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What Books and Their Covers Have in Common with New York City Public Schools

Arvind Dilawar Yearbook Photos
The author’s yearbook photos from Joseph Pulitzer Middle School (left) and Stuyvesant High School (right)

Joseph Pulitzer Middle School, better known as I.S. 145, and Stuyvesant High School, often referred to simply as Stuy, are arguably on opposite ends of the New York City public school spectrum.

I.S. 145 in Jackson Heights, Queens, was rumored to be one of the worst schools in the city during the late ‘90s and early 2000s. It bore many of the stereotypical characteristics of an “inner city” school: Low-income minority students; high teacher turnover; poor standardized test scores; conspicuous lack of resources; overcrowding so extreme that classrooms were halved with makeshift walls to accommodate two classes.

Stuy, on the other hand, was reputably the best public school in New York City during the early 2000s. Admission was (and still is) based solely on an exam, and only the top performers are accepted. These students travel from the edges of New York City to Stuyvesant’s ten-story building in Manhattan’s Financial District, where their educations are fortified by a rigorous core curriculum, an extensive selection of electives, an environment that compels the competitive spirit and tons of private donations.

Despite the seemingly alternate universes that I.S. 145 and Stuy inhabited, I found they had more in common than anyone might think. If I.S. 145 was the pits, there were gemstones to be found in the dark. If Stuy was Plato’s Academy, too many people confused it for Raphael’s School of Athens—that is, too many people mistook representation for reality.

*

In the late spring of 2001 I skipped class at I.S. 145 for the third time. High school acceptance letters had recently been received, so many seniors were taking their final days of eighth grade with the ease of inconsequence. After months of test prep, I had made the score for Stuyvesant, becoming one of three students from I.S. 145 to make it that year—a windfall for a middle school school that, at best, annually reared one prospective Stuy student.

I ducked out of school after lunch, just before earth science, to visit Travers Park, commonly called 78th Street Park. Despite being only two blocks away from I.S. 145, 78th Street Park was the go-to site for truants during the warmer months, and this was a gorgeous day of rolling blue skies. There, I met Jeff, whom I had attended elementary school and I.S. 145 with, although we were currently in different classes. (Note: The names of everyone in this story have been changed to spare them any embarrassment.) He was heading to Bayside High School in the fall and we spent some time discussing how our lives would soon be upended, or which girls we liked, or whatever it is that junior high schoolers talk about.

At the park I also ran into Sophie, one of the popular girls from my class who was similarly skipping earth science, though she had cut the entire day and enough of the previous weeks for our teachers to ask after her health. We had been in the same honors class since sixth grade, taking almost all of our courses together, so although we weren’t close friends, I had a classmate’s concern in her absences, in the lunchroom stories I heard about her, in her being here at 78th Street Park smoking cigarettes.

I said hi—or, more likely for that time, “what’s up?”—and we talked about our earth science teacher. A few other kids from I.S. 145 eventually came up to Sophie and, after a brief chat, walked off. As Sophie gathered her things to follow, she asked if I smoked, to which I responded that I didn’t, thinking of my father and the choking odor of Marlboro Lights that clung to his everything. It wasn’t until she had walked away that I realized Sophie was talking about pot.

Woe is she, I thought.

*

In April of 2005 I was enrolled as a senior at Stuyvesant, but was attending “suspension school” for a month in Chelsea. On my first day there, I had to register with a school safety officer, who, upon hearing that I was coming from Stuy, said, “Oh, the cocaine school. Don’t you bring any of that shit up in here.”

Although that was the first time I had heard anyone outside of Stuyvesant speak of the school unfavorably (or, in the case of Brooklyn Tech students, without bitter envy), I understood immediately what she was referring to: That spring, I was the latest of four Stuy students to be arrested for possession in school and to consequently pass through the suspension school system.

In March, days before my eighteenth birthday, police officers were at the school to arrest another student for theft and decided to investigate a report from my sociology teacher that I had a handgun. In actuality, it was a toy airsoft gun that was safely tucked away at home, but after clipping the Master Lock off of my locker, the cops discovered a tin of flavored cigarettes and, in that, a small baggie of cocaine.

Although drugs are usually associated with failing schools and poor neighborhoods, I’ve never been more surrounded by them more than at Stuy. From pot all the way up to heroin, drugs coursed through the school. They were stored in lockers, exchanged in empty hallways and taken in bathrooms. The relative affluence of Stuy families supplied the funding, the reputation of the school created a haven, and the constantly reaffirmed intelligence of the students reinforced the will to go ahead with even the worst ideas—after all, we were so fucking smart; what could possibly go wrong? Even our education was an enabler; preparing ketamine is a lot easier when you know a thing or two about chemistry.

So, days before my eighteenth birthday, I was cuffed, read my rights and escorted out—shamefully, at the same moment my AP English teacher was walking through the lobby. A police van took me and the other Stuy arrestee to the First Precinct, where I sat in a cell until 9:30 p.m., when I was released to my tearful, furious parents.

I dodged the charges mostly by being underage, but Stuy also somewhat came to my defense. My public defender’s daughter was hoping to attend the school, so he was familiar with its reputation as one of the best schools in the city. It was a fine school, he explained to the judge, and I would be a fine graduate if I were pardoned just this once.

I got off with a month of community service and a year of probation.

*

Platitudes about the differences between the covers and the contents of books might explain some of my experience at public schools in New York City, but they don’t capture the whole truth, with at least part of that being: The narratives we collectively construct determine people’s lives, keeping them down and bumping them up when they aren’t in line with the story being told.

I.S. 145 was a poor, overcrowded, somewhat rundown school. No one expected too much from its students, so no one gave them much, and observers were occasionally happily surprised with the results, but more often content with the accuracy of their predictions of mediocrity or worse. Stuyvesant was stocked with what were supposedly the best young minds in New York and supported to the nth degree; its students could do no wrong even when they were really, really fucking up.

Thankfully, the endings are all happy this time. Sophie is fine. Through Facebook, I know she moved away after junior high and is soon expecting her first baby girl. She looks happy in her profile pictures. I’m fine, too. I walked away from Stuy with a diploma and a sealed rap sheet, but I wouldn’t have been so lucky if the school’s bulletproof reputation hadn’t shielded me from consequences that would have crushed so many other kids. Regardless of everything I did that could have derailed it, the narrative I entered when I enrolled at Stuy almost seamlessly reached its spotless ending. I should be happy, I guess, but I’m left wondering what would’ve happened if I had gone to a high school whose students don’t get cut as much slack, where the stories are sad because we all expect them to be.

Originally published on Narratively.

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  • Charlie

    wow man. you’ve got guts. i admire your honesty and glad you came out of that harrowing experience all right. it’s true that a school’s rep can cast a shadow over what really goes on inside, and it’s good of you to share, and by doing so, perhaps discourage prejudices from continuing.