Just when you thought it was safe to duck back into your classrooms this Fall, New Skool Journalists come at you again telling the strange, funny, and oftentimes, difficult stories of what it is to be a high school student in New York City. In this final installment of a two-part series, our students—writers between the ages of 13 and 22—hit the pavement, confronted authority, and sharpened their pencils in the brave pursuit of reporting on a topic near and dear to their hearts and minds: their education.
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.
—Editors Knox Robinson and Jen Weiss
Scan This! by Sénica López
I was afraid to talk to him. He was obviously someone of great authority. He wore a white button down shirt instead of the boring blue donned by the other guards. One morning I planned to approach him for an interview. After squeezing my way into the crowded scanning room, I saw him in a corner, surveying the room. We made eye contact. I immediately looked away. As I made my way through the cumbersome scanners we continued replaying this awkward scene of my looking at him, his returning my gaze, and my not being bold enough to maintain eye contact with him.
The following day I saw him outside the entrance watching us students like a hawk. I mustered up all my courage and approached him. I began, “Excuse me Sir, I’m taking a journalism class and…”
He wasn’t even looking at me. This man of such high authority—his badge, the only glistening object on a cloudy day, was looking over me. And he continued to look over and past me until I said the word “interview” which is when he finally looked at me.
He asked me to repeat what I had just finished telling him. I did. He agreed. We met two hours later to talk.
At precisely five minutes to ten I met him in the interrogation room next to where we get scanned every morning. He was there with two lower ranking blue-shirted officials. I found out the basics first, like his name (Wilson Baez) and his job title (supervisor of all school safety agents at DeWitt Clinton High School). I learned that all school safety agents, better known as security guards in Clinton, were “under the umbrella of the NYPD 52nd Precinct.”
Baez wasn’t very talkative. He gave simple discouraging answers and didn’t seem interested in being there. When he found out that my topic was on the inconsistency of scanning, he was quick to tell me that I didn’t have much of a topic considering scanning was up to chance. “Some agents are better trained than others and have a better eye when it comes to what to look for,” he told me.
After finding out that the journalism class I was taking wasn’t in DWC, he became just a bit more tight-lipped and asked for my ID card, quickly jotting down my name.
I later asked Baez if he had any statistics regarding the amount of violence in DeWitt Clinton High School since scanners were put in in September 2005.
“Well there is no violence now that there are scanners,” Baez declared.
“So there’s been no fights in the school?” I inquired.
He replied, “Well of course there are some fights, but not nearly as much or as bad as when there were no scanners.”
I refrained from mentioning the fact that after the scanners were put in, during one of the hundreds of fights I’ve seen since then, one student stabbed another student with a screwdriver. I wonder how that got in?
Board of the Fries by Shumona Shimi
Remember being three feet tall and lining up with about 50 other kids waiting to get lunch trays filled with juicy hamburgers, crispy fries and, don’t forget, that healthy dose of milk? Since then, our taste buds have gotten used to greasy, spicy or just plain salty foods. When we learn to eat hamburgers, fries and pizzas every day in school we look for them outside of school: enter Mickey D’s into every teenager’s diet. “About 43 percent of public elementary school students are overweight or obese,” reported the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in June 2003. But the question is whether being fat or overweight is the fault of students? Schools play a part, don’t they? They introduce us to bad food; by the time we reach high school, they’ve figured out how to make money off of us.
At my high school in the Bronx, metal detectors keep students from leaving the grounds for lunch, so our choices are limited to what the cafeteria offers. “Many schools have installed vending machines selling soft drinks and snacks or reduced P.E. classes because of budget constraints,” reports the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. DeWitt Clinton High School replaced their soda machines for chocolate chip cookies and sun chips. The school’s idea of healthy is a little off—if you know what I mean.
Wanda Bligen, a registered nurse at the school, says, “Every day students come in with headaches, dizziness, stomach aches because of the lack of breakfast and lunch. They complain about the food not being cooked well and the apples not being washed.”
Linda Juszcak, a Nurse Practitioner at the Montifiore clinic in the school, says that “The school is supplying all the wrong foods. There aren’t enough fruits and vegetables. And bad food sets you up for failure.” The only healthy part of the lunch room is the salad bar, but most kids just walk away when they see the state of things: tomatoes sitting in the lettuce, pickles on the floor. Nicole, a student at Clinton, states, “The pizzas are mad soggy, hamburgers are burnt, food’s nasty. There is no flavor and sometimes there is even discoloration.”
Sixteen year old Melissa Bedminster says, “They’re trying to hustle money out of us because $0.35 cookies cost $0.60 to $0.75 in the vending machine, and since we can’t get it anywhere else we end up buying it.” She also comments about an unofficial supply of food. “You can get muffins for $1.50 at room 106, and they get these muffins from Costco where it costs a lot less since they buy it by the dozen.” The nurses say that “it would have been a good thing if these muffins were healthy but unfortunately they’re filled with tons of carbs and sugar.”
You can’t expect students to spend the whole day eating only chocolate chip muffins with fudge. Well, I guess we could have chosen the blueberry muffin instead, it is less fattening. Most kids don’t even eat lunch anymore.
Superficial Segregation by Ayesha Akhtar
We are broken like the paint chips on the walls of our public schools.
My school, DeWitt Clinton, was praised for its “diversity” in a school-wide literary magazine, the Magpie, which said, “Diversity Is A Cause For Celebration.” Ha! My school is not diverse at all; in fact it is segregated.
Most of us who go to New York City’s public schools can’t help but notice the large amount of minorities. 60 percent of my school’s student body consists of Hispanics; out of that 60 percent, I’m willing to bet at least 40 percent of them are Dominican. The rest are 30 percent black, 6 percent Asian and 4 percent White (here when we say white we don’t mean all-American white. We mean Albanian, which is also considered minority).
Why is this so? Where are all the white kids? Well, they’re at the white kid schools in the suburbs or going to those rich public schools and private schools, because their parents can afford for them to do so. What can we do about our school being all minorities? How can we break this system? Well the system isn’t so easy to break so most of us don’t do anything. We just accept that we are segregated and we break ourselves even more. Who doesn’t notice the all-Dominican, all-Asian, all-Jamaican cliques in our school? When I asked Abrahan Junior (who, by the way, is Dominican) where most of the Dominicans and Jamaicans in our school are, he answered me with ease, “The Dominicans are usually on the first floor by the Macy Office or around the Foreign Language Department. The Jamaicans are on the third around room’s 324-238.” It’s the saddest thing when someone can actually point out the areas of certain groups like this, but it’s that obvious.
People must understand that New York City public schools are lacking in racial diversity and educational quality (as these things seem to go hand in hand, my school’s graduation rate 61.9 percent). Yes, not only do we walk in groups, but also the public school education that minorities receive (if we receive an education at all) is unequal to those in the much richer, whiter schools. Segregation is alive and well and we know what its symptoms look like. We get hand-me-down, out-dated textbooks; underpaid, under-qualified, and disillusioned teachers; and security guards and metal detectors. They get state-of-the-art science labs. You should see our lab—paint chips are falling off the walls.
Life – Emotion = History by Tola Brennan
We tell ourselves stories in order to live. —Joan Didion
I’m trying to figure out why I’m interested in the subject of history, but as soon as I look at a history book, I get bored. Then, three weeks later, I’m just as interested again. I keep on expecting history to tell me a story, and I keep on getting disappointed. It doesn’t seem like the real deal. I think most history is like a math problem. One event plus another event leads to a third event without really telling you why things happened the way they did; and like a math problem, as soon as you know the result, all the individual numbers become irrelevant.
Why is history like a math problem? Because it conveys no real emotion. And emotion is a vital part of what makes a story stick in our heads. History that shows no opinion or emotion makes itself valueless; it’s hard to learn from a story without heart.
Rhina, 17: “When I was in elementary school, Columbus was portrayed as a hero. In middle school they began to reveal more of the story, and in high school he was portrayed in a much darker light.” She was very frustrated that the story was visibly altered and, as a consequence, doesn’t trust the history she’s taught in school.
“You would think that people would learn from history, but that’s not the case. The thing is that history constantly repeats itself,” says 17-year-old Anthony. Without knowledge of the past, people can be easily convinced that things were always the way they are and that change is ridiculous.
However most people said they found history interesting and told me that their teachers had found ways to make it stimulating—to add emotion to it, even with the textbooks and tests. Anthony says, “I had a teacher named Mr. Spear, and he would make history interesting because he told it like a story. He would add voices, dialogue, and compare it to a modern example.”
Good history should be written like a novel with plot, characters, emotion, and connection. Even though that’s in history already, it doesn’t show up in history books very much. History needs to show the connection between events and how each individual action affects the whole instead of trying to place everything into its own isolated equation. James C. Loewen says about textbooks, in Lies My Teacher Told Me, that “none of the facts are remembered, because they are presented simply as one damn thing after another. While textbook authors tend to include most of the trees and all too many twigs, they neglect to give readers even a glimpse of what they might find memorable: the forests.”
I’ve been reading quite a bit of history these days. Some I finally did find interesting. Here are a few suggestions for those bored by history: Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins; The Revolution of 1774, by Ray Raphael and The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James. These books were about real people, rather than cardboard cutouts.
Chick Without a Clique by Ujijji Davis
“Popular? Popular is like, when everyone knows your name, like they know who you are and that you’re cool, I guess,” a girl told me in the crowded lunchroom of my all-girls high school. In schools, there has always been ruling social patterns that control each student’s way of being: popular vs. unpopular. Students sit at the tables in the crowded lunchrooms, as if their names were engraved in them. If you walked into my pink, cramped lunchroom—with random college posters and smeared cheese on the floor—you would probably not notice the divisions we put ourselves in as students. First there are the Mean girls, who say mean things about girls or talk about the “niggas” that may like them; then there are the Thieves and the Failures, who steal iPods or are flunking school; can’t forget the Andy Milanokis fans, who sing the “I rock peas on my head, but don’t call me a pea head” theme song to the Andy Milanokis Show; there are also the Singers, who are pretty girls who sing; the Almost Popular are the girls who were once popular, but lost the spark that made them cool; you can’t miss the Nerds who giggle at each other’s “bad” grades and bra sizes; or there’s the Gay table where newly-outed lesbians converge; the Boricuas and the Richies are Puerto Rican girls who can afford Gucci, Prada and Kate Bryant in one shopping spree; and lastly, you’d see where I sit, at a table with those who don’t fit at any of the other tables.
There is one girl who stands alone: she’s the floater. Even though she doesn’t fit the description, she joins the Almost Populars, Boricua/Richies and the Gay tables on occasion. Mostly she eats standing up, alone in a corner. There’s nothing that is extremely different about her. She’s bright and active and her personality could illuminate a dull room. When I asked her why she doesn’t settle at one table, she responded, “I sit where I want to. I mean, I can’t sit at just one table, ‘cause I get along with mad people.”
The floater is not branded with a title. Alone she draws a line connecting the tables, proving that barriers between different, somewhat estranged, cliques can be broken. Maybe she’s the link between them.
9 Numbers to a Diploma by Anabelle Gonzalez
When I see my best friend Noelie, I see our similarities but there is one thing that makes her life completely different from mine. The contrast between me and my best friend are the nine numbers of my social security card. Noelie can’t obtain one because she is “undocumented.” Noelie was born in Columbia and arrived here when she was eight years old. She is now 19 years old and has goals, ambitions, and dreams just like me. But unlike those who take advantage of all the educational opportunities this country offers, Noelie is an undocumented student which means she cannot attend college. Many who are in her situation feel as though they have limitations to success.
Noelie was hesitant to talk about her situation, but when I asked her what she thought of the difference between her situation and those who don’t have similar barriers preventing them from attending college, she opened up: “It’s funny how those who have the opportunity to go to college because they were born here throw away that opportunity, while on the other hand people in my situation, who would really like to go to college, wouldn’t take the risk of going because they think they’ll be deported, especially with what is going on with the immigration today.”
During high school, Noelie was at the top 10 percent of our class; won an award because of her outstanding achievements; and dreamed of being accepted to the University of Pennsylvania and majoring in architecture. Now, she cleans banks because it is one of the few jobs that does not require her to show any documents. Sadly, she tells me that her life feels like a contradiction: “Last year, at this very moment, I was getting ready for graduation, wanting a better future, and now, I get ready to work a job that hardly pays to survive, still wanting a better future when it comes to having a career and not knowing if it’s possible.”
But what Noelie isn’t aware of yet is The DREAM Act—bipartisan legislation pending in the U.S. Congress that addresses the situation faced by younger people who are brought to the United States years before as undocumented immigrant children. This pending legislation promotes funding and eligibility for undocumented students who have been in the country for more than five years and have been brought up with “good moral conduct.” Students in such situations are given the opportunity to go to college. If passed, the DREAM Act would be a six year process that would conclude by giving these undocumented students the opportunity to become residents. This act is the only hope many like Noelie have of obtaining a college education in this country.
When I told Noelie about this act, she responded cautiously: “The whole idea sounds a little weird to me. Today in age it seems as though there’s a catch to everything.”
And in fact there is something holding up the DREAM Act. It’s called FAIR, also known as the Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR is an organization against illegal students being educated in the United States. They believe “tax payers are spending billions of dollars each year for the education of illegal students,” and are lobbying Congress not to pass the DREAM Act.
I asked Noelie what she thought about this. She smiled knowingly and spoke of how much undocumented people have contributed, in money and labor, to this country. She paused and added: “I have to believe something positive will happen for undocumented students who desire a college education.”
The Hidden Story by Jodi-Ann Gayle
In high school a teacher told us how the slaves contributed to Wall Street by actually building it. At that time we were too ignorant to even listen because Chef Wilson was only a cooking instructor and not a history teacher. Years later I would learn the same exact thing at the New York Historical Museum.
As a student at the New York City College of Technology, I feel as if there is more information about black history outside of school than there is in the classroom. A professor’s assignment to go to the New York Historical Society museum saved me from insanity; there I found a big chunk missing from my course book. That exhibit was my own reform school; as the history of slavery poured from the exhibit and into my mind like a first step, the experience made my mouth curve into an oval and left me wanting to know more of what didn’t appear in my textbooks.
Many students are not aware of the detailed history of slavery—what slaves accomplished from the early 1700s until its end in 1827. We as students need to better understand the lives of our ancestors. There are many things that most of my fellow students do not know: stories about slave rebellions and accomplishments, the life of a man by the name of Caesar who survived three slave owners thus living until his early hundreds, and the fact that New York slavery lasted much longer than in many other states. It’s like a puzzle trying to supply the missing pieces of our ancestors’ story and there are numerous students who have no idea about this history. I, for one, am still not informed. There are tons of information about pioneers and all sorts of historic events other than slavery, but in textbooks black history has been cut down to a minimum. Aren’t teachers supposed to use the knowledge they have acquired from their own teachers to inform us? Well, if we are being misinformed then probably our teachers weren’t given the proper education either.
If we knew about our history we wouldn’t be mystified, but students are only learning a small portion of their ancestry. They deserve to know the truth but it is hard for us as students to hear the screams of black history in our books because the publishers and some of our teachers have muffled its voice. When will the history of slavery take a stand in our classrooms? It is time for a true reflection to rise from the stifling lies of textbooks.
Schooling Performers by Chadeia Mitchell
Imagine watching six hours of a play every weekday. Lights, cameras, action… the spotlight shines on each and every one of us. It’s showtime or maybe time to cover up insecurities. Still, the show must go on. Teenage girls float around singing to each other in their Abercrombie and Fitch tees; boys trail behind them cracking jokes—performances so perfect for those both young and old. You can’t turn away from these students the same way you can’t turn away from people making a scene on the train, or an accident on the highway. I spend my days at a school of young performers so captivating I have to watch.
It is said that a performer is someone who entertains an audience with a dramatic scene. In most cases a dramatic scene would be a play, an art installation, maybe a dance or song. But at Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts, a dramatic scene ranges from a 3:30 showing of Shakespeare’s A Mid Summer Night’s Dream to Clarissa’s broken nail in fourth period history class. At Frank Sinatra High School, every open space is a stage and any passerby is an audience member. Located in Long Island City, Queens, my school is made up of five studios: Fine Art, Dance, Instrumental, Vocal, and Drama. Each studio is composed of students—all of them performers in their own special way.
In a survey I conducted, an estimated 65 percent of the junior class are, like me, audience members who are always the ones to watch the performances. 10 percent make up the groupies, the ones who always hang around the performers. And 25 percent of the junior class are known as full-time performers. The full-time performers are the ones who make a big dramatic scene over anything and everything.
Imagine it: 6th period, math class. The teacher puts a problem on the board from today’s lesson: “If the train is traveling 65 m/h and Susie needs to go to a party that’s 90 miles away, but needs to be there in an hour, will she make it on time?” A full-time performer, one of the 25 percent, raises his hand. He has pink hair, and is wearing a lime green tie around his medium-sized black Green Day T-shirt. When the teacher calls on him, expecting a mathematical answer, the student responds saying, “If Susie is going to a party, she shouldn’t be taking a train.”
This is the norm at Frank Sinatra High School of the Arts. It’s almost like we can’t help performing at school: we just accept our place in the play. And until curtain call at graduation in 2007, the show will go on.
For more info on NSJW: www.urbanwordnyc.org