Sunday, February 10, 2013

Why I Skipped My High School Graduation

I was my high school class' valedictorian. I was supposed to give a speech to the 150 or so students in the graduating class and their family members. For my graduation, however, I was in another country.
To say that I had an extreme fear of public speaking would be an understatement. I was petrified of having to write something and recite it in front of a crowd, so I simply decided early on during my senior year that I wouldn't bother going to graduation. There was the excuse of money, and more conveniently that I was to meet the Dominican vice-president in recognition of my academic achievements at around the same time I was to graduate.

 However, the most important aspect of my excuse -- at least to myself -- was that most of the students in my graduating class were virtual strangers to me; at least 50 were heldovers from previous classes. My freshman year, there were over 600 students in my class. I saw with my very own eyes how that number dwindled to less than 100 over a period of 4 years. One Dominican friend, Nairobi, broke his neck in a motorcycle accident. A couple of friends simply disappeared. Another forgot his box cutter from work inside of his bookbag and was expelled under the school's zero tolerance policy, despite our school being vocational and his good record of handling tools inside of the school far more dangerous than a box cutter. I lost faith in the education system's inflexible tyranny that day.

Other friends were arrested -- by the armed police officers always present in the hallways -- and transferred to special schools, but most simply failed out. I've seen almost none of those friends who didn't make it past senior year, highlighting the reality that 5/6th of the class was not there by the end of our 4th year. Beyond classmates I saw personally fail, the mathematical reality of the complete failure that schools in the Bronx represented was something that always made me want to run away.

When the final days to register for graduation started approaching, and I had to finally decide if I was to truly skip my graduation, I gave myself two choices: I could either speak angrily about the anger I felt, or simply never return. In the end, I never even bothered to pick up my high school diploma, and often have nightmares where I learn that I failed and never found out about it. Besides that, I feel that it was probably better for me to allow many years to past before I reflected on the reality of my educational experience in the Bronx.

There were a lot of good teachers, but they were often overworked and distracted by students who simply didn't want to learn. It's not easy to resist constant social pressure, so I can understand that after a long time many teachers would eventually also lose the will to teach. The reality is that I picked up most of what I know outside of school. I guess that when you spend all of your free time behind a computer and on certain websites, you pick up a lot of what you need in life, especially the sarcasm.

But I guess in life I needed to be motivated, and that was something that didn't go around much in the Bronx. There was a general feeling of doom, that we would end up in prison. To say that we were treated like criminals would be an understatement. My school had many armed guards before Sandy Hook -- ten years ago -- and it didn't feel safe. It felt like an oppressive police state. Every morning we were subjected to x-ray machines, metal detectors, pat-downs if the metal detector went off, ID swipes, and possible punishment if we did not wear our identification at all times. To cut cost, the machines were turned off at ten and students were prevented entry after that, meaning that since my classes started at ten, arriving even one minute late would force me to be absent the entire day.

During my junior year, a student brought in a drano bomb, causing it to explode loudly in one of the classrooms. Though no one was hurt, a SWAT team swarmed the school in full force and the entire student body was subsequently prohibited from bringing in any type of bottle or food item. It was at around the same time that Bloomberg decided to monopolize the vending machines in school with a single company's high-sugar products, but it's not like I had any money to buy food inside of the school anyway, so it doesn't matter. What really irked me was the food ban. As a vegan, I couldn't eat any of the food in the cafeteria. Hell, I probably wouldn't feed the food they gave me to a dog anyway, much less a person.

So, I was bitter, and I was afraid of talking in front of a crowd. In the end, those two elements coalesced to keep me from going to my high school graduation.  All I wanted to do was scream at the injustice that I felt at being treated like a criminal and starved on a daily basis. They told me some time ago that they were shutting down my school, but from the way it looks over here, there are many more like it springing up all over the country. Zero tolerance, barred windows, armed guards, and police state equipment won't make American schools as successful as the ones in Northern Europe. On the contrary, they will perpetuate the cycle of violence and victimization that has characterized America's history of racial and gender inequality.
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