Each September the yellow school buses roll, and well-scrubbed, optimistic young children climb on board, carrying them with them the ambitions, hopes and fears of their families. For 13 years this process continues, and then suddenly, almost unexpectedly, school days are over. There is a song that I have often sung in Ireland, and known in Scotland, Wales and the Appalachians: “School Days Over, come on then John, time you were putting my pit boots on, on with your coat and your moleskin trousers you start at the pit today. Time you were learning a pit man’s job and earning a pit man’s pay.” The song for me evokes images of our young people with their bright, hopeful faces as they leave the things of childhood and move on to the next part of their lives.
As graduation approaches, I spoke to a few of our seniors at the regional high school about their thoughts and feelings during this major transition in their lives. All spoke frankly and from the heart.
Riley Donegan, this year’s class salutatorian, had some parting words of advice for teachers. “Always be excited about your material if you want your students to be,” he said. “If you’re bored teaching the same material for the 10th time the students will perceive that and treat it with corresponding apathy. Too many high school courses are taught like college courses, in that the teacher’s relationship with the student is totally impersonal, just a robotic presentation of material. I can say from my experience and from what I have seen other students experiencing that when a student, particularly a troubled student, sees that a teacher has a personal interest in their academic success they will go to great lengths not to disappoint that teacher.”
Riley also spoke bluntly about the pervasive social culture of drug and alcohol among his peers. In his own social circle he said he could “count on one hand those that did not abuse drugs and alcohol . . . and it contributes to a culture that is unhealthy and self-destructive.”
Peter Keaney, an athlete and scholar, had some advice for incoming high schoolers. “Forget about being popular and focus on consolidating friendships with the people at your grade level,” he said. “Being popular has little or no bearing on your future.” He recalled that entering high school had a “jarring effect” on him when he realized that he had suddenly become the “bottom of the social ladder.” Adjusting to the demands of being a varsity athlete and carrying a heavy academic course load was challenging, he said, and he had to “work hard and stay positive.” He said he found teachers who were interested in his success and went out of their way to push him to achieve it. A student of the work of Chomsky, Guevara, West and other radical theorists, he urged students to find their passion. Speaking for himself, he said: “I have developed a particular interest in the nature and causes of poverty around the globe. I have extracted vital information from virtually every class I have taken in high school: history —World, European, U.S. — biology, English and Spanish and even calculus. Everything is connected. Make it your goal to understand that and synthesize a world view.”
Ana Nascimento said she found school difficult. “Teachers were a problem for me,” she said. “You are supposed to just listen and not talk back even when you are being picked on. I think I was defensive, too. I hated being ignored and just left in the corner as if I was stupid because I am Brazilian. I think I was too tough and too hard on everyone because I was trying to protect myself.”
Livia Sampaio echoed the isolation sentiment and said she wishes she had made more friendships outside her own Brazilian-American culture. “I found that I did well with teachers who were of another culture because they understood me and did not judge me,” she said. “In middle school, we had American friends and felt more included in everything, but here [at the high school] we were ‘the Brazilians,’ and somehow all our American friends seemed to disappear.”
Rebecca Tenorio had a similar experience and said she had kept only one American friend from her middle school. “Everyone changed here [at the high school],” she said. “I think that it’s because of keeping the Brazilian students separate and that makes everyone think that they are different. I would tell any student coming up here to try something new and reach out to the American students. I failed to do that because I was afraid. It was different in the Oak Bluffs school; we were part of everything and had friends and being Brazilian was celebrated by Mr. Binney and Mr. Hart [former principals]. I wish I had done better in school because I do have ideas about what I want to do and I am going to take community college courses so I can become a paralegal and, eventually, a lawyer.”
High school graduation marks an important passage for all three young Brazilian women and their families. Ana Nascimento recalled her own beginnings in this country. “There I was, a great, big girl of 12 holding my mother’s hand. I was so excited and so afraid,” she said. “I remember I hated the other students, the teachers, but most of all, I hated myself because I didn’t understand anything. Now we are graduating high school in America and it means everything. We succeeded, we survived.”
She concluded: “We love our families and the country of our birth and we honor this one for the chances it has given to us.”
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.