School Spirits

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03/20/2013

Neighborhood: Featured, Jamaica

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I’ve been teaching Writing and Literature in New York City’s public school system for almost nine years. This spring, my former building will graduate its final class just shy of reaching the century mark. The school’s phase-out process followed the usual script that no ‘education reformer’ cares to discuss: a decent school declared dangerous, unable to attract new students, chronic absentees mysteriously transferred into the building, and on and on… So I’d like to reflect on the thousands of students who passed through the building over the decades, the unstoppable football teams of the roaring twenties, its players all done up with pomade slicked hair, those magnificent afros from the seventies, the dubious mullets in the eighties. I imagine their pictures still lining the school’s hallways - athletes, war heroes, every day Joes and Janes. It’s impossible to contemplate them all. So I’ll pick just one.

We’ll call him Michael, for he preferred not to be called by his full name. I never had him for a student, but I knew him from the literary club, where I served as an adviser. When he wasn’t busy editing the school’s newspaper or acting in a play, he was the lit club's star writer.

At fifteen he was already turning in work equivalent to that of a well seasoned adult. His essays were smooth and polished. They had integrity, insight, and incredible potential. In fact, his writing was so far and above the other students, who mainly attended for slices of pizza and socializing, he would only quickly stop by, drop off a new piece, and be on his way. He could have stayed to show off, but Michael had no interest in that.

So we began to edit his work privately, sometimes in person, often in the margins of papers handed back and forth through busy hallways. I wanted to show him the power of editing, removing some of those seductive adverbs and adjectives that sway so many young writers. I told him about a professor I had in grad school, a brilliant essayist who could edit student papers by simply closing his eyes and listening. The man’s sonorous voice remains in my head to this day. I wanted Michael to hear someone’s voice when he wrote.

The years went by and the kid only got better. We combed over Regents essays, college applications, and new material for the literary magazine. In his junior year, at a school pronounced dangerous and failing, he sat down to take the English Regents exam and recorded one of the highest scores in the state.»

School Spirits
Photo by England

By senior year Michael was so immersed in extracurricular activities that I often saw him only in passing. One day I handed him a flyer from one the city’s many teen writing contests. It was sponsored by a gay and lesbian organization that wanted themes specifically geared to their community. I presumed Michael would write something about marriage equality or perhaps gays in the military. I still recall the way he turned in his finished piece. He was neither nervous nor overly dramatic. He passed it to me with the same matter-of-fact confidence as usual, the fierce self-assurance the truly gifted possess.

Michael’s essay was about growing up in a strict, first generation American family and what it was like to openly discuss his sexuality with his father for the first time. He wrote about his initial trepidation. He wrote about the acceptance and understanding they eventually came to share. Michael had discovered his own voice and he was proud of it. He won that contest, of course; polished it up some more then got it published in a well known anthology for teens.

We lost touch after that. Graduates could no longer visit an alma mater that was almost gone. Besides, all his favorite teachers had been "excessed" from the building. I still drive by the old place from time to time, always before dawn, admiring its majestic architecture and contemplating my old classroom. But there is no longer any present - just a high school of the mind receding deeper into memory, growing smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror. I even look over Michael’s essay occasionally; recalling him and all those countless others, their spirits swirling high above the school’s hallowed bell tower forever.

J Bryan McGeever’s essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, and the Mr. Beller's Neighborhood anthology, Lost and Found: Stories from New York. He lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. The student in this essay appears under a pseudonym.

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