Sunday, May 11, 2014


To call Thursday morning dreary would be a compliment. I heard what would turn out to be warmish rain dripping out of the gray sky when I woke up at 7am, and it continued throughout most of the day. I would have to remember to bring an umbrella. Part of me wondered why I was doing this, urging me to stay in my bed, and the other part shoved me upward and into the shower, nodding sagely. I was excited, nervous, and tired all at once.

I hadn't been in a high school in many years. I often have, shall we say, mixed opinions about teenagers. I remember vividly being one, and I was worried I would be staring into bored faces, bodies wrapped in crossed arms, begging me to just leave them alone. I was sure they would roll their eyes at me, they would give me attitude, they would talk back. But as I walked to the train, I shook it off. I had insight to offer. Or at least their school social worker thought I did. Geez, Elyssa, I thought. It's just a career day.

I was headed to a career day at Pathways to Graduation, or P2G as it's known. P2G is a New York City public school that's been set up for students who have dropped out of high school and are looking to earn their equivalency diplomas--their GEDs, or TASCs as they're now called in New York State. The students come from all across the five boroughs, are ages 17-21, and have likely experienced numerous hardships throughout their lives, their school social worker says. I remember myself at 17, and the idea of dropping out of high school was way beyond my maturity level. I can only imagine what these kids have seen or felt to even take on such a decision.

At 9am, I open the door to P2G. The first thing I see is a bulletin board showcasing of students in the acting program, then another board with a collage of students who are bound for two- and four- year degree programs. A police officer sits at the front desk and asks for my ID. I am approved, and I sign in. The walls are a bleak beige and deep hunter green, white where the paint has chipped away. On one floor, one of them has a drawing of two birds, one in flight.

I'm led downstairs to the basement cafeteria area, made brighter by a mural in a rainbow of colors topped with the word "Community." A cluster of professionals sit amongst the tables, munching on complimentary bagels and orange juice. Among us are an economist, a costume designer and stylist, a newspaper production manager, firemen, and more. Some wear suits, some wear jeans and buttoned-up shirts. I wore heels today so I can have some semblance of authority, since I often get mistaken for an 18-year-old myself.

I overhear the social worker talking to some of the day's speakers; she says she hopes students turn out today. "They have a tendency to not come when it's raining. Or snowing. Or when it's perfect beach weather," she half-laughs, mostly wishing they would just come to school all the time. "The weather has to be just right." They nod, understanding. It's not really about the weather.

We're brought up in groups to different classrooms. I, along with a technical theatre professional, the aforementioned newspaper production manager, and two electrical engineers, enter an English and Literacy classroom. Literacy, because some of the students don't read at a high-school reading level. There are posters of emperor penguins and bengal tigers drawn by students, each detailing facts about the animals, probably for reports of some kind. Words like 'jubilant' are written in thick black letters on index cards and pasted up on the wall. A white board is encircled in orange paper rickrack. We are seated at chairs in front of the white board, with a row of desks in front of us; that's where the students will sit.

One student sits down early. Her hair is in a black and auburn braid, and she wears a plum long-sleeved shirt with jeans and muddy hiking boots. Resting her elbows on a desk, perfectly filed nails resting on her face, she's talking about taking the latest TASC exam. It's made up of five sections: Reading, Writing, Math, Social Studies, and Science. It was harder than the last one, she says, but I think I did okay. I hope I passed. Their teacher explained to us earlier that the TASC exam is now more difficult than the GED test used to be, but the accepted passing grades are lower. He doesn't know yet what it will mean for his students. They need to pass the TASC to earn their equivalency diplomas.

Facing the students seems a little bit of a 'head-to-head' scenario, but the teachers and social workers inform us regularly that it's just supposed to be casual, that our being there will give them the opportunity to ask professional questions.

Many of them do. They raise their hands and ask the engineers how circuits work, what shows the theatre tech has worked on, what publications I've written for. What our career paths are. Whether or not we have four-year degrees, or if they're needed for the kind of work we do. One girl has a lilac manicure, bejeweled with glittering stones, and her nails press up against her pencil when she takes notes. Some of the students are animated and excited about the different kinds of work: "That's so cool!" "I wanna do that!" One of them says to me, "Wow, so do you get to take pictures of models and stuff?" Another asks, "Do you get to write your opinion a lot?" I do sometimes, I laugh.

One girl scoffs, "I'm not tryin' to hear that!" when one of the panelists recommend not having a plan B, to just chase your dream career--she thinks he is referring to a different Plan B, and soon realizes what he means.

Many of them don't. Some of them stare at us with those bored eyes and pouting faces that suggest they would rather be absolutely anywhere else. Some of the students slouch backward and text throughout the entire presentation. At one point I whisper to one to put his phone away and, magically, he listens. I felt like a stuck-up school marm and I hated it a little bit. Praise be to the teachers who do that all day.

Some of the students are very taken with two panelists in our room, who have both experienced addiction and incarceration. They ask what made them want to quit drinking and what made them want to finish school. Their stories are inspiring--they completely rebuilt their lives. Just cut out the junk and have a goal and work hard and it's never too late to finish school, they say. They are completely right. I hope the kids are really listening and not just patronizing them. Later at lunch, I hear some of the kids talking about these panelists, admiring them for what they've been able to do, and I feel relieved.

Kids are filling out firefighter interest forms while eating their sandwiches. Some talk about the panelists, but many don't. I go over to a table to get myself something to drink, and one of the students comes up to me. She's the one from before who asked if I get to take pictures of models. "I was just wondering, so, like, how do you get into doing photography? Like, how do you become a photographer? Do you have to, like, go to art school for it and stuff? 'Cause I love taking pictures of my niece and I just get so bored sitting at home. I wanna do something, you know? I wanna take pictures. How do I do that?" She listens closely to my answer, we talk about portfolios, we talk about art school, we talk about community college, we talk about how she can get involved, what she can do, how to rent a camera, how you can learn to use a camera, and how it takes a lot, A LOT of work. But after we talk she seems hopeful, motivated. Her eyes sparkle, and she smiles and says thank you. I smile, too.