.
This is how things go for Alex-Li. He deals in the shorthand of experience. The TV version. He is one of this generation who watch themselves.
A scant decade later, youth is no longer content to watch. Bea is one of this generation who document themselves.
The narrative of Bea's life can be divided roughly into two parts: first there was chaos, then there was KIPP.
Almost since she can remember, life has been a blur. Bea was 6 when her family left the Philippines for San Francisco's Richmond District.
They didn't stay long.
That year, her mother, Chona Ruiz Seifert, took Bea and her siblings to an aunt's in Georgia, while her father stayed behind working to secure a Post Office job. After a year, they moved again, this time to another aunt in Chicago. A year later, they were back in Georgia. The year after that, they were in Hayward.
Bea spent two years at Longwood Elementary School, a period marked by cussing and Flaming Hot Cheetos. The family still moved around, just in a tighter orbit. Then, the summer before fifth grade, her brother came home with a pamphlet for KIPP.
Chona called. Principal Jason Singer told her Bea could start the next day.
"It was the first time anything had been kind of consistent for me," Bea said of the school. It was KIPP that kept her mother here, a truth she finds hard to stomach. They could have been in Elk Grove now, or back in Georgia.
Her impression of those early years is markedly positive, but also murky.
It wasn't until she met her Nikon D60 that everything came into focus.
"My daily essentials, what I always need with me, is my laptop, my camera and my art pens," Bea said, patting her backpack. Nothing undocumented. Nothing blurry. Nothing forgotten.
The DSLR camera was an impulse purchase, an extravagant gift from her father, a lover of extravagant things, on the eve of their trip back to the Philippines her freshman year.
At first, she took it everywhere, snapping pictures of everything. She also lent it out, urging classmates to document experiences she couldn't access and reveling in the gems they left on the memory card.
If that sounds excessive, consider the context: Visiting King, KIPP's third-ever high school, one is bombarded by a strong sense that something very important is happening here, something maybe a little bit irreplaceable, something BIG.
Again, it is not an unconscious thing.
There are a lot of promises housed in the little cluster of portables where the First Class spend their days, and though KIPP encourages self-reflection in its students, schoolwork doesn't always leave space for it.
The Nikon went some way toward solving that problem, though as the cameras became more popular at King, Bea said she didn't feel so compelled to bring hers anymore. As long as somebody captured it, that was what mattered.
In fact, she said, she rarely looks back at her archives.
"I look through my photos a lot online and through Facebook and on Tumblr, but if I did it on the folder where I took all the photos, I would be bored to death," she said.
Blink, snap, blink. Shoot first, ask later, Tumbl now, in the hope that, a few months later, there might be time to think about it.
"We do a lot of overlooking at KIPP, we really do," Bea said. "When I look at a photo it takes me right back to that moment. I can hear what I heard when I took that picture. It definitely helps me remember a time and appreciate it."
Appreciate this. This, this, is caramel Jell-O, a mammoth rotund mold of it, exactly as appetizing as it sounds.
"Hold on a second, can I take a picture of that?” Bea is already half out of her seat in the school's administrative back office, her camera poised over the strangely staid mass. This is verisimilitude. This is life, and failing to appreciate it—any of it—winds our auteur into anguished knots of frustration.
"It would be after school and my mom would say, 'Let's go to San Francisco.' And I would be alike aw, because I didn't bring my camera, I wouldn't be able to document what I ate," she recalled, with evident regret.
As in so much of the blogosphere, food features heavily in the beabook, because it's aesthetic, and a convenient shorthand for location, culture, attitude and any number of appetites.
Food also features heavily at KIPP King, where it's a convenient substitute for something slightly more tangible: hours, 20 in all, that parents are contractually obligated to volunteer at the school each academic year.
"We were just joking, we’re constantly having events that involve food in some way," said Vice Principal Kate Belden.
Belden and other administrators are avid beabook readers. Yet, at times, Bea's blogging got in the way of her grades. This, she said, is precisely the problem with KIPP.
"That's what's been the most frustrating throughout the four years," she said, after articulating what amounts to the KIPP mission statement (underrepresented minority students, strict academic focus, college as the ultimate goal). "I'm so passionate about photography, and it doesn't talk about that. I wish this was also an environment that people could focus on their passions and not just their role as a student."
Despite the genuine affection she felt from her teachers and administrators, Bea said the school was so focused on the prize—every student to and through college—it couldn't embrace students' individuality. It couldn't see them.
That was the goal of the documenting, the pictures, the blog. It was about valuing something less tangible than a college degree, connecting to it. It was about all the moments before the moment they would walk across the stage as graduates.
Back in the copy room, I asked Bea whether anyone would be recording her yet-to-be-written graduation speech.
She considered for a moment.
"I have no idea."
Did she want someone to?
Very much, Bea said. Emphatically.
"I want my life documented, too."