The Washington Post
A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure and Passion Inside One of America's Best High Schoolsby Alec Klein
Enter Stuyvesant High, one of the most extraordinary schools in America, a place where the brainiacs prevail and jocks are embarrassed to admit they play on the woeful football team. Academic competition is so intense that students say they can have only two of these three things: good grades, a social life, or sleep. About one in four Stuyvesant students gains
Enter Stuyvesant High, one of the most extraordinary schools in America, a place where the brainiacs prevail and jocks are embarrassed to admit they play on the woeful football team. Academic competition is so intense that students say they can have only two of these three things: good grades, a social life, or sleep. About one in four Stuyvesant students gains admission to the Ivy League. And the school's alumni include several Nobel laureates, Academy Award winners, and luminaries in the arts, business, and public service.
A Class Apart follows the lives of Stuyvesant's remarkable students, such asRomeo, the football team captain who teaches himself calculus and strives to make it into Harvard; Jane, a world-weary poet at seventeen, battling the demon of drug addiction; Milo, a ten-year-old prodigy trying to fit in among high-school students who are literally twice his size; Mariya, a first-generation American beginning to resist parental pressure for ever-higher grades so that she can enjoy her sophomore year. And then there is the faculty, such as math chairman Mr. Jaye, who is determined not to let bureaucratic red tape stop him from helping his teachers. He even finds a job for a depressed math genius who lacks a college degree but possesses the gift of teaching.
This is the story of the American dream, a New York City school that inspires immigrants to come to these shores so that their children can attend Stuyvesant in the first step to a better life. It's also the controversial story of elitism in education. Stuyvesant is a public school, but children must pass a rigorous entrance exam to get in. Only about 3 percent do so, which, Stuyvesant students andfaculty point out, makes admission to their high school tougher than to Harvard.
On the eve of the hundredth anniversary of Stuyvesant's first graduating class, reporter Alec Klein, an alumnus, was given unfettered access to the school and the students and faculty who inhabit it. What emerges is a book filled with stunning, raw, and heartrending personalities, whose stories are hilarious, sad, and powerfully moving.
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Read an Excerpt
-- desktop graffiti, Stuyvesant High School CHAPTER ONE
It's 7:38 a.m., and an old man boxes a phantom on Grand Street, jabbing and slicing the crisp air with his withered fists, the first ambition of the day. The rest of the morning awakens in slow motion on this unforgiving stretch of asphalt on the Lower East Side, a hardscrabble neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown in Manhattan. The Grand Spa down the block isn't open yet. Nor is the next-door Liquor & Wines. Nor Chester Fried Chicken across the street. All that can be traced on this gray February morning is the wisp of breath billowing like wordless cartoon bubbles from anonymous pedestrians as they trudge to work, huddled against the coming snowstorm.
And then from out of a nondescript red brick high-rise, Romeo emerges. Like the old man, he looks ready to wage combat against the day. That's the message conveyed in his baggy black Sean John jacket and baggy black Sean John jeans and black scarf and black skullcap and black shoes. But it's just urban utilitarian fashion -- black against the muted gray hues of the rising day -- which does little to disguise his broad shoulders or his chiseled 195-pound frame or the ferocity that he brings to the football field as a bruising tight end and defensive end who also played running back last season because he's so good, the best on his team. Romeo can bench more than his own weight -- 225 pounds -- no problem. Not that he needs to prove it. Jersey number ninety-eight commands respect, and the girls adore all six foot three inches of him -- the swagger, the charm, the dreadlocks, the silverearring in the left ear, the dark brooding eyes, the ambiguous smile full of braces.
Romeo is an archetype of the high school idol, a popular, powerful captain of his football team, except for one thing -- Romeo Alexander is also a sixteen-year-old math whiz.
He taught himself calculus by reading a tattered textbook. Then he got the top score on the advanced placement test and skipped a course in calculus to go straight into differential equations, the really hard kind of math. Girls flock to him for tutoring help, boys plead for help on homework.
Not your typical high school jock.
"I do a lot of math in my free time," he says without a hint of braggadocio. "After a while, it becomes a sport, fun."
If only the football team was as much fun. Last season, the team lost its first game sixty-four to zero, and it just got worse. The team stumbled to a one-and-eight record, its sole victory earned by default: the other team couldn't field enough players. Romeo's team was lucky to eke out the one victory. The school doesn't have its own football field. The team has to take a yellow school bus from Manhattan to Brooklyn to reach its so-called home field at another public school. The practice field is about a mile away, and it's not even a football field; it's a soccer field. Players say a mutiny forced the head coach to resign. "Almost nobody on the team liked him," a teammate was quoted in the school newspaper, the Spectator, which cited accusations of the coach's "extreme emotional outbursts." And to top it off, on a good day, only about ten Stuyvesant parents show up for a game.
"Nobody really cares," Romeo says. "It has its down moments."
A defensive tackle adds that it gets so bad that teammates don't like to brag about being on the team: "We don't really go around advertising it."
Perhaps the worst indignity, at least to Romeo, is the team name: the Peglegs. The moniker comes from the school's namesake, Peter Stuyvesant, the crotchety Dutch colonial governor of New Amsterdam, a man who hobbled around on one good leg, the other having been blown off by a cannon shot and replaced by a wooden leg. Such associations don't seem to inspire athletic greatness on the gridiron. Romeo would've preferred "the Flying Dutchmen." That suggests a certain grace -- nay, supernatural abilities -- which are sorely needed on the field.
But then again, this is Stuyvesant High School. And here, football doesn't matter. The brainiacs rule.
Romeo understands that, embraces it. Football drills under a baking sun don't match the pain of the academic workouts under a small pool of lamplight, the relentless nights when Romeo sits hunched over his small wooden desk, cloistered in his room, studying until two, three, four o'clock in the morning -- unless he dozes off while studying. His mother, Catherine Wideman, sleeps fitfully, knowing her son is up late studying, the only evidence a sliver of illumination emanating from the slit at the bottom of his shut door.
"Do you know it's two o'clock in the morning?" she will ask, knocking on his door.
"When the lights are off, I can relax," she says.
Not Romeo. Recently, he printed eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch signs from his computer and taped them up in his room, lashing Orwellian words to inspire, drive, compel.
Over his desk: "Discipline."
Over his bed: "Work is fun."
On his door: "The world is yours."
Conquering the world begins when he climbs aboard the overcrowded M22 public bus as it careens toward Stuyvesant on this chilly morning. "I was always the type of person who said I have to work harder, suffer," he says matter-of-factly.
For Romeo, an average of four hours of sleep has yielded a grade-point average on the high end of 96 out of a 100 -- near perfection. "Some people calculate it to the last decimal," he says. Romeo, however, doesn't debase himself with such picayune detail. "The way I see it, it's high."
Now all he has to do is maintain that near perfection during this, his junior year, the most critical period in his high school career, the sweet spot for colleges examining the almighty academic transcript of grades.
At least, that's his goal. That, and acing the dreaded SAT, required by most colleges, the single exam that can wipe out all his academic success in one fell swoop if he doesn't get a high score. It's not a question of bombing on the SAT: there's no chance of that, it doesn't compute. But even a slight misstep -- a mathematical miscalculation, a reading comprehension snafu -- could lower his score ever so slightly, which would ruin Romeo's goal, achieving a perfect 2400, a rarity not even reached by most supersavants.
"Above twenty-three hundred is reasonable," he concedes.
That still leaves precious little margin for error. Which is why, tomorrow, he begins his SAT prep course at school, a grueling process involving forsaken Saturdays leading up to the test in June. Romeo, the product of a modest upbringing -- the son of a struggling musician and a struggling freelance writer -- is keenly aware of the five-hundred-dollar cost of the class, even though it pales in comparison to the expense of other private tutoring courses, totaling in the thousands, if not the tens of thousands, the built-in advantage of the wealthy and privileged.
For Romeo, this is only the beginning of the price of admission to the college of his dreams: Harvard University.
But now, sitting in the back of the bus on his way to school, peering through the smudged window as City Hall scrolls by, Harvard is a mirage, and the only sound he's hearing is the remembered voice of his father. Romeo calls it "the famous speech," the time when Romeo was fourteen and his divorced father, a former funk singer still known as Prinz Charles, who lives in Harlem, lectured him on the realities of life, urging his son to grab the American Dream -- to go to school, get a job, be comfortable for the rest of his life. Father told son, You've got to rise up and take the reins.
His mother, a French former journalist, offered a different vision of the future, one in which Romeo would become a great scholar-athlete, much like her second husband, John Edgar Wideman, a Brown University professor and venerated author who became Romeo's stepfather about four years ago. Mr. Wideman was himself a celebrated student in his youth. At the age of twenty-one, he was the subject of a Look magazine article entitled "The Astonishing John Wideman," which hailed his many accomplishments, including a Rhodes Scholarship following his Ivy League education at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was captain of the basketball team and elected to the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honors society. It was at Romeo's age that Mr. Wideman's son, Jacob, stabbed to death another boy of sixteen, for which Jacob was sentenced to life in prison. Romeo doesn't talk about the tragedy, or the shadow of expectations that comes with an accomplished stepfather. Mother told son, I just want you to be happy.
And what does Romeo want?
"I want to help save the world."
He makes such a startling declaration with the same equanimity as a boy simply saying he is going to school, and both statements are to be believed. He doesn't know it yet, but today at school he will meet a seventy-eight-year-old New York University professor dying of cancer for whom Romeo will volunteer his services in unraveling the secrets of fusion. To Romeo, it will be an experiment for a prestigious national science contest, but if it's successful -- more of a wild dream than a remote possibility -- the project could provide energy to light entire cities, which would certainly fulfill his mission to achieve greatness. As a career choice, Romeo didn't have any say in the matter, not when the decision was made for him before birth. Or so he will soon write in his autobiography, an assignment for an upcoming English class:
My dad wanted me to become a star, in the most general sense. One way to make that happen was by giving me a name that would catch people's attention, that would constantly put me under the spotlight. My father was a star himself -- a musician -- that's how he seduced my mother in France. My mother, along the same lines, wanted me to become a great intellectual genius. That, I believe, comes from her father, who would be very pleased if all his grandchildren went to prestigious universities. Thus, Romeo was planned out and defined before I was even born.
His father, speaking to his wife's pregnant belly, recited simple math while Romeo rested in the womb: one plus one, two plus two, four plus four. "I did it, and we got some pretty good results," Charles Alexander says. He continued to challenge his son after his birth, speaking to Romeo not as a child but almost like an adult. "I didn't baby-talk him," he says. And always, the mantra was the same: "You can get this," his father would say, urging on his son. If his parents had any concern about Romeo as a child, it was that he was not aggressive. "Very passive," his father says. "Gandhi," that's what his mother called him. She always had great expectations for her only child. "I was on his case," she says, laughing shyly about the days when he was in elementary school and she was sometimes "screaming" at him to do his work, threatening to throw his video game out the window. She still prods him when his drive begins to flag. "I'm very ambitious for him," she says.
Another secret of his success: she started Romeo in martial arts when he was seven, demanding he never miss a class.
Romeo: "It taught me to get used to pain."
She says it taught something else: "Discipline."
"There is a life of the mind in this house that we value," adds Romeo's stepfather, referring to the way that he challenges Romeo to think, asking questions the teenager can't answer and talking at the dinner table about intellectually enriching issues like politics and history.
For Romeo, though, all that doesn't exactly explain how he got to this point, riding on this bus, going to this school, on the cusp of this future.
"I think a lot about that," he says, giving credit in part to good luck and what he calls "social Darwinism." But he isn't sure how to explain his accomplishments, except to say, "I always like to see it as my own doing, that I did it myself."
Football wasn't part of the plan. Until he was twelve, he didn't even like football. He watched the Super Bowl only for the ostentatious television commercials. But then his father taught him how to play a football video game, and it meant something deeper. "It was the first time I started hanging out with my dad," he says. It helped too that his father came from Boston, and the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl. Success bred interest, and now his father tapes every one of his son's football games.
Math, though, was the way for Romeo to pave his way to stardom. In the eighth grade he joined the school math team. Then the summer after his freshman year at Stuyvesant, he borrowed a friend's textbook to teach himself calculus, which he viewed as an exalted form of math because students often don't learn it until college, if at all.
"I always thought calculus was one of the secrets of the world," he says.
Romeo was also smitten with a girl a grade above him who already was taking calculus. If he could learn calculus on his own, he figured he could skip the first-year course and catch up with the girl, sitting in the same class with her for second-year calculus. His friends teased him about the bookish, bespectacled girl. More brains than beauty, they said. But no matter.
With trepidation, Romeo ventured online to sign up for the advanced placement test and pushed the button to pay the eighty-dollar fee. Like a football player drilling himself to perfection, Romeo practiced calculus over spring break. The result: "The test was so easy." He earned a five, the top score. He also zipped through the school's department final with a grade of 98, and the Stuyvesant math chairman saw no reason to waste Romeo's time with first-year calculus. Romeo was in love -- with math.
"When I met math and logic, it was like, 'Wow, this is how I'm going to understand the world,'" he says. "Maybe that's why I like math. I was searching for something."
But he quickly made another discovery: "In higher math," he says, "there are uncertainties."
So too with girls.
A month ago, he met a sophomore at a party. She asked him to dance. And now he has the first girlfriend of his life. Last night, his father gave him the birds and bees speech -- "the advanced course," Romeo quips.
The girl chose him; he didn't choose her. That's what he tells himself. Otherwise, it wouldn't have happened. He wouldn't have allowed it. Girls, he thought, would be a distraction, take him from work. His friends, on the same grueling academic mission, preach the same ascetic gospel.
"We talk about dominating the world and power and how women bring you down -- adolescent stuff," he says, aware of his own foolishness.
Just in case he needs a reminder, there's always a girl, Xevion Baptiste, a fellow junior, frequent lunch companion, and self-appointed conscience, to put Romeo in his place -- or at least try.
"I'm always telling him to put down his book, and he won't listen to me," she says. "I'll call him at midnight and say, 'Talk to me.' He says, 'All right, I have two seconds.' He's brilliant. He just needs to lighten up a little."
It's a struggle. Romeo has conditioned himself to suppress his emotions, to be strong, to be heroic, driven by a need to win, succeed, achieve. He's reminded of Raskolnikov, the tormented figure who neglects human emotion in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which he's reading for fun. (He also subscribes to the Economist for fun.) The internal conflict even imbues Romeo's own fiction: "You know as well as anyone else that the only way for there to be any productive progression in the history of humanity, science, and technology, you must be willing to make a few sacrifices of the mind and body," the main character tells himself in a science-fiction story that garnered Romeo a national writing award.
Suddenly, though, Romeo's been thrown off kilter. Maybe, he thinks, it's chemical. He just read an article in National Geographic about the physiological reactions of people in love. Their brains look like "someone who has a disorder," he says.
The only symptom Romeo detects in himself is some kind of stomach pain. But maybe it's just because it's all beginning -- the morning, the semester, his life. It's 8:23 a.m., and Romeo is about to disembark from the bus and enter Stuyvesant High School, ready to wage combat against the day.
Copyright © 2007 by Alec Klein
Meet the Author
Alec Klein is an award-winning reporter at The Washington Post. His previous book, Stealing Time: Steve Case, Jerry Levin, and the Collapse of AOL Time Warner, was a national bestseller that The New York Times called "a compelling parable of greed and power and hubris." He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and daughter.
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