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A Year in the Life of an American High School, A Glimpse into the Heart of a Nation
By Meredith Maran
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Meredith Maran
All rights reserved.
August 1999: Same Old Same Old
"Yo! Jordan! What's up!" As he's making his way across the pile of dirt and rubble that used to be the teachers' parking lot, Jordan stops to wait for his friend Ari. The two boys hug awkwardly, pat each other on the back a few times, then pull apart.
"Same old same old," Jordan replies, looking around at the campus. In the gauzy August morning light Berkeley High looks even worse than it did the last time he saw it in June. Classes start next week, but the promised renovation seems to be stuck in the demolition phase. Abandoned bulldozers and overflowing dumpsters are parked where the foreign-language portables used to be. The B building, encased in construction plastic, looks as if it's wearing a giant condom. From here Jordan can see the tall red letters that were stenciled onto the C, G, and H buildings last year, when kids set so many fires that the fire department insisted the school make its buildings easier to identify.
"Same old funky B-High," Ari sighs, and he and Jordan set off together, negotiating the obstacle course of sagging cyclone fences that bifurcate the campus. Jordan nods, but secretly he's glad to be back. Even with all its problems, Berkeley High is still a whole lot better than the other schools he's gone to—not to mention the schools he could have gone to. Drinking his smoothie this morning, he watched the TV news coverage of the Littleton students going back to class for the first time since the massacre last April. It reminded him of the group counseling sessions that were held at Berkeley High the day after Littleton happened: girls crying, boys acting macho, therapists spouting New Age jargon—and everyone wondering how the parents could have missed the signs. That was no mystery to Jordan. He'd found out the hard way that as long as a kid's doing okay in school, adults will think the kid has no problems.
"Hey, how was your summer, dude?" Ari asks as they walk. Anyone who knows Jordan—and a lot of people do—knows he'd been dreading the summer, the first anniversary of his father's death.
"Tough," Jordan answers. "On Father's Day I went camping by myself in Yosemite. Weird, huh? My dad falls off a cliff and dies, and a year later I decide to spend my first Father's Day without him on a mountain. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I ended up in the hospital with mono. Plus, I missed my summer internship at Skidmore."
"Major bummer." Jordan kicks at a Doritos wrapper that's stuck itself to his shoe. "When I got better, I went to see my dad's family in New Jersey," he goes on. "They haven't dealt with their emotions at all. So I couldn't even talk to them about my dad. They still don't know if he jumped or got pushed or what. Not that it matters, really." Jordan shrugs. "My mom came out in August. We took the East Coast college tour. Eight schools in seven days. The colleges were cool. I fell in love with Bard. But a week on the road with my mom—that was hard on both of us. She's so damn intense."
"I feel you, dude," Ari says. "My parents always look a whole lot better to me from a few thousand miles away."
Jordan and Ari fall into the surging stream of students all headed for the same destination: the Berkeley Community Theater. Bordering the north end of the seventeen-acre Berkeley High campus, embellished with carvings of ancient Greek philosophers, the round white stucco building doubles as the school's auditorium and the town's only concert hall.
By night the theater throngs with Ani de Franco fans, Thich Nhat Hanh devotees, supporters of benefits for Earth First, affirmative action, Mumia Abu-Jamal. By day it plays a different role. Each weekday its wide brick steps, overlooking the central courtyard of the only public high school in America's most famously politically correct town, become a citadel of segregation. Before school, after school, and at lunchtime the steps are home to several of the myriad cliques into which Berkeley High students divide themselves—during the hours, that is, when those divisions are not imposed by the school itself.
But just for today, all seven hundred seniors of the Class of 00 will spend a few hours together at the theater, riding the merry-go-round of Berkeley High bureaucracy. Those who are lucky and persistent enough will catch the brass ring: the school ID cards and class schedules they need to register for next semester. Some of the others will be back tomorrow to try again. Many more will show up on the first day of school without proof of enrollment or any clue as to where they're supposed to be. A few won't be back at all.
"Shit," Jordan groans when he sees the line, ten students thick, that snakes around the theater. "Nine o'clock in the morning, man. I thought we'd beat the mob."
"At this place?" Ari answers. "Never." Before they transferred to Berkeley High, Jordan, Ari, and most of the kids in their crowd were classmates at Head Royce or one of the other small, exclusive private schools in the Berkeley-Oakland area. Years later, they still make many of these shorthand comparisons.
"Hey Jordan! Ari!" Two girls, both wearing tank tops, cut-offs, and platform flip-flops, their long hair coiled into matching buns held in place with chopsticks, run up and give each boy a hug. "Can we cut?" one of the girls asks teasingly. Jordan glances over his shoulder, catches the scowl of the boy behind him, and shrugs. "Guess not." "Okay then. Later," the girls trill, and bounce off to join the end of the line.
By ten o'clock Jordan and Ari are only a few yards closer to the theater. The morning fog has burned off; the heat of the day is rising. Jordan's shirt is stuck to his back. He's glad he buzzed most of his hair off yesterday.
"Hey! Y'all think we got nothin' better to do wit' our time than this?" a black girl in front of them starts yelling. "I ain't gon' wait on this goddamn line all day!" Her friends laugh, egging her on. "Who be runnin' this shit 'round here anyways?" she shouts.
The girl stomps off the line and up to the parent volunteer who's sitting behind a table handing out the red-and-gold student organizers that the Parent-Teacher-Student-Association (PTSA) donates to all students every September. The woman, one of the many white moms who are volunteering here today, recoils as the girl approaches.
"Y'all need to go to school to learn how to run this school," the girl says loudly. The mom's eyes dart around wildly. "You people can't do nothin' right!"
Why can't white people ever stand up for themselves? Jordan thinks, watching. He hates feeling embarrassed by white people acting weak. And it happens all the time at Berkeley High.
"That's enough, young lady." A stocky, middle-aged African-American man grabs the girl by the arm.
"Ooh! Check it OUT! Wiggins got a toupee!" her friends hoot at the school's detested security supervisor, who was bald last time they saw him in June. "Wiggins got a Gheri Curl!"
"You're out of here! Now!" Barry Wiggan barks, and escorts the girl away.
Jordan glances at Ari, who rolls his eyes in disgust—at Wiggins (as the kids all call him), or at the black girl? Jordan wonders. With his white friends, Jordan often feels like Mister P.C., pointing out their privileges and prejudices. Last year he and one of his closest friends stopped speaking because they couldn't stop arguing about whose fault it is that African-American and Latino kids don't do well at Berkeley High; and why it is that rich white "hills" parents like hers—Harvard grads, Rhodes scholars, friends of the Clintons—have the time and power to rule the school in their own self-interest and nobody else's. Jordan wonders sometimes whether he feels different from kids like her because his mom is an ex-hippie, now a staunch liberal; or because his dad was Jewish and he taught Jordan to be conscious of discrimination, or because Jordan and his mom live in a middle-class North Oakland neighborhood, not the Berkeley hills. Whatever the reason, he thinks, I'm not going to have that argument now. Not before school even starts.
An hour later Jordan reaches the top of the steps. A student he doesn't recognize hands him his ID card and asks him for a dollar. "Isn't that illegal?" Jordan asks. "To make us pay for our ID cards? And what about the kids who don't have a dollar?" Without waiting for an answer he nods good-bye to Ari, hands over the money, and goes inside to have his picture taken. Laminated photo in hand, he finds the "A-E" table and shows it to the mother of a kid he knows from Head Royce. She greets him by name and hands him his schedule.
"Thanks, Jean," Jordan says politely. He steps aside, glances at the printout in his hand, and curses silently. Unlike most of his classmates, he turned in his schedule request form on time last June. He even bypassed the envelope taped to his counselor's door and waited on line all through lunch to hand it to her in person instead. Now Jordan sees that of the seven classes he needs, he's only been assigned to two—one of them during the wrong period. So he trudges over to the B building, stepping over the red-and-gold-lettered "Welcome Back Seniors!" signs he'd seen taped to the buildings earlier today. Jordan realizes that the parent volunteers must have put them up to cover the spray-painted graffiti messages visible beneath them, now that they've been thrown on the ground. "00 Rules. Fuck 01."
Jordan pushes through the plastic-covered doors to the B building and joins the long line that's spilling out of the counseling department. The scribbled names taped to the wall beside each office are unfamiliar to him. They fired all the counselors—again, he realizes. Two hours later Jordan meets his new counselor, Guillermo—a cool guy, Jordan quickly decides. Not that it matters. With Berkeley High's six counselors serving more than five hundred students apiece, Jordan knows that this fifteen-minute meeting is likely to be the longest one he and Guillermo will ever have.
Four hours after arriving, Jordan leaves Berkeley High with the two items he came for: the ID card all students are required to present on demand (the black kids, Jordan often reminds his friends, get carded and suspended regularly, while the white kids are never even asked to show their IDs) and the same schedule he'd requested last June.
Jordan is taking two advanced placement classes this semester: Statistics and Biology. The truth is, he couldn't care less about either subject and wouldn't bother making the extra effort that the college-level classes demand, except that he sees them as "Bard insurance": extra points on his transcript to make him more appealing to college admissions officers.
The worst part about AP classes is that most of the people in them are Ivy League-bound Hills kids—hella boring. Diversity is the main reason Jordan transferred to Berkeley High, but it's not easy to come by. Because of tracking, a truly mixed group is even rarer in a classroom than it is at lunchtime. That's why as soon as Jordan signed up for Berkeley High, he signed up for the racially, economically, and academically diverse school-within-a-school called CAS—Communication Arts and Sciences.
"Since money influences people's thinking more than anything," Jordan says, "in order to get an objective view of life you need to hear the perspectives of people who don't have much of it." The two CAS classes he takes every day are full of all kinds of kids from all kinds of backgrounds, so the often-heated discussions are always thought provoking, never boring. Plus, CAS gives him lots of "warm and fuzzies," as his mom says, like the overnight retreats that always manage to bond the group, despite all the differences between its members. "There isn't enough of that kind of bonding in the adult world," Jordan says—his mom's friends are cool, but they're almost all white—and he's determined to take advantage of it while he can.
Last year CAS provided Jordan with an unexpected benefit. After his dad died, CAS founder and director Rick Ayers became a second father to him, calling Jordan at home at night to make sure he was okay, hanging out with him on the weekends when Jordan needed someone to talk to. Mr. Ayers doesn't teach seniors, so Jordan won't see him every day this year. But as long as Jordan's part of the CAS family, he knows that Mr. Ayers and the other CAS teachers will be there for him.
Looking over his schedule now, Jordan feels that he's struck a good balance: CAS in the morning, AP in the afternoon. Two AP classes is enough, he tells himself. Jordan's not like his Head Royce friends, living their whole lives to get into Harvard. Bard will be just fine. Better than fine. Bard will be tight.
On his way back to the 1990 Blazer his mom bought him for six thousand dollars, Jordan passes a bunch of guys in front of Taco Bell on Shattuck. "What's up, Darnell," Jordan calls to a guy he knows from CAS.
" 'S'up, Jordan."
"Got your schedule?" Jordan asks.
Darnell shrugs. "That line's too long. And life's too short."
The two boys' eyes meet briefly. "Awwight, man. See you next week," Darnell says, and turns back to his friends.
"Next week," Jordan repeats. He can't believe the summer's almost over. Can't believe he's a senior already. A year ago this week I was at Dad's funeral, he thinks. Next year at this time I'll be in college.
Jordan decides to treat himself to a frappacino before he heads home. He walks past Taco Bell and into the cool, dim light of the Starbucks next door.
As usual, in June Amy Crawford promised herself a summer vacation. And as usual, she reflects as she finishes up her lesson plans a week before school begins, she hasn't really had one.
Amy hasn't spent a summer not working since she started teaching five years ago, right out of Mills College. She reads only books she assigns to her classes, makes and takes parent phone calls on weekends, hires her students to pull ivy from her garden, feeds them peanut-butter-on-whole-wheat sandwiches at her kitchen table. Her husband comes home from his graphics job at six every night ready to kick back and relax. Amy comes home at five with a stack of papers to grade. Philosophically, she resents the unremitting unpaid labor her job demands, but secretly she pities her husband his office job, his days spent with adults and computers, deprived of the joy that she knows on the best of days, watching teenagers grow.
It's not like I didn't have fun this summer, she tells herself, packing file folders into her well-worn orange backpack. One of the delights of teaching in CAS, the two-year-old alternative program within Berkeley High, is that she and her team-teaching partner, Dana Richards, truly delight in each other—although not in the way their students suspect. (At last year's CAS retreat, in answer to the kids' giggling Truth or Dare question, Dana held up his hands in mock surrender and announced with characteristic sarcasm, "Okay, you guys. It's true. I've just notified my wife that Ms. Crawford is actually the mother of our two children.")
It's damn lucky we do get along so well, Amy thinks, because she and Dana have once again spent not only every day of the school year together but also most of the summer, picnicking at Lake Anza, going to the movies, hanging out in the backyard of Amy and her husband's new house in Oakland, trying to make sure that next year goes a whole lot better than last year did.
There are good years and hard years in a teacher's life; classes in which, magically, almost nothing goes wrong and classes in which, mysteriously, almost everything does. Last year's CAS class was Amy's hardest ever. The first crop of CAS kids, recruited as sophomores in 1997—Amy's first year at Berkeley High—became, as juniors, not only academically apathetic but also stubbornly cynical. "The majority of the kids were just not interested in an academic challenge," she says. "It was always, 'What's the least amount of work I can do to get an A?' The prevailing attitude was that the world is harsh, society sucks, there's nothing you can do about it. Well, we know society sucks. That's why CAS exists—to change that."
About to begin its third year and graduate its first class of seniors, CAS is a work in progress, its paradoxes as glaringly evident as its potential. "You set up a small school in a big school, you recruit kids who want intimacy, diversity; a respite from the impersonal, indifferent, big-school environment. And what do you get? Students who are alienated from the mainstream, wanting lots of personal attention, discontent with the status quo. There's an up side to a group like that, but there's also a down side."
Excerpted from Class Dismissed by Meredith Maran. Copyright © 2000 Meredith Maran. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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