April 11, 2010

When I graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1974, I was a four-eyed, underachieving, socially awkward Chinatown ghetto nerd. Part of that person has always haunted me and made me insecure about my choices. But today, I went back to revisit my past — and do some growing up.

First, the background: Stuyvesant was founded in 1904 as an all-boys public school that became famous for its math and science brainiacs. You have to pass a very competitive entrance exam to get in. I was in the second class of girls who helped take this very white school co-ed. For me, it was downhill from there.

After failing chemistry, I turned into a slacker who cut class with relish. My strict immigrant parents were pissed. But at last, I was doing something that they couldn’t control. While I aced enjoyable subjects (physics, English, wood shop, drafting, American history), I barely passed everything else.

Fast forward through the next three decades. I’ve been too insecure to attend the reunions. I never went back to Stuyvesant, except once. In 1992, the school moved from the old dump on East 16th Street to a new multimillion dollar facility at 345 Chambers St., which is downtown near Ground Zero. At the time, I was a New York Daily News columnist and checked out the space for a story.

Still, I’ve always wondered what it would be like to visit without the professional armor. In an urge to connect, I recently joined the school’s Facebook page. When I saw the alumni association invite for today’s gathering, I decided to drop by. About 50 people showed up. Poring over the sign-in sheet, I only spotted one other soul from Class of ’74 — a Toby somebody, who I didn’t know.

As I scanned the names, a woman from Class of ‘78 started chatting. What a coincidence, we were both  underachievers! I was so relieved to have someone to talk to. We even exchanged emails. Then it was onto the main event.

The rah-rah presentation in the auditorium began with a video about Stuy High. I was shocked to see the screen fill with young Asian faces (and a few white kids). The official stats for the 3,000 students: 70% Asian, 30% white, 2% black, 2% Latino and 6% “other.”

My, how the world has change. And yet, it hasn’t. The school’s population still doesn’t reflect New York’s true demographics. Personally, I don’t think it’s socially healthy for the Asian kids to be in such a homogenous setting. It’s also terrible that there are so few black and Latino students. Sitting there, I started thinking about the complex  issues of race, test-taking, poverty, culture, immigration — and how weird it is that, given my academically checkered past, I’ve re-invented myself as a teacher.

By now, I’d been back in Stuyvesant’s rarefied air for about an hour. It was 12:40. The event was supposed to run until 2:30 p.m. But I was already exhausted from the effort of being in the moment. So, feeling a little like the old me — except in a more celebratory way — I cut out.

I left feeling less burdened by my depressing, pimple-y adolescence. So what if I’m not famous or super-rich or a Nobel laureate alumni that the school can brag about. After my confusing teen years, I eventually learned the value of working hard to create a life that I’m proud of.  Who knows, I might even join the alumni association…and go to the next reunion.