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The Story of One Disadvantaged Teenager in Brooklyn and Her Fight to Get Into College

All of the schools cost at least $40,000 per year, more than Nkese’s mother earned annually to support her family of four.

Photo Credit: maxik / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book Hold Fast to Dreams by Beth Zasloff (The New Press, 2015): 

Just before beginning a new job as college counselor at the Secondary School for Research, a public school in Brooklyn, New York, Joshua Steckel was greeted by a member of the upcoming senior class with this e-mail message:

"hi im nkese (pronounce nik-a-ce) im glad that you email me because many of seniors need help with the college process. me for one because i have many college applications sent 2 my houses but i havent filled none. SO i appreciate and look forward 2 workin with you in da comin school year"

Josh was intimidated, both by Nkese’s apparent low skill level and by the hope her message expressed. Her e-mail, a response to one he had sent introducing himself to the senior class, voiced the expectation that he would fill a need he wasn’t sure he could. He had no experience working with low-income inner-city kids beyond the few scholarship students he had counseled in his previous job at Birch Wathen Lenox, a private school on New York City’s Upper East Side. He didn’t know what it would be like to guide this set of students through the consuming drama of the college application process, or whether the success he’d had placing wealthy students at elite schools would translate to the task that lay before him: helping students who would mostly be the first in their families to go to college.

Josh wrote back to Nkese that he looked forward to meeting her and that he would appreciate her help contacting the other seniors. “i already spread da wrd 4 u,” she replied within seconds.

 

Nkese came to see Josh in the college office a few days after school began, and set down the applications she had brought. They had been sent to her home by colleges that relied heavily on mass-market mailings, attracting students by making them feel as though they had been recruited.  Josh said that before they discussed specific colleges, he’d like her to speak about herself. What were her interests and goals? What had her experience of the school been like? Who was in her family?

Nkese spoke readily, and Josh took notes on his white legal pad. Nkese had been born in Philadelphia. When she was very young, her family had lived in a large apartment in a neighborhood she remembered as quiet and safe, on Chestnut Street. Her father was a chef at a hotel and then worked at an airline. When Nkese was five and her brother Rasheed was four, their father was killed. Nkese did not want to say more about him.

Three years later, the family moved to Brooklyn, to the small apartment in East Flatbush where they now lived. Nkese’s mother, Peggy, worked a night shift as a nurse’s aide, and usually arrived home around midnight. Nkese and Rasheed shared responsibility for housework and for taking care of their younger sister, Risa. Nkese also worked up to fifteen hours each week at McDonalds’ to earn extra cash.

At the age of thirteen, Nkese told Josh, she had decided that she would be “the girl who gets out of the ‘hood.” Her test scores in elementary school had been “through the roof.” In middle school she had been admitted into a specialized program, but, she said, she was distracted by socializing. She knew by eighth grade that she “had to shape it up” if she was going to make it to college. “I used to say I was going to Princeton,” she said.

Nkese had started at the Secondary School for Research in ninth grade determined to “do something constructive” for her future. But instead of the high school experience she envisioned, Nkese found “a lot of confusion.” There were “fights through lunch, things of that nature.” Teachers came and went throughout the year, and kids “passed their classes by luck.” Nkese remembered her first year of high school as mostly wasted time. “I knew there was something wrong with our education, I knew it from day one,” Nkese said. “I knew we weren’t learning what high schoolers were supposed to learn.”

Jill Bloomberg began as principal during Nkese’s sophomore year. Nkese saw that Jill was determined to create order and structure at the school and was willing to involve students in making change. In the absence of student government, Nkese and her group of friends took it upon themselves to be the voice of student opinion. Nkese would create surveys and petitions that she would distribute among her peers, then present her findings to the school leadership.

As a senior now, Nkese was proud of the ways she and her friends had helped to improve the Secondary School for Research. But the changes also drove home the anger Nkese felt when she looked back on the gaps in her high school education. Josh was struck by the way her resentment seemed to extend even to the younger students who would have opportunities she didn’t. “Everything we did helped other students,” she said when she reflected back, “but at the same time we didn’t reap most of those benefits.”

Before the meeting, Josh had given some thought to how strong a candidate Nkese would be at selective liberal arts colleges. Though he hadn’t met her, he had looked over her test scores and transcript and spoken with some of her teachers. Josh had been shocked to see the low grades many students received, and Nkese’s transcript had stood out, with a cumulative average over 90 percent. Nkese’s tenth grade history teacher told Josh that Nkese was the best student she had ever had. Though the teacher had a graduate degree in history, she said that every night she had to “go home and prepare for Nkese,” who would read ahead and come to class with challenging questions.

 

At the same time that they recognized her drive, intelligence, and leadership qualities, the teachers and administrators Josh spoke with about Nkese expressed reservations about her skills and her attitude. Though her SAT scores were just above the school’s average, they were unimpressive by national standards: a 400 in Critical Reading, and a 430 in Math, putting her in the lowest quartile nationally. Her English teacher, Menucha Stubenhaus, described the ways Nkese had trouble accepting criticism and help, especially with her writing, which was full of basic grammatical errors. She described Nkese as “sassy” and disrespectful of authority. Menucha had been a New York City Teaching Fellow at the school during Nkese’s chaotic first year and was still stung by the moment when Nkese interrupted her class by saying, “Miss, you’re thin . . . but you’re a little thick in the thighs.”

Josh had little sense of where Nkese could get in to college and even less of where she could thrive. But speaking with her in person for the first time, he was captivated by Nkese’s passion for education in the face of so many obstacles and imagined she would create a strong impression at admissions interviews. He would describe her, he thought, as what admissions officers call an “impact student,” somebody who would build positive change in campus life. Her writing skills would be a concern, but he had not yet seen an example beyond her e-mail messages.

Josh typed up a list of colleges that he thought might be possible for Nkese. Through his work with the scholarship students at Birch Wathen Lenox, he had become familiar with New York State programs that offer funding and support for low-income students. He had also spent time that summer calling admissions contacts to tell them about his new job and to express the hope that their colleges would continue to work with him. He focused his attention on schools that did not prioritize SAT scores, which he knew would be low among his new students, and those that he knew had made a commitment to recruiting students of color.

The list Josh handed Nkese began, “Mr. Steckel suggests Nkese take a look at . . .” He asked Nkese if she might consider women’s colleges or those as far away as Maine. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll look at anything.”

 

As Nkese remembered, she took home the list and sat down at the family’s computer. She was glad to be able to do this while her mother was at work. Peggy had made it clear that she wanted Nkese to stay in New York City for college or at least go to a college no more than three hours away. “When I was younger I wanted to go to school in Boston, that was the dream,” Nkese said. “Then I realized it was too far away, and I let it go.”

Peggy was very protective and strict with all her children, and especially with Nkese, her eldest daughter. Her parenting style reflected her West Indian upbringing, but her fear came from the trauma of her husband’s violent death. She wanted to know where Nkese was at all times and didn’t want her to date. Nkese kept the fact that she’d had a boyfriend since the previous spring a secret. While Nkese kept up with her homework and family responsibilities, she and Peggy often battled, especially over Nkese’s ideas about her future.  Nkese felt she had always taken charge of her own choices in her education, with or without her mother’s support. “I chose the high school I wanted, I chose the junior high I wanted. I can’t wait around for other people’s approval, I just do what I have to do.” Still, she knew it would be difficult to go against her mother’s desire for her to attend college close to home.

Nkese typed the names of the colleges from the list Josh gave her into Google and browsed through their websites. Images appeared of students reading on green lawns, peering into microscopes, and rowing on rivers, overlaid with words like “think,” “explore,” “discover.” She remembers thinking how beautiful the campuses looked, and wondering if she could get in.

Then she clicked on a link that showed tuition. All of the schools cost at least $40,000 per year, more than Nkese’s mother earned annually to support her family of four. Her father had set aside a small fund for Nkese’s education, but it would quickly disappear, and what would she live on? Even with financial aid, she would leave school with enormous debt. Clearly Josh had no idea what life was like for kids like her. How could you do this to me? she thought.

***

After a process riddled with obstacles and near-misses, Nkese is accepted, with a full scholarship, to Bates College, in Lewiston, Maine.

Nkese’s jolt from her comfort zone began with her move into Smith Hall, her freshman dorm. As she remembers, she found herself “thrown into a situation where I lived in two small rooms with three other girls.” One room contained two bunk beds, the other, four desks against the walls. The first day, “we decided to debunk the beds so we could all have our own personal space.”

As she hung out with her roommates and floormates, Nkese felt “shocked at how fast everyone was getting into the social scene,” with its heavy drinking and unfamiliar codes. “I wasn’t into partying like that, and for me college wasn’t my first taste of freedom in that sense, to just go all crazy.” In get-to-know-each-other conversations, girls sought common ground and common friends, connecting networks of summer camps and boarding schools. Having gone to an unknown public high school, Nkese lacked social currency, even among students from New York City: “People want to know what high school you went to because that reads what your contribution to the conversation could be. So if you went to Dwight, or you went to Fieldston, or you went to Berkeley Carroll, you can contribute something to the conversation. If you don’t know how to speak that lingo, you’re already cast aside. If you’ve never been to Europe, you’re already cast aside.”

Nkese remembered one incident where she became aware that she was consciously being excluded. She had joined her roommates and their friends in the dining hall, and “the conversation was shifting to different terrains, about who knew who—‘Oh, you went to her private school? Oh, I’m friends with her!’—that type of conversation.” When Nkese tried to say something, the girls ignored her in a pointed way. “I thought they were just being bitchy, so I left,” Nkese said. Later, one of her roommates approached her. “I know what happened,” she said. “They were mean, and I want to apologize.” While Nkese was grateful for the apology, it angered her that her roommate had seen what was happening and stayed quiet.

Nkese remembered “more positive social interactions” from the beginning of freshman year, “because not everyone was like that.” But there were “people at Bates who didn’t know how to understand difference,” who seemed stumped by how to interact with someone with whom they did not share obvious common ground. “So you didn’t go to a wealthy private school or a wealthy public school in the suburbs? That’s ‘different.’ ”

Even more of a shock than the social scene at Bates was the academic life. Many of Nkese’s peers seemed to be professional students, already confident with managing their time and their coursework. “If you went to boarding school,” she said, “college is not such a big transition. Period.” Nkese found herself with massive amounts of writing and unstructured time she didn’t know how to handle. She took long naps in the afternoons and missed meals to finish her work.

Nkese’s most difficult class was her first year seminar, aimed at helping freshmen improve their writing and critical thinking skills. Nkese had chosen a section titled “The U.S. Relocation Camps in World War II,” a “very intense history freshman seminar” with a subject that intrigued her. The course was taught by a professor from Japan (“though her ethnicity has nothing to do with it,” Nkese said), who was strict and exacting in her expectations for students’ writing. Though the class was stressful, Nkese appreciated the focused attention to her writing. “She said to students, including me, you speak English, but you don’t know how to write English.”

Many of the students in the fifteen-person class had weaknesses in their grasp of language and grammar, but Nkese perceived the ways her own deficits stood out. “Everyone sounded so poised,” Nkese said. She rarely spoke in class, a big shift from her passionate participation in high school. At the time, Nkese said, “I had a really strong accent.” When she would tell students where she was from, she could hear in the response—“Oh, you’re from Brooklyn”—all the assumptions about race and class she wanted to avoid. “I didn’t like speaking in public, because I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t want them to think I’m not articulate.’ ”

Nkese described the day she gave a presentation comparing Executive Order 9066, which established the Japanese internment camps, with the Patriot Act. “There were close similarities,” she remembered. “I was scared because I knew this was a strong project to take on. I did the research and looked at the government documents.” When she got up to speak, she felt tongue-tied and couldn’t begin. Seeing her anxiety, the professor said, in front of the class, “Just pretend everyone here is from Brooklyn.”

Nkese remembered thinking, “Oh my God, this is not okay.” At the same time, she said, she understood why the professor made the comment. “There was a certain level of discomfort that was very readable on my face, everywhere I went. Everyone was like, ‘You don’t like it here,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ ” Nkese’s unhappiness seemed connected to her sense of being out of place, and her professor zeroed in on this. “She kept telling me, ‘I know you’re smart.’ She said she was going to take the Brooklyn out of me.”

Having applied to college determined to get out of East Flatbush, Nkese now struggled to understand how much of Brooklyn she wanted to leave behind and how much made her who she was. 

 

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