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From Slacker to Star Student
DeAnna Lyles
headshot

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?

image by Amanda Garcia

“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.

On the morning of the second interview, putting on my clothes seemed like it took hours. My body was moving as if I was wearing a moonsuit.

When my mother and I got to the front of the school, my feet began to slow down and I started to feel a little queasy and light-headed. This was my last chance to finish high school, walk onstage, and receive a diploma. “Come on, I got this,” I told myself over and over. “I will cry in front of them if I have to, just to prove how serious I am,” I thought to myself.

My heart raced and my palms started getting sweaty when I sat down for the interview. While talking to the head administrator, I couldn’t keep still. I didn’t want to look like a dancing fool sitting in a chair, so I began to shake the mess out of my leg. I could feel the table vibrate and I wasn’t sure if she could, too.

The administrator pretty much asked the same questions as my first interviewer had. She also asked my opinion on how that first interview went. I told her that I initially thought it went well, but obviously I was wrong since I was sitting here again for a second interview.

Throughout our conversation, I made sure to emphasize that I really wanted to be there. I told her how committed I was to finishing and how much it meant to me to receive a diploma and not my GED. My responses this time around were different than those of the first interview. I was now answering with deep consideration and not with a nonchalant attitude.

I had to wait another week for the results from the second interview. It was nerve-racking waiting for the phone to ring, and worrying that the answer from the school would be the same: a big, fat “No.” When I finally got the phone call, they told me I was accepted. I was so excited I told everybody the good news.

Changing Old Habits

I was glad to be enrolled in school again, but nervous because I hadn’t been in a school environment in a long time. I worried that I would start to act out the way I had before, disregarding the new goal I had for myself: I wanted to learn something every period of every day. I wanted to graduate.

I had to work on developing a new attitude about school, reminding myself how big a role education actually plays once you reach adulthood. I realized that without an education, I probably wouldn’t be able to make a decent living or get an interesting job that challenged me. I had to think about what I wanted to accomplish in life and make sure I stayed on that track.

At South Brooklyn, I felt tempted to cut class plenty of times, but I chose not to because I knew I would end up going back to my old habits. Thankfully, this time around, it was much easier to focus on the work because the school environment suited me a lot better. The school and everything about it was intimate: The classrooms were small, the number of students was small, and there were only about 10 teachers and five counselors. That meant there was a lot of one-on-one help, which I liked.

Jumping for Joy

Everything in my new school seemed to be going great and the classes seemed easy, but I wasn’t too sure of myself. Have you ever had the feeling that you’re getting it and doing OK, but when the grades come around it doesn’t look like you understood a damn thing? I was worried that would happen here.

When I got my first set of grades back, I couldn’t believe what I saw. As I scanned my report card, my eyes widened. I had passed my classes. And I mean all of them, with 75 or better. I couldn’t decide whom I should call first, my mother or my grandmother.

I had butterflies in my stomach while this little girl inside me started jumping up and down as if on a trampoline. I felt even better when I realized I’d received credit for every class that I had taken, which meant I was that much closer to finishing school. I was proud of myself. My counselors and teachers, who knew about my prior behavior at Bergtraum, were proud of my quick transformation too.

Focused on My Future

After a while, school became a piece a cake. I was busting it down like it was nothing. I started getting all my credits left and right, with no hassle. I even earned the second highest average in school, and constantly got praised for my grades, my attendance, and my leadership.

All the compliments from my teachers and other staff members made me feel really good inside. It showed that I truly have what it takes to accomplish my goals, and that motivated me to continue to do well. At the same time, I felt like I was proving myself to anyone who’d doubted me.

After two years at South Brooklyn, I graduated last June! It felt amazing to walk across the stage and get my diploma, just like I wanted to. Along with my realization that education really is important, a big part of my turnaround from slacker to star student was finding an environment that felt right.

Bergtraum was a big place where I felt unnoticed, and that caused me to rebel against everything school-related. At South Brooklyn, the teachers and counselors praised us when we were doing well, and they lightly scolded us when we were doing something wrong. I could tell that they cared about my education. That environment kept me focused on my future.

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(NYC-2011-04-10)

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