Five minutes from campus is a different world, one that not many Yalies know. A few weeks ago, I visited the Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School on College and Crown Streets to observe a senior journalism class as part of an assignment for one of my courses. What I saw taught me that there’s still much work to be done for New Haven youth.
I walked into a room of about 12 students who were working independently on a variety of projects, from memoirs to journalistic reporting. The teacher asked a student to share her most recent piece with her classmates. As she read, three of her peers chatted, two students had their heads down on the table, one student was asleep and a guy and a girl giggled as they commented on their classmates. Aside from three students who seemed somewhat engaged, most of the class largely ignored the presenter.
After the student shared her piece, the conversation shifted to Hong Kong’s protests, then to a discussion of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the U.S. Constitution. Only one student knew the content of the Constitution, and none had heard of the Declaration of Human Rights or about the protests in Hong Kong. I was struck by how isolated these students were from the world, and from what I thought was considered general knowledge for high school seniors.
During the discussion, one student pulled out crackers and began to eat. The teacher asked her to stop, and the student responded, “But I’m hungry,” and proceeded to put a cracker in her mouth. The bell rang and the classroom quickly emptied as the kids hurried to lunch. I spoke with the teacher after class and what she shared with me completely changed my perspective on what I had observed in the previous hour.
Over two-thirds of the class is on food stamps and come from low-income families. Many of these students are battling problems of their own. The girl who was eating crackers was actually hungry — she had no food at home — and the teacher felt that it was unnecessary to stop her from eating her crackers because of an arbitrary school rule. The boy who was sleeping had serious problems at home and always has trouble staying awake in class. The discipline problems I observed before suddenly seemed trivial compared to the real problems at hand.
She shared with me the story of how, one year, her students continually came in distraught, until she finally sat them down and asked what was wrong. What she heard shocked her. These students had lost parents, family, loved ones and friends to the increasing violence of the city that year. She was astounded by how little psychological support existed for students.
That year, her class put together a 200-page book called “A Better Place.” The book was a compilation of expressive poems, creative pieces, letters and drawings for the loved ones they’d lost. Some students had seven entries, for the seven people they’d lost, and some had just one. Together they created an outlet for grief, and learned to heal as a community.
When I asked whether their book was for sale, she sighed and said, “Man, we published all these books and I don’t even use them. I don’t even have time to think about getting other people to use them.”
As I walked back to campus, I thought about the fact that, although the school was only five minutes from my dorm, it took me until my senior year to discover it. I suddenly felt terribly guilty. I began to read through a copy of “A Better Place.” I read the students’ words for their lost fathers, brothers, mothers, uncles and best friends. At the end of the book were student bucket lists that included their hopes to one day “Go to red lobster,” “See dad again in some way, shape or form” and “Say I love you and really mean it.”
The more I read, the more convinced I became that I had to do something. Perhaps I will volunteer my time to mentor students, perhaps I will promote and sell copies of “A Better Place” to put together a snack fund for her class, perhaps I will speak to the student groups I’m involved in to see what we can do.
I’ve worked with countless organizations whose mission it is to provide educational opportunities to students around the world, and yet I didn’t even bother to look at the students who could use our help here in New Haven. With all of the traveling we do to help students in far away worlds, what about the students right here at our doorsteps? They’re in a completely different world from us as well, but they’re just five minutes away.
Grace Chiang is a senior in Calhoun College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.