First Person

The New Kid

This piece originally appeared in Represent magazine and is reprinted in collaboration with Youth Communication.

“School is right around the corner,” my aunt said on an unusually chilly August day two summers ago. She tried to sound casual, but I could hear the slight urgency in her voice.

“So?” I replied.

“So, shouldn’t you be registering or something? It’s up to you to take charge and get things done.”

I hadn’t been to a “regular” high school in almost two years. Instead, I’d been going to the small high school at a residential treatment facility upstate, which had few students and a lot of help from the teachers. But now, after moving from the RTF to my aunt’s house in Brooklyn, I was headed to a new high school, probably a bigger school where I wouldn’t know a single person.

I assumed my aunt or another adult would take the initiative and find a school for me. I’d become pretty reliant on someone else taking control since, in the RTF, adults made the majority of decisions for me. It made me uneasy to realize that finding a school was up to me. For the first time in a while, I was making a big decision on my own. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was just one of the many lessons in “self-empowerment” I was about to face.

Self-empowerment means gaining the strength or power to do something on your own; taking control of your own destiny. It’s especially important to youth in foster care because we struggle through more than the average teenager. Moving to different foster homes; dealing with pain, hurt, and frustration; and navigating life without much family support are all things that most foster kids go through. Since we don’t have as much of a support system as most kids, we have to feel empowered to make a lot of life decisions on our own.

Searching for a School

With that in mind, I began browsing the High School Directory book, where more than 400 New York City high schools are listed. (New York City allows students to apply to any public high school in the city, although some schools have requirements that limit who is accepted.) I narrowed down my choices to five schools and asked for some advice from a trusted adult who knows a lot about local schools. He said I should visit a few schools to make sure I chose the one that suited me best.

I visited two big high schools first, but I didn’t like either one because both had more than 1,000 students. I realized that part of making good decisions is knowing myself and knowing what kind of environment would work for me. A huge school might feel overwhelming to me. My next stop was Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School.

I felt optimistic about BCAM because the school had only around 300 students and it had a theater program — both things I wanted in a school. However, when I visited I got a bad gut feeling. The setting was plain, with no murals or collages on the walls. What I did see on the walls were two roaches. I thought that was straight nasty. I wanted to run around the corner to catch the nearest train.

I thought I had seen the worst of it, but then the parent coordinator looked at me and bluntly said, “You’re going to behave now, right, Mr. Turner? No problems, no acting out or anything of that nature?” I blinked at the lady. I hadn’t even said anything, and I felt like I was already being judged as a delinquent? I felt like she’d instantly labeled me.

“No, I won’t act up,” I said, shaking my head in disbelief.

“Good. I don’t want any people misbehaving.” Then she muttered, “There are enough rowdy clowns here.” She left me slightly shuddering.

After that, a student who worked as a teacher’s assistant gave me a tour. I hadn’t even gone 10 steps before I heard a loud, threatening voice say, “Yo! Little boy! Come over here. I’m talking to you, little n-gga!” I was ready to turn right back around and punch his face in, but I just ignored him. I’d been kicked out of one school already for making a verbal threat (one of the reasons I’d been in an RTF to begin with) and I wasn’t ready to get kicked out of another before the first day.

Although I was definitely getting negative vibes, I still wanted to give it a shot. I met my guidance counselor and some of the teachers, and they were warm and welcoming. The teachers were talking excitedly and they seemed sincerely happy about starting a new year. “This school won’t be that bad. Maybe I can do this,” I told myself. With that, I enrolled at BCAM. I was proud that I’d taken on the responsibility of choosing a school and that I’d made my own decision.

First-Day Disappointments

On the first day, I woke up with a sudden burst of energy. I wanted everything to be perfect. I brushed my teeth longer than usual, put on a little cologne, and ironed my pants and shirt three times. I was happy about a fresh start in school and I expected everyone to share in my enthusiasm.

I wanted to become a social icon, the kid everyone knew and loved. I could imagine the scene already: I would walk into class with everyone smiling at me. I would go through the halls, getting a lot of daps from my boys and hugs from the ladies. But when I walked into the building that first day, I realized maybe my hopes were too high.

The school, although small, was intimidating. The other students were guarded and didn’t bother to make me feel welcome, even when I initiated a conversation.

“Do you like it here?” I casually asked one kid.

“It’s all right,” he answered, and the conversation was over.

“Is your commute long?” I asked a girl.

“Sometimes it’s long,” she answered.

Every time I tried, that’s how it went. Their two- or three-word answers instantly dampened my mood. It didn’t get much better on the second or third day, and I was discouraged. I didn’t think I should have to go out of my way to say “hi” when I was the new person. I thought the students who had been in the school since 9th grade should open themselves up more and converse freely.

Instead of being the social icon I’d hoped to be, I felt like a loner and an outcast. (If you’ve ever been the “new kid,” you know what I’m talking about.) Walking the crowded halls felt like walking through a maze that never ended. And there was clearly a social order that I was not part of.

As I shoved my way through the sea of students, I saw the popular kids with their fancy designer outfits and it seemed like they had bulletproof confidence. While all these “popular kids” spread out everywhere during lunch, laughing and having a good time, the kids who were considered “lames” or “virgins” were forced to sit in a small unpleasant area near the garbage.

The “virgins” and “lames” walked cautiously with their heads down, and their voices didn’t sound too confident. I think it was this atmosphere that made kids unwilling to put themselves out there by saying “hi” to the new kid.

Showing Off?

I hoped that at least my classes would be good. At first I was really hype about my science class. I raised my hand a lot — until I realized my peers thought I was showing off.

“You trying to act smart now, boy?” said one guy.

“He just trying to show off,” a girl added, smacking her gum loudly. I didn’t know how to feel. I wasn’t trying to show off; I was just enthusiastic about learning. Was that so bad?

I realized that the other kids didn’t raise their hands much at all. It seemed like even the really smart kids “dumbed down,” and made fun of people who applied themselves. I stopped raising my hand as much and started fooling around in class. It was stupid to follow others, I know, but I wanted to blend in.

For the first three months, I found that I constantly wanted to transfer. I tried to convince myself that I was overreacting, but the school just didn’t feel inviting and I didn’t know how to change my situation. I had worked hard to find a school that seemed right for me, and I was upset to realize that it was going to take time and energy to find a social group that worked for me, too.

I decided to get involved in activities I liked, where I might meet people like me who were open and friendly. I tried joining the basketball team, but I wasn’t good enough. I tried to volunteer as a tutor, but they told me I hadn’t been in the school long enough to tutor anyone. I joined the newspaper club, but almost no one attended the meetings.

When I realized no one came to the newspaper meetings I felt somewhat hopeless. It obviously wasn’t the end of the world, but it was disappointing that writing, one of my favorite things to do, was an extracurricular activity that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy in school. I still felt driven — I thought there must be some club or activity for me to join — but I also felt a tinge of doubt after trying out so many clubs already. I still wasn’t part of things the way I wanted to be and it felt lonely.

Try, Try Again

It took time and persistence, but I did eventually find some groups that I liked: I’m now involved in yearbook and a college-readiness program called College Now. I grew fond of some of the kids in those groups and we started to hang out.

Eventually, I also gave up on becoming a social icon. I realized that it was an entertaining yet unrealistic expectation. And it wasn’t really me, anyway. I prefer to spend my time with a few close friends rather than having 20 acquaintances that I small-talk with.

Realizing this helped me clearly identify the people I like to hang with and who I’m most comfortable with. I ended up making a good friend, Ty, in my English class. Usually, we crack jokes or read parodies off the Web. Having a best friend made my high school experience a little better.

Finding my niche and putting aside the idea that I needed to be a social icon made me feel less stressed. I didn’t have to try too hard to make everyone like me. Also, after watching the popular kids, I saw that popularity isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. You need lots of money, fancy clothes, and a certain style to maintain your status. That’s mad work. Of course, I’m still vulnerable to my peers’ influence, but I realize that’s my own insecurity coming out.

Relying On Myself

I’m glad I took the initiative to choose a high school because, although it’s not the best school, it felt good to have some control over my own future. Plus, choosing a school on my own taught me something significant: Taking care of your business is important because there won’t always be a parent or caseworker to guide you.

The same applies to finding your social circle in school. Just because you’re an outgoing and friendly person doesn’t mean that you’re automatically going to make friends with everyone in the school. And if you rely on others to define you, you might end up changing your personality to fit in. It’s better to be yourself and, even if it takes time and effort, develop real friendships with people who are loyal, have your back, and respect you for who you are as a person.

The challenge of starting over at a new school is never an easy task, but it’s not an impossible one, either. I’m now in my second year at BCAM. On the first day of school this year, I saw a lot of freshmen who all seemed as enthusiastic as I was my first day. Walking to my advisory class I saw a freshman who was obviously lost.

“Hey you,” I said in a sarcastic but cheery way. She looked all around wondering where the voice was coming from until I walked up and introduced myself. Then I showed her where room 214 was.

“Thank you,” she said smiling. “It’s pretty hard to find people to talk to here.”

I smiled and said, “I know. I felt the exact same way last year.”

Anthony Turner is a student at Brooklyn Community Arts and Media High School. This piece originally appeared in Represent magazine. It is reprinted with permission from Youth Communication, a nonprofit that aims to helps youth reach their full potential through reading and writing.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.