Asked what aspect of their lives they most wanted to explore as new journalists, our students—a mix of urban youth between the ages of 13 to 19 who attend schools that range from large and under-funded to small and specialized, from alternative to Catholic, or to schooling at home—spoke up clearly. What matters most to them is the state of their own education and the role that school plays in this regard. Their articles—drafted, critiqued, and re-drafted several times—reveal their perceptions of how these spaces of learning succeed or fail them, why they are worth fighting for, and the social experiences they encounter along the way.
NSJW is an ongoing collaboration between the Rail and Urban Word NYC, a collective that offers free after-school writing workshops to the city’s teenagers, and has received past support from Poets & Writers.
—Eds. Knox Robinson and Jen Weiss
by Iemi Hernandez-Kim
Come and walk through the halls of my school and you’ll probably see either a rainbow belt, a girl who looks like a guy, or a gay couple. Thinking and talking about sexuality affects almost everyone in my high school, especially teenage girls.
Today being gay or somewhat gay in high school is nothing new or unique. Of course, it’s not a big deal in the media, either: Angelina Jolie (actress turned UN goodwill ambassador): bi-sexual. Ellen Degeneres (talk show host, comedian, and voice of Dori in the popular children’s movie Finding Nemo): lesbian. Miss Jay (America’s Next Top Model judge and runway expert): gay. Brokeback Mountain (movie about cowboys): gay. Teenage girls in my high school: bisexual.
But that doesn’t make it accepted, understood or popular. “They’re just doing it to be different to show they’re against Bush,” says A. “Everyone is doing it, it’s the new trend.” Is it just a trend or an orientation that comforts those who are hurt?
In the beginning of this year four good friends of mine told me they’re bisexual. Out of those four friends, one has an alcoholic father addicted to drugs and has been raped twice by a friend, one has been close to death more than once in her home country and now lives close to poverty, one started smoking and drinking in her tween years and watched most of her friends die, and the last one missed a childhood because she was too busy taking care of her family and now lives with an alcoholic father. Out of the four, two are in therapy; the other two are too poor for therapy. Out of the four, four are depressed but find happiness when with their girlfriends or girl crushes.
“Boys are just stupid, even with sex. When I have sex with a guy, fuck it, I get no orgasm. When I have sex with a girl, well…you know. But seriously,” said A, pausing before she continued. “My girlfriend just gets me more, she had a childhood like I did but yet she’s really different than me. I don’t know, girls are just better.” Then she laughed.
“Don’t worry, they’ll all get over it,” said M, a straight girl. “It’s only a trend. You know, a phase.”
“Bitch, that’s what you think,” replied my friend. “Before I met my girlfriend I was straight and really depressed. Since I met her…I’m neither. Now I’m only half with each, bi and sad.”
The conversations in the halls of my school might just be the new trend, the new phase. Or they might be the new therapy the rest of us have yet to discover.
City-As-School: Last Resort or First Choice?
by Sarah Quinter
“There’s more than two ways of thinking
There’s more than three ways of being
There’s more than four ways of knowing
There’s more than one way of going somewhere…”
— Bikini Kill, Resist Psychic Death
In school I always had something to say. Sometimes I’d write this stuff down, glue it on paper, and make photocopies: zines. I gave copies of my zine Crack the Sidewalk! to everyone I knew. Some of my biggest fans were my teachers at City-As-School. CAS was a dramatic contrast with my previous school, one of many New York City public high schools where the administrators concerned themselves more with bandanas and bubble sheets than with the real needs of their students.
It turns out I’m not the only one who feels this way. In preparation for this article, I surveyed fifteen students and five teachers on their opinions about CAS. One student said, “The fact that students are applauded for having an opinion is great.” Most students said they transferred to CAS because they were dissatisfied with or doing poorly in their previous school. When asked what their favorite aspects of the school are, both students and teachers cited the internships, closeness between students and staff, the flexible schedule, and diversity. One answer that stood out to me was, “My least favorite aspect is that people come to this school as a last resort.” Because CAS accepts students who have not done well in their previous high school, CAS is often perceived as a place for kids who’ve screwed up. But actually, CAS simply offers a different, more hands-on approach to learning. There are currently 742 students attending CAS, out of nearly 300,000 NYC high school students. I believe that high school students need to be presented with more learning options, and that we need to encourage the development of more innovative schools like City-As.
The same parts of myself that some called strange or impractical were honored and respected at CAS. Last week I returned to City-As-School for the first time since I graduated in 2004. An English teacher and an art teacher had teamed up to initiate a zine class since I’d left. They proudly show me some black and white zines that the students made last cycle. I’m amazed. What other school would be so open to its students’ self-expression? I agree to help with the class. Next week I return with a backpack full of zines for David and Rich’s second period zine class. Six students gather around a table and we begin. I introduce myself and say that what makes zines important is that they provide space for marginalized voices and viewpoints—a stapled-together home for the radical, the obscure, the ridiculous, the painfully personal. Don’t bother putting anything in there that you can find at the newsstand, I tell them. The kids share their goals for their zines. A Latino kid in a Che shirt says he wants to write about 9-11. Another wants to cover graffiti. Soon the period is over. I gather my piles of papers and say goodbye. I plan to return in September.
by Elizabeth Perez
I remember her. Luz was always smiling, receiving A’s, and a favorite amongst teachers and students. “Why were you absent yesterday?” I asked, riding the train home together.
“I had to go to the clinic.”
In a matter of seconds my mouth became dry; my lips chapped. I couldn’t grasp her words. I didn’t want to believe that this girl, my friend from Spanish class, barely sixteen, was about to be a mother. I felt guilty for feeling that something so beautiful could ruin her life.
After conceiving, Luz continued to excel in school. Her family is fully supportive of her, and her boyfriend is in their child’s life. Luz is both a mother and a student—somewhat rare in the Bronx high schools. But she isn’t the only girl I know who’s pregnant. On the second floor of my high school, DeWitt Clinton (DWC), near the girl’s bathroom, is The Lyfe Center. Here, a new teenage mother can go to school while her child (two months and older) is cared for during school hours. Luz says the center helps out a lot.
In 2002, the borough of the Bronx was reported to have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in New York City. The lack of quality sex education in schools takes a toll. Many parents forbid the mention of sex in the home; kids do not know who to speak to or where to go about birth control. By law, health education is mandatory for all students in kindergarten through sixth grade. However, I do not once remember having a class or a lecture regarding sexual education in elementary or junior high school. And since high school, forget about it. I learn more from TV than from school about sex and protection, and I rarely watch TV.
Why is it that so much is invested in a school-facilitated daycare center while “health education is poorly funded and unlicensed teachers are being hired to teach middle and high school students?” asks Ms. Vo, one of the certified health educators in DWC. Schools are taught to encourage abstinence rather than deal with aiding sexually active students. In 2004, New York received nearly 9 million dollars in federal funds for “abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.” Precaution and abstinence programs are well intended, but what good are they to the 85% of high school students in New York who have reported having sex.
“After I had my child, all this information became available about sex,” Luz tells me.
by Jason Anthony Julien
If you see a kid wearing a uniform you assume that they are a) educated; b) of a higher financial status than most; and c) less violent than public school students. But I see more drugs in my school then I do on my block.
“The uniform serves as my sheepskin,” a Catholic high school student told me. “I’m just a wolf underneath.” With Catholic school kids labeled as goodie two-shoes, “we walk around like gods. You either corrupt the system, or the system corrupts you,” he says with a shrug. He’s been selling marijuana in his school for the past four years.
But what system is he talking about? The system that judges teenagers? Public school kids are deemed as the gangsters of education structure. Is it fair that no one can name one Catholic school in Manhattan that contains a metal detector?
At high school every day is an experience, and you either open your eyes or open your lungs to different things. For example, gay relationships seem to be part of substance abuse in Catholic schools. “I know after using Ecstasy in school every other day, I became very open to having sex,” one student told me. “Since there are no girls in my school more guys just need to do it. Some guys claim they’re not gay because they just receive oral sex—but that’s just a cover up… just like Catholic schools are.” In the boys bathroom my eyes spot old physics papers and school bags; I see noses powdered up and two guys kissing. Next to them lie dime bags and empty needles accompanied by torn tissues. 20% of the students go to my classes high and the other 80% try to pretend like nothing is wrong. Lunchtime commands menus of the best illegal substances with a nice quart of cold chocolate milk. It seems more money is dealt in the hallways then my school’s finance office and teachers and professors don’t care as long as that money is transferred into their pockets. Like any school, there are cliques but what makes it different is that there is no hate between any cliques in my school. “We got no reason to hate each other,” a 16-year-old Albanian student told me. “I pick up stuff from them. They need something from us. Everyone benefits.” Inhaling marijuana smoke during my lunch break caused me to write this paper. It caused me to stop the misconception of what you think happens in the name of the Father Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
From Behind Books to Behind Bars
by Rhina Daquela
“Move, move, move! Take off your belts and remove all metal objects from your pockets.” I hear this from the curse-stained mouths of the security guards and safety officials in my school. I go to DeWitt Clinton high school in the Bronx. Clinton has alumni from Ralph Lauren to James Baldwin. It even educated the creator of Spiderman. However, this school has now been turned into Clinton county jail, the home of juvenile delinquents who are only a couple of years away from Riker’s Island. After metal detectors were introduced in September 2005, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told The New York Times that he understood “that it is annoying for some people, but the first thing is to make sure that all students and people who work in the schools are safe.”
I ask you this, Mr. Mayor: How can you truly know how annoying it is, if you don’t have to go through an airport everyday? I’m tired of seeing more than enough cops around my school to cover the after-effects of 9/11. And what do you really know about safety when you don’t walk through these halls weeding through bodies to get to your next class on a daily basis. As a junior in Clinton, I see more fights inside of the school than I did when I was a freshman.
And even though the Mayor is against us, the day the metal detectors were implemented in our school, close to 1,500 of my peers marched two miles to the borough’s Department of Education offices in protest of metal detectors and not being allowed off campus during lunch. Let’s face it—the problem is not violence in the school, it is the issue of over-crowdedness. When fights occurred, before the metal detectors were installed, they were located outside the school building. Now they occur outside my physics classroom. Rafael Paredes, a senior, claims that though his issues with security and the metal detectors weren’t the only reason for him leaving school his senior year, it definitely contributed: “They are treating us teenagers like criminals and people without futures instead of leaders of the future.” Not only are we angered by being treated like suspects, we are also squeezed into dimly-lit and crowded hallways, where in the summer there isn’t any air conditioning and in the winter there isn’t any heat… or too much of it.
Once an historic building, educated leaders and role models are now compelled to give up its reputation to big pieces of metal that see through things—blue-uniformed surveyors who call themselves “safety” agents. Until Mayor Bloomberg realizes that over-crowdedness is the real issue, it’s back to listening to the Move, Move, Move from the cursed-stained mouths of security.
I’m Still Here
by Christine Feliciano
The only person who knows you is yourself. If I could go back to September of 2002, I would tell you that I did not know who I was as a person, nor who I was going to be. I did not care what my future looked like. I have many questions about who I suddenly became overnight as I went from “Catholic school girl” to always “cutting school girl.” At the time these questions scared me more than the threats that floated around my head like stars after you get knocked out. All this thanks to the biggest part of my life: high school.
High school is a world within a world: a place that molds you into who you will soon be. Taking those first few steps into the school you will be attending for the next four years, instinctively you know you will be confronted with more than just Science and Global History, but also with drugs, fighting, and undeveloped minds that think they know everything. That is when finding your true identity comes into play—you have to start making important choices like going to class or playing hooky every day. For many people, trying to find themselves can take away ambition and become a distraction to education itself. When students become vulnerable to their peers, they turn to living for the moment. Never questioning their dramatic change whether it be good or bad, most students prefer to turn to ignorance which is more prevalent in urban areas. As a result, our public school gets less money for better resources, so teachers can’t stimulate the minds of their students. I never realized it as a freshman in high school, but teachers play a big part in students’ lives. Maybe it was the mentality I had that teachers were more of authority figures who were handing out papers just to waste trees.
After my junior year I realized this was not the route I wanted to continue on—not using my time productively, not caring and of course not listening. When I took the time to look at my surroundings, I noticed many students I could relate to were cutting school, exploring life.
Seeing my mistakes through others firsthand made me change drastically. I didn’t want my future to end up on welfare. Respecting the fact that my teachers never gave up on me also gave me the power to finish what I started in September of 2002. Out of about 20 friends, I’m the only one getting my High School Diploma.
by Jessica Batista
A friend of mine came to me and said, “Yo… I can’t believe that happened! He was just standing in the hallway, got called over to the dean’s office, and got arrested for having sex with Kimberly. I saw him walk out the main entrance in handcuffs myself.” Many people knew about the School Safety Official’s relationship with the student, yet it remained unspoken about. The relationship’s initiation was obvious; the SSO began to flirt with Kimberly. She reacted with a crush and soon a passionate love affair developed until his wife reported the relationship to the police. At DeWitt Clinton High School, SSOs are known for flirting and having relationships with students, so I decided to interview one about it.
“Isn’t it beautiful outside today? Summer’s here,” I said.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in class?” He asked.
“Yes, and aren’t you suppose to take me there?”
“Yeah, I’ma walk you.”
“So how many girls try to talk to you?”
“Well, they’re not as beautiful as you, but a couple a day.”
“And you wouldn’t do nothing with them?”
“Yeah [I would], but outside of school, not inside,” he said.
So he was willing to commit statutory rape. Who is responsible for the SSO’s conduct in the school? Who hires them? I found that the head of security of a school recommends a prospective staff member to the Department of Education, and ultimately it is up to the DOE to decide the hiring and placement of a candidate after their criminal records are checked and blood work is done.
Although the common stereotype suggests that it is the SSO who initiates the relationship, students can also approach and initiate one. If I could get this man to flirt back so easily, why couldn’t any other female student do the same?
The captain of the tennis team confessed strong feelings to the same SSO I interviewed. Instead of telling her that what she wanted was impossible, he told her she had a chance with him. When I spoke with her she was skeptical about what to tell me, because she didn’t want to incriminate him. But she admitted that she had an opportunity. When I asked why she was attracted to men in their thirties, she said it was because they were “more mature.”
Perhaps the DOE should be attentive when hiring, but SSOs are really to blame. Students like the tennis team captain might be looking for security, but male SSOs are looking for a good time. As adults and professionals they should know that their job is to protect students, not have sexual relationships with them.
For more info on NSJW: www.urbanwordnyc.org