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My School Is Like a Family
T. Shawn Welcome
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I used to go to Harding HS in the Bronx and I hated it (the name has been changed to protect the guilty). It was cold and unfeeling—as close to being put in an institution as I ever want to get. The teachers only cared about the work; it seemed they could care less about any problems a student might be dealing with.

The students weren’t much better. They were there to show off and try to be cool. I was dealing with a lot of personal problems at the time and going to a big, impersonal teaching facility, with metal detectors, I.D. scanners, and hall passes wasn’t helping me at all.

I started getting more and more depressed and began to cut classes. At one point, I stopped going to school altogether.

Meanwhile, my guidance counselor was trying to talk me into applying to a small alternative high school called University Heights. She said it was a school that would allow me to work at my own pace and I wouldn’t be as stressed as I was at Harding. She kept talking about how the teachers and students were on a first name basis, and that they had a class called “Family Group,” where people would talk to each other about their problems.

It all sounded good but I didn’t feel like adjusting to a new school, new people, and a whole load of new work.

She tried to get me to apply there for about a year, but I wasn’t budging. Then, in the 11th grade, I heard that my best friend, Eric, had applied and was accepted. He would tell me about how free the atmosphere was and how good some of the girls looked. I asked him to pick up an application for me and, with my counselor’s help, I filled it out.

It took a couple of visits and a lot of hard work to get me in. I had to spend a day there and basically be interrogated by the other students, who play an important part in deciding who is and who isn’t right for the school. After that they still didn’t want to let me in because I had too many credits to transfer, but my counselor kept calling and pleading with them and, in the end, I was accepted.

It was a relief to know that I was finally going to get away from Harding and be able to start a new life. I wanted to leave all my personal and scholastic problems behind. Leaving Harding symbolized the beginning of a new era for me.

All the new students had to go to an orientation during the summer where we played a bunch of get to know each other games. So by the first day of school we were already familiar with each other. And University Heights has fewer than 400 students (Harding has about 3,500), so everyone gets to know each other quickly anyway.

My first month at University Heights wasn’t what I’d expected. When I heard the word “alternative,” I thought that there would be a lot of people who were put there because they had a record of fighting or who had been expelled from other schools. It wasn’t like that.

image by Remy Whitacre

I felt at home there almost right away. I was finally getting what I didn’t have at Harding—a feeling that I belonged. At University Heights there wasn’t that much fronting going on. I found myself talking to other students about my personal life and taking their advice.

Once we were in class and I was talking about my problems with my father when I suddenly got very emotional. I got up and left the room so the others wouldn’t see me cry. Qwana, another student who didn’t even know me that well, came out into the hall after me and held me. I never experienced anything like that at Harding—I don’t think anyone did. I didn’t even know it was possible.


I didn’t know there were other ways of teaching either. For one thing, the classes are not overcrowded. And the teachers don’t just write on the blackboard and have you copy the notes.

In Spanish class, for example, the learning is interactive. Frank, one of my Spanish teachers, would write the verbs that we were learning that week on the blackboard and then break the class up into groups of four or five. Each group would have to work together to make sentences with the verbs and the adjectives that we had studied the week before. Then we’d have a contest to see which group made the best sentences. It made you forget you were in class and helped you get to know your peers better.

The teachers at University Heights are good people, too. They have the rare ability to care about their students’ lives while still doing their job. Michelle teaches Family Group, which is kind of like homeroom. She understands that students sometimes have problems and she tries to help as much as she can, but she also knows how to get under your skin until you do things right.

My friend Sean, nicknamed Whitey, would miss some days of school and Michelle would nag him to make up his work. After he spoke to her and she understood that he had financial problems, she helped him get a job in the school. That way she was able to keep an eye on him and he could make some money. Sometimes she gets on our nerves with the nagging, but the people who love you will always annoy you once in a while.

Gus, who teaches gym, is another teacher who’s really cool. He always seemed like he was a friend more than a teacher. He would go out of his way to help me with my work and he used to lift weights and play basketball and volleyball with us. Every time I see him now, he’s always calling me the future writer. He’s always saying that he’s going to see me on television reporting the news some day. Gus makes me feel good to be who I am.

I always feel respected and cared for by my teachers at University Heights. If I don’t, I’ll tell them and we’ll resolve it. I remember when Marion, one of my teachers, interrupted me when I was talking one time in class. I didn’t say anything to her but she could tell that I was upset. She approached me in the hallway and said that she didn’t mean to cut me off, but time was running out. I accepted her apology. To tell you the truth, I was shocked that she took the time to apologize to a student.

Now, that I’m about to graduate from University Heights I realize that many things about it have helped to make me a better person. Number one is that I always feel like I’m important there. The teachers care about me and not just the work I do. Knowing that has made a big difference in the amount of effort I put into my work and in my feelings about myself and my future.

I left Harding an extremely insecure, scared, confused teenager who wasn’t sure what I’d be doing with my life. But, with the presence of caring teachers and friends and as many memories as a person could hope to get in a single year, I’ve changed. I’m leaving University Heights an ambitious, more intelligent, secure, and decisive man who knows that my only limits are in my imagination.

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