Student Voices

By Melony Swasey

School System Shock

This is my senior year, a time in my life when I am supposed to exhale, to feel like I have accomplished something. When I graduate, I will have completed four years of what I have always been told is college-level education. Since the beginning of high school, I have had all honors classes, have maintained a respectable average, and have attained a top ten academic rank. And because of the type of student I am, I should be able to get into an excellent post-secondary institution and develop into something outstanding. That’s what I’ve been told all along.

In fact, that is what all we high-ranking “scholars” of JFK High School have been told. We have been nourished with the belief that if we remain focused and keep those A’s, we will have the opportunity to leave the “dumps” and “become somebody.” Unfortunately, we haven’t been warned of just how far in the dumps we really are.

Unlike many of my classmates, I have seen the other side, a realm that is quite different from what most urban teens experience. I have had the chance to encounter suburbia, and even a little upper-class suburbia. I have made friends with people that some Paterson students mock for being so sheltered, but secretly envy for their money and opportunity. It is this that has made me understand the real flow of things. I once believed we are all equal, no matter what our race or socio-economic status. But now I have learned the truth, something that has shocked me into a state of sad realization, even paranoia. I now know that students from less affluent areas are greatly deprived of what quality education involves. We are put in a completely different league from our suburban counterparts.

I met my true competition when I went to a more challenging semi-suburban high school for a year. The school has a population of about 1500 students, which is considered large in that area, and the students are challenged by a more rigorous curriculum. There was one girl, for instance, who, as a sophomore comfortably maintained a high average in the classes I had as a junior. The classes I have as honors at Kennedy are considered only regular college prep classes in other schools. I realized that those of us who are top-notch at Kennedy might be cut down to an average level in more competitive high schools — schools that have higher standards of education and an equally demanding support system from families who often have extra resources and time to invest in their children’s education.

I returned to Kennedy with a new view of what my education should be like. I have come to expect more, and I realize now that we have an inadequate library and obsolete books in the classrooms. I have realized that many of the clubs and classes that Kennedy offers bear respectable names or titles, but don’t carry the weight or the full challenge that they should. In the supposedly challenging classes that I have, we aren’t working at the capacity of students in those same classes on a national level.


It seems that we are not only given the short end of the stick in terms of facilities and resources; but inner-city students aren’t even expected to excel. We are sometimes granted honors for completing only part of a task, while students in more affluent areas are expected to do more to get the same recognition. We are pitied by outsiders who sometimes try to “help” by giving us undeserved praise. Thus, we often don’t expect much more of our own selves. We aren’t pushed hard enough. We are babied by our teachers for too long, which is why I am concerned about how even the “honors kids” will fare in college next year.

I think about the people who are ignorant enough to sit around and mock kids from suburbia for being diligent in school, because they are often less aggressive and rebellious than we of the urban sect. We don’t even realize that some of these same people we laugh about will be the ones determining our future budgets, controlling our work force, and deciding how long we stay in jail. Then some of us will sit on our behinds complaining that the “white man” is holding us down. Our ignorance feeds on itself and keeps us in the inner-city, where some think we belong anyway, because we are so “crude.”

This whole cycle includes our parents, many of whom lack the formal or successful education to guide us educationally, and substantial enough income to support us financially. And as a part of this frustrating cycle, we find ourselves trying to explain to our parents the importance of spending money on the SATs and completing the college admissions process, arguing, at times selfishly, for opportunities many of them never had.

In Paterson, many of us just don’t know better. We don’t know how to push to get ahead, because we don’t realize how far behind we are. Last summer, I took a pre-calculus course, hoping to catch up to some of the better students in my new school. (Until I left Paterson, I wasn’t even aware that one could take a summer course to advance to the next level.) Thinking I was getting an edge for my senior year, I went into the class and found that most of the students were sophomores taking the summer course to skip to calculus in their junior year. I sat and compared those students to myself. Their parents had paid for them to go to a summer school outside of their district, and to take SAT courses in the evenings. One girl, in addition to that, played the violin and went to Chinese school. I looked at myself and my Paterson “honors” knowledge and felt like a joke.

I feel for my friends at Kennedy because most of them are focused on a goal — a goal that is easily attainable for better-prepared students— but never stop to look at their competition. I believe, because of our inadequate preparation, many of us will naively go out as confident soldiers and be knocked down before we even reach the front lines.

It is important that we students, even those of us “on top,” realize that we are part of an unbalanced society where unequal education is permitted and accepted. We need to understand that the beginning of success under an unfair system is to see where we fit, and to never be afraid to aim above the low expectations society often seems to have for us.

Melony Swasey graduated from JFK High School in Paterson, N.J. last June and is attending Cornell University. This essay originally appeared in Knightlife, a student magazine.