Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Educational Boner...

All my educational life I heard about this magical, wonderful place called Stuyvesant High School; the name was whispered out of the mouths of my friends’ parents the way Jon whispers Steven Sondheim’s name in tick, tick, BOOM: a breathless and desire-filled “Stuyvesant.” At ten stories tall overlooking the Westside Highway, it was a place of dreams-- like an urban Disneyland castle-- and adults all across the five boroughs and expanding as far as the tri-state area, would salivate at the name, not unlike Pavlov’s dog hearing that damn ringing bell.

“Stuy,” as those in the know call it, was ranked third in the country for public school education at the time, and though I haven’t looked at any more recent statistics lately, it’s safe to assume it hasn’t strayed too far from that spot—especially considering the placement is based on test scores and numbers and not the quality of the students’ brains (or teachers’…teachings). To have a chance at attending the specialized magnet school, eighth graders from all over New York would take a rigorous analogical exam, akin only to a “baby SAT,” to ensure that only the best and brightest minds would get in.

Supposedly, once you were in, Stuyvesant would prepare you for college by “challenging you academically and offering dozens of AP courses to get you a leg (and a bunch of credits) up upon graduation. In fact, colleges were supposed to know all about Stuyvesant and its reputation (everyone was supposed to know all about it—it was where Amanda Bynes attended on What I Like About You, after all), and therefore, the students would be able to go anywhere they wanted. It was the place of my sophomoric dreams, then, if it ensured easy access to the UC of my choice. Unfortunately, I can now attest that it’s nothing more than a bunch of smoke and mirrors, as when I applied to five universities—all in Southern California—not one of them showed a flicker of recollection at the name, let alone a clamoring to let me into their hallowed halls. In fact, more than one of them mispronounced it “Stuie-ves-ant.”

But back in the day that was where I, along with all of my close friends, was supposed to go to high school. It was drilled into our heads that Stuyvesant was the place to be. And when you’re a child of eight or nine, and your best friend has two older siblings that attended Stuyvesant, and all your friends’ parents talk about when they talk about your future is Stuyvesant, well, you may not really know what it means, but you inherently want to be a part of it. Kids copy each other, whether it’s always intentional or not, and this was no different: I heard Stuyvesant was the best. All of my friends wanted to be the best, so I wanted to be the best. Therefore, if all of my friends wanted to go to Stuyvesant, I should want to go there, too. It was a case of simple logic, not unlike the analogies with which I would be faced on the actual entrance exam.

By the time I was old enough to actually think about going to Stuyvesant, I no longer wanted to go-- well, okay, I kind of wanted to go…but only to be a part of all of its references in pop culture. Somehow I had convinced myself it might make a nice trivia piece on my IMDb page. Dick Morris was a graduate, after all, as was Tim Robbins, Lucy Liu, Thomas Calabro, and James Cagney-- an anecdote I didn’t learn until college when, in a film class, my professor was giving a brief bio of the movie star, and I looked up long enough from the game of M.A.S.H. I was playing at the sound of my alma matter. I said “Huh” in the “that’s interesting” sort of way and then went right back to not paying any attention.

By the time I was old enough to actually go to Stuyvesant, it seemed my fate had already been sealed. We had been talking about going there for so long, we just had to follow through now. Forget the fact that I already knew math and science were not for me; I wanted to pursue a film career after high school, so really I should have been applying to performing arts schools to surround myself with creative, likeminded, artistically nurturing people. Sure, you can find creative people even in technical fields, like the actors I mentioned before, but they were the exception, not the rule or the “norm.”

Since the importance of doing well on the entrance exam had been so stressed in my world, the only logical thing was to sit our little twelve and thirteen year-old butts in preparatory classes. It didn’t seem to matter what our grades or interests were: all of my friends were taking the test. It was peer pressure for nerds—but more bragging rights for parents who, for years, had already been taking credit for our achievements. Though for some, that credit was deserved: one of my closest friends had a mother who would finish her projects for her because she was a procrastinator but also a perfectionist, and those two things combined meant her book reports, historical board games, and original short stories went untouched until the day or so before they were due, when her mother would buckle down and complete them. I always wondered if her mother’s writing maturity stopped at the level of a fifth or sixth grader and that’s why our teachers never called out the projects for being over-our-heads. But then again we were considered “gifted." Oh yeah, Kathy Griffin would have had a field day with us! But I digress…

Anyway, my friends and I were not treated as individuals but instead a collective mass with the same objective. We were almost an academic team, only some players were there because it was their parents’ dream and not their own, and in the end we were competing only against each other.

Every Saturday morning we would load into the car of whoever’s parent’s turn it was that particular week to drive us to and from some other middle school in a different art of the city. Armed with our special books and some freshly sharpened Number 2 pencils, about which I admit fantasizing jamming into my hand so I’d be “incapacitated” and therefore excused from the busywork, we would spend four hours of our well-deserved weekends sitting in a strange classroom with equally strange kids and a new teacher, forced to study lessons that far exceeded what we were getting inside the hallowed halls of our New York City public junior high school.

Some of my friends took the class extremely seriously for teenagers. One in particular—let’s just call her Gretchen— probably studied the hardest than any of us. Even for simple sixth grade social studies or biology or keyboard—not piano; Brooklyn wasn't classy enough for that-- tests, she admitted to studying her notes and practicing sample problems for hours on end, sometimes up to eight in just the night before. She was deathly afraid of even one blemish on her record hurting her chances of academic success down the line.

Needless to say, though, Gretchen was serious—capital S, capital ERIOUS—about the prep course, and she sat in the first row every week, listening intently and scribbling notes so furiously, little pencil flakes would fly off her notebook pages. I, on the other hand, would bring snacks and the newest issues of the soap opera magazines with which had become my obsession. Though no one ever ripped on me for those (at least to my face), they probably should have.

I would sit in the corner of the room, purposefully next to a window, so I could occasionally gaze outside, and hide the magazines within the course books so I didn’t cause too much attention to myself. Sometimes I’d go through whoever’s desk I happened to slide into that week, looking for notes passed from friends in classes similar to my own. When I didn’t find any, I would leave my own.

I only took the practice exams that were given in class; any homework assigned was passed over, as I had enough of that from my real classes. If I had to turn in any of the assignments, I would quickly jot down a shortened version of the work required to come to the right answer—which I found in the back of the book. After all, I felt I owed it to my parents to feel like they were getting something for the money they were paying just on the off-chance progress reports were sent home.

Though my parents were not the most aware (for example, whenever they would serve frozen peas and carrots with dinner, I would not-so-discreetly slip them into a napkin, tuck the napkin in the waistband of my pajamas, and excuse myself from the table to flush them down the toilet; I got away with this for years in my adolescence, with my parents still claiming to this day that there was “no way” I did that), they were coherent enough to figure out that when it came time for me to take the SATs, their savings might be better served elsewhere. My mother simply tossed a prep book onto my bed after a few nights in a row of me claiming I had no homework to do—a night I was undoubtedly wrapped up in Melrose Place or Will & Grace or Law & Order— and told me to “look it over.” It was quite an ironic reversal considering the SATs are usually the most important exam of a young person’s life.

The truth was, I didn’t want to get caught up in obsessing about the numbers the way Gretchen did. One of the lead characters in the Fame-homage independent musical Camp reveals mid-way through the film that he is not the so-called Golden Boy everyone assumes him to be; he has a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which he counts the letters whenever someone else speaks. Instead of focusing on what the person is saying, he adds the numbers in each word and then each sentence continuously until he gets to a prime number. Then he starts all over again. There is no logic to a disease like that; it’s just a switch in the brain that is flicked on when it really shouldn’t be, incapacitating the person from functioning “normally.” But the more I thought about his predicament, the more I realized that his obsession with numbers is not nearly as uncommon as it at first seemed. In fact, our society is set up in that way: we are defined by the numbers in our lives.

When I was in sixth grade, my social studies teacher gave me an 88% on my first quarter report card. When my mother went up to Parent-Teacher conferences to talk with him about why, he could only offer that he knew I was smart but wanted to motivate me to work a little harder. All of my friends received something in the mid-ninety range. When my mother returned home and repeated what he said, I just shrugged it off because I thought an 88% was a perfectly acceptable grade, and I wasn’t willing to give into the pressure to constantly be compared to the rest of them. The truth was: if I was getting an 88% without having to study at all, I was more than happy to continue down that path. It wasn’t that I didn’t have motivation; I just didn’t have it about Social Studies…or science, or math, or foreign language…but that’s not really the point!

It would have been really easy-- as a young girl who was still growing and maturing and learning from example-- to start obsessing over that number and let it determine my worth. I was certainly being compared to enough of my peers just based on it alone. And sure, that day the number merely reflected a grade in a class that ultimately would have no bearing on my future, but it just as easily could have been something more serious. In a society that boasts its addictions, it is especially tough as a young girl to know where and when (and how) to draw the line. After all (as reinforced by any number of entirely wretched articles in Allure or Cosmo or even Teen Magazine), girls especially are pit against each other as competition and told to pay strict attention to everything from the number on the scale-- and then the number of calories we put in our mouths on a daily basis to affect the number on that scale-- to the numbers in our bank account to the number of kids we want to have-- which often times is dependent on the number in our bank account. It's a freakin' vicious cycle.

Math is a universal language, and though that can be beautiful, as “my pal Damian” would say, it can clearly serve to divide as much as it tries to unite. Maybe this is specific to the cattiness of teenage girls, and though it’s hard to know for sure since seeing as how that’s what I had to deal with growing up, it’s the only frame of reference I have, our self-esteem always seems to be in battle with others'.

An episode of the mid-nineties sci-fi drama MilleniuM explained: “There's a system in place-- one that constantly evaluates our youths and our lives with no application of relativity. A 4.0 will succeed, a 2.5 will not. Below 750 on the SATs, and certain doors close. Now, quality of person, sense of humor, heart—these are not on any applications. It's all about your numbers: numbers which tell a young person at eighteen they're through, and unless there is some miracle of timing or events, and greatness is stressed upon you, your life is over.” I can’t tell you how hard I have to fight every day not to let the numbers rule my life. So forget sticks, stones, or words; perhaps in the wrong hands, numbers can be a person’s greatest weapon.

Anyway, the reason I drudge up this not-so-fond memory now is because yesterday I had the pleasure of attending the "reveal" day at a Los Angeles public magnet school that was chosen to be apart of the new NBC alternative series School Pride's renovation. It is a school known for their arts programs, and yet those were the programs still being cut when the school board ran out of money for the year. It baffles me. In Stuyvesant, our arts programs were lacking, but that was because the emphasis was on math and science, and few of the students wanted to pursue something a bit less "conventional" after graduation. I didn't expect to find my sanctuary there-- which is why I created one in the bowels of my computer in my own bedroom, spending hours each afternoon after coming home from classes working on my own screenplays and short stories-- but it sure would have been nice!

Stay tuned for an interview with School Pride creator and executive producer Cheryl Hines. She definitely inspired me to make sure that my kids—if I ever actually have kids—don't have to go through what I did in my own school. If the school board won't pay for programs, band the parents, teachers, and community together and make something happen for yourselves!

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