“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.
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.
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.