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’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.