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Outsider Looking In

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Cristina Rathbone spent a year at New York City's West Side High School, a last-chance alternative for students who have failed in more-traditional settings. "As a journalist more interested in the lives of students than in the methods used to educate those lives, I'd had difficulty finding a school I could comfortably spend a year in," she writes in her new book On the Outside Looking In: A Year in an Inner-City High School (Atlantic Monthly Press). Then she stumbled upon West Side, which seemed "almost as marginalized and neglected as the kids it served." Yet there was "a constant, roiling ebullience in the hallways" and a "boisterous intimacy" lacking in the other schools at which she had looked. "I knew I had found my school," she writes. Senior writer David Hill spoke with Rathbone about her experience.

Q. Why did you write the book?

A. I came from England, and I'd been living in New York for about 10 years. And I had done a number of different things. I had ended up being a reporter and traveling around the city doing stories on many different things. This was a time when kids were really being demonized quite a lot in the press. And without realizing it, I had come to believe this. Not the most overt, appalling stuff, but the subtler kind of stuff that said, "All teenagers are frightening, and you should be wary of them." And I had become so wary of them that I would avoid them. I often got off the train when a large group of teenagers would get on. I found myself crossing the street to avoid a group of girls. That's when it hit me. I thought, this is absurd! I started to look around for much more balanced things to read about kids, and there was nothing. And so that's how I got the idea to do the book.

Q. Did you ask yourself, "Does the world need another book about a year in the life of a public school?"

A. No, I didn't, because I suddenly had discovered a pilgrimage. But I think the difference between my book and other books is that mine focuses more on the kids than anything else. And it's a very specific segment of the population, too. I mean, these are all kids who have made mistakes in their past. Sam Freedman's book Small Victories is fantastic, but it focuses mostly on a teacher, Jessica Siegel. I do have one long section about the principal, Ed Reynolds, but he's the only person who really is a fleshed out character who isn't a kid. So this is much more through the eyes of the kids rather than through the eyes of the teachers, and much more about kids than about education—though, of course, West Side is an extraordinary school and does extraordinary things.

Q. What were your expectations going in?

A. I didn't really have any. I had been to high school in England, so I didn't have any ideas about American high schools, though I'd visited a lot of different schools in the city before settling on West Side. I chose to write about it for many reasons, one of which was that I felt very comfortable there. But I really tried not to go in with any agenda. I just wanted to discover.

Q. What surprised you the most about your experience?

A. Everything surprised me. The initial thing that surprised me was the integrity of so many of the kids, and their feistiness, and their determination. Another thing that surprised me was their incredible ability to shake things off. I mean, they knew they were very much on the bottom of the pile of everything. And yet they shook it off. What surprised me most about the school was how well it worked, despite the lack of money and despite the fact that, just like the kids, West Side is very much on the bottom of the pile of schools. It's an alternative school—kids are sent there from all over the city. They've dropped out of an average of 2.8 schools before they come there or have been kicked out, or they come from the criminal justice system. And yet the kids were succeeding. Not every child was a success, but a large percentage of them were, and I was surprised by that. And also, there was a real feeling of family and of community and trust. There were no metal detectors, no increased security. These kids come from violent backgrounds, and there was violence in their lives. But it just wasn't brought to school.

Q. Did any of the teachers resent your presence?

A. Yes, one or two. I left it up to individual teachers as to whether they would welcome me into their classes. Almost all of them did. There were a few who felt that they didn't want their classrooms disrupted by watching and peering, and I completely understood that and respected that. At the beginning, most of the teachers were very wary. But when they saw that I wasn't, as they said, this "stupid" kind of journalist who asked ridiculous questions all the time—and when they saw that I was actually involved with the kids—then we became friends. I mean, we were trying to do the same thing. And I needed their advice a lot.

Q. Did you go in thinking that you would be a dispassionate observer?

A. My position definitely changed. As I saw the need, I couldn't help but leap in. I've had to answer this question a lot. And I've tried to think about it. I can't see how anyone who would spend a year in a school that has so few facilities and so little money and is so understaffed, and everyone has got too little time—I don't see how anyone could sit there and be dispassionate. West Side has "family groups," where a teacher stops being a teacher for a period and becomes an adviser, and the kids stop being students and they become advisees. And they talk about whatever issues you want to talk about. I was in the family group with Ed, the principal, every day, and I got to know these kids. I got more involved than I ever thought I would. And I think I got overinvolved on occasion. But I just don't see how I could have avoided it. It's not a dispassionate book at all.

Q. You write, "West Side was not a typical, troubled New York City high school. It could in no way claim to be representative. But it was one of the few places that welcomed kids who were cut off from the rest of society. Kids on the outside who still wanted to get in." What did the school have to offer for these kids?

A. It offered a place where kids could feel safe, where they could feel wanted. It offered a place where they could have a sense of community away from their communities, because kids came there from all over the city. It's not a rigid place. I mean, there are rules—the rule of no violence is a huge and very important one. But there are very few rules. So the rules that exist are unquestionable. But the school doesn't put up impediments to the kids.

Q. Did it change the way you think about public schools?

A. Actually, I think it reinforced some things, like the notion of family and community. There's no student at West Side who at least one teacher doesn't know the first name of, the last name of, where he or she lives, who he or she lives with. And I think in the bigger, huge, old-style comprehensive schools, that's not the case. And that's one reason kids in general don't feel welcome at school; they're not learning because they feel that no one is paying attention to them. So I do think that smaller schools are better.

Q. Publisher's Weekly called your book "a depressing confirmation of the entrenched isolation of poverty." Do you agree?

A. I don't necessarily agree with that being the ultimate point of the book, but I do think it's true that the power of the isolation of poverty is something that I had never before reckoned with. And it's something that's very, very hard to break out of. But I wasn't trying to say, "God, isn't being poor depressing?" Because that really has been done before. The main point is to bring to life these kids who for one reason or another have found themselves on the other side of every kind of divide we can create: cultural, socioeconomic, and often racial. It's through no initial fault of their own, certainly, that they found themselves in this place. And people like me have no way of ever getting to know them. The way that they are often portrayed is so unflattering. If I can get some people who previously shied away from teenagers not to shy away so utterly or so quickly, then I'll be really pleased.

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