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High School Graduation: 'How I Went From Slacker to Star Student'

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This is a teen-written article from our friends at Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.

Names have been changed.

“Yo, do you understand what we have to do? ’Cause I damn sure don’t,” I whispered to a friend one day during math class. We were supposed to be working on a sheet of problems, but neither of us understood how to do it. I raised my hand, and when the teacher came over, I told him I was confused.

“Well, Miss, you should have been paying attention when I was giving the lesson and not so focused on talking to your friend.”

“But Mr. Cooper, I need help. I don’t get it. Are you going to help me or not?” I asked, getting angry.

“No, I’m not going to re-teach it to you when you should have been paying attention,” he replied. I was so mad I didn’t do any of his work for the rest of class.

What pissed me off the most was the way he talked to me. He should have sat down with me and broken down the problem. I decided to stop going to his class. Why should I waste my time with a teacher who won’t teach me?

Throughout elementary and middle school, I had been a relatively good student. In fact, math—Mr. Cooper’s subject—had always been my favorite class. But high school was different.

A New Routine

This was the first time I’d gone to a school outside of Brooklyn, and everything seemed really impersonal. Murry Bergtraum High School was a five-story brick building in downtown Manhattan with thousands of students. It was so big that my daily routine included walking around in a circle, looking for my classes. I felt uncomfortable and unsafe in such a big school with its huge population of students.

The teachers’ attitudes affected how I felt about school, too. Most of them never bothered to learn my first name, which says a lot to me. They also seemed less supportive of students than the teachers in my previous schools.

After a while my attitude toward school and the teachers was “Screw them.” I felt like I was wasting my time trying to learn if they weren’t going to help me, so I started cutting my least favorite classes. A month after my first cutting experience, it had become a part of my regular routine.

A normal day went like this: I’d walk into the building and check the time on my phone. It would be a little after 11 a.m., which meant I was a full two hours late to school. Acting nonchalant, I continued on to class. Business law and English were the only classes that I actually liked. The teachers were helpful, and I respected and loved them. But I only stayed around for those classes.

After I’d bumped into a few friends and discussed our afternoon plans, we’d all decide that we were going to leave school. Usually, we ended up in Burger King, Mickey D’s, or Wendy’s, but if we wanted to just relax, we would walk through a couple of stores or go kick back by the seaport.

When I was cutting I wasn’t thinking about much. All I knew was that I didn’t like my classes, I didn’t like my teachers, and I didn’t want to be there. I wasn’t thinking about my future at all, because I felt like I didn’t have much of a future to look forward to.

A Million and Two Steps Behind

The cutting went on for almost two years before it really caught up with me. Going into my junior year at Bergtraum, I was supposed to have earned at least 33 credits, but I only had five. I was still considered a freshman and at the rate I was going, I’d never graduate.

When I realized that, I felt overwhelmed. It hurt to hear my friends talk about how they’d made it to the next grade officially, and I was still a million and two steps behind. I considered dropping out because I felt hopeless, like an underachiever. Even so, I knew deep in my heart that I was capable of succeeding; I just didn’t know exactly how to go about it.

I knew I needed a change. I wasn’t getting anywhere in that school, so I decided to transfer to a new one. I was told that there were alternative schools that are smaller than your average high school, with a capacity of roughly 150 students. That sounded good, plus, I heard that the teachers at these smaller schools are dedicated, devoted, and actually give you one-on-one help. I decided to transfer to one of these alternative schools, South Brooklyn Community High School, that happened to be extremely close to my home. There was just one catch: they had to accept me.

During the interview, I sat in a small office with my mom while one of the school counselors asked some basic questions: Why are you here? What didn’t you like about your old school? Then, after asking my mother to leave the room, the counselor started asking me about my entire personal history. He wanted to know the ins and outs of my relationship with my mother and my father, whether anyone else was living in my household besides my mother and me, and lots of other personal stuff.

It felt like he was interrogating me, like I was a criminal about to be taken off to jail. It seemed unnecessary—how would all that information determine whether or not I should be accepted? I think my defensiveness came through in my answers.

Denied

About two weeks later, a different counselor from South Brooklyn finally called to tell me my fate.

“Good afternoon. Is this DeAnna Lyles?” asked a man’s voice I had never heard before.

“Ummm, yes. This is she. May I ask who is speaking?”

“I’m an advocate counselor calling from South Brooklyn Community High School. I was just going over your interview and I’d like to talk to you. It doesn’t seem like you’re committed enough to finishing high school. So I have to tell you that you are not accepted to our school,” the man said.

As he explained further, I started feeling aggressive. The person I was on the phone with had never met me a day in his life, but he was telling me that I wasn’t committed enough?

“Excuse me? How was I supposed to show y’all I was committed? You wanted me to sit there, begging and pleading to be accepted?” I replied.

“No, Ms. Lyles, not at all. Your responses seem to be based on your old habits and attitude. It just seems like you’re not really focused on getting your high school diploma. We don’t want to accept you knowing you really don’t want to be here. You would be taking up space that could go to someone who may really want to graduate. Have you ever considered getting your GED?”

As those words came out of his mouth, I became furious. How dare he tell me I wasn’t focused enough! He didn’t know anything about me!

“No, I haven’t. I don’t want my GED. A high school diploma means more to me. And if I really wasn’t committed enough, why would I go through all this hassle? I would have just dropped out and called it a day.” My voice had become high-pitched and squeaky. Tears began to form in my eyes, but the conversation was over. I had nothing else to say, so I told him to have a good day and hung up the phone.

Second Chance

I began to cry. It seemed like no one wanted me to graduate and succeed in life. But I was determined not to stay knocked down. After that conversation, I actually felt more motivated to prove to them and the world that although I’d messed up before, I still could redeem myself and come out on top. I had something to prove to everyone who had either lost faith in me or never had faith in me to begin with.

I talked to my mother about all this, and she ended up calling the school back to ask for another interview. This time, the interview was with the head administrator.



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