Behind The Castle Walls
Writing, Ned Vizzini discovered at age 14, is a great way to blow off steam. After a tough day at school, the New York City resident pulled a piece of scrap paper from his backpack and let loose, as he puts it, a "profanity-ridden" rant. "Afterward, I felt a lot better," he writes, "and when I read my words the next day, I thought they were pretty good." He was soon writing "slightly less profanity-ridden essays" for a local alternative newspaper, and in 1998 he got a piece published in the New York Times Magazine. A book contract followed, and Teen Angst? Naaah ... is the result, making the 19-year-old Vizzini, now a college student, a full-fledged author. One of his stops along the way was a famous New York City high school.
When I arrived at Stuyvesant High School on September 9, 1995, I was already terrified. I was terrified of high school girls; I was terrified of high school cliques; I was terrified because I'd been told that if you stood near Stuyvesant at 8 a.m., the wave of teenagers going to class would trample you. You'd be ground into the ground. I'd heard that some people died that way.
Turned out I didn't need to be so terrified. True, I didn't do too well with those high school girls. And the cliques got on my nerves. But the wave of teenagers going to class became my friends, and I became one of them: head lowered, hood raised, sleepwalking into school with my heavy backpack, like everybody else.
Stuyvesant High School has been called "the crown jewel of the New York City public school system" and "the best high school in America." It's a big, beige, brick place: 3,000 kids, 10 stories high, with its own bridge. New York politicians decided they didn't need students getting run over on their way to the crown jewel, so they built a bridge over a highway to ensure us safe access. And that's just for starters.
Stuy has a marble lobby with chandeliers straight out of the Plaza Hotel, and the school's motto is carved in stone: Pro scienta atque sapienta. There are three elevators and seven escalators, the computer rooms have new computers, the halls are fresh and clean, and even the bathrooms sparkle. It's like going to school at Club Med. My dad has a theory that the whole place was financed by the Mafia as a scheme to jack up surrounding property values. It cost 120 million bucks to build.
I came to school that first day with a sci-fi paperback tucked under my arm. I wasn't the only one. Stuy was full of kids with books; every other person seemed to have one, to defend against social interaction. I saw people going to school reading books and walking through the halls with their faces buried in books. As the year progressed, the paperbacks gave way to fat textbooks, but the result was the same—everybody had a book.
Besides that, the only common thread among Stuy students was that we'd all passed "The Stuy Test." Admission to the school was based solely on a special test called the SSHSAT, given in 8th grade. The test was supposed to keep Stuy chock full of smart, industrious kids, but somehow that didn't work with my class. We were a random collection of nerds, jocks, geniuses, potheads, drunks, tortured poets, young Republicans, shifty-eyed loners, and just plain idiots. That first day, I met a freshman who was taking calculus and a 22-year-old who still hadn't graduated. I saw girls who looked like they spent all their free time on their hair, and guys who looked like they spent all their free time down at the acne farm. I saw young men who'd stop in the middle of the hall to do one-armed push-ups, and young men who'd scrawled "God is Gay" in white-out on their backpacks.
But beneath all that, everyone at Stuy was nice. Even if they snarled and huffed, the seniors didn't beat you up. People mumbled, "Sorry," if they bumped into you in the halls; they said, "Excuse me," before charging past you on the stairs. Nobody went out of the way to bother you because everyone was incredibly self-motivated. The kids at Stuy cared about their grades, their problems. I fell quickly into that pattern.
Only a week into my freshman year, my train of thought was acting hyperactive. I'd be sprinting to class thinking, Math, math, did you do it? Yeah, OK, what about English? Are you sure? Oh, wait: lab! No, lab's tomorrow, it's OK. . . . I didn't have time to bother anyone else.
And no one else had time to bother me. I would've had to run through the halls naked, covered in chocolate sauce, for any seniors to acknowledge my presence. I came to view that as an advantage. I never had to worry about what others thought of me because they didn't think of me at all. They were concentrating on grades.
Stuy gave number grades—84, 92, 100—instead of A's and B's. Every year, the administration talked about switching to a "nicer" grading system: letter grades of E, S, N, U (Excellent, Satisfactory, Needs Improvement, Unsatisfactory) or Pass/Fail. That never happened. Number grades made us work harder, and when we worked harder, we went to Good Colleges, and when we went to Good Colleges, the school's record looked great.
Grades were a touchy subject at Stuy. There was an etiquette about them. As they were handed out, you didn't turn to your friend and ask, "What are your grades?" You asked, "What'd you get?"—putting the blame for a potentially bad grade on the teacher. If you asked someone what he "got," you had to be ready to answer the same question yourself. If you saw someone visibly distraught over his grades, you didn't bug him—it was taboo. And you never, never bragged about what you got.
It was like a ballet, the intricate dance of the grades. Kids didn't bellow: "Seventy-five! You suck!" or "Yes! I got a ninety-eight!" But we were all thinking those things. We hid our celebration, gloating, and anguish, only revealing ourselves with subtle gestures: a slight smile, a clenched fist.
After a week at Stuy, I started hearing about how hard it was to get up in the morning and how "the daily grind is getting to me, man." Once-enthusiastic kids were complaining like whiny 40-year-olds in dead-end jobs.
The workload was hard. Freshman year, we had up to three hours of homework each night, and that worsened as time went on. A biology teacher once put it to me this way: "Getting through Stuy is easy. You have three options: good grades, social success, and sleep. You can only have two out of three." I chose grades and sleep. The people who chose grades and social success (getting drunk on the weekends when they should've been studying and whatnot) ended up with some problems. They'd come to school bleary-eyed and sleep in the hallways. But missing sleep was cool—it gave them something to brag about. They'd meet each other and say: "Man, I am so tired. I got, like, 20 hours of sleep this whole week, and I partied all weekend." Response: "Yeah I'm not kidding, man, I have three tests today. I was up studying for bio until 4." A war of antisleep bragging rights.
Some days, I went to school on no sleep, but adrenaline got me through. When I took tests, I always got a palpable high—my brain buzzed with endorphins as I stared at those questions. Stuyvesant was a big, exciting place, and just being in the building was a rush for me. I'd walk through the door, no longer a powerless little kid. I was a ninja, prowling the halls in search of good grades.
Stuyvesant had an interesting take on education. The plan, it seemed, was to cram a student's head full of information, test the student repeatedly, and then move on to an unrelated subject with frightening speed. It was a shock, after studying digestion for a month, to hear your biology teacher announce: "OK, this unit is over. Forget about the human digestive system. On to locomotion in the paramecium."
But I did forget about the human digestive system, and quickly, because it was no longer on the test. Everything at Stuy was either meaningless or on the test. "It's not on the test? Dude, are you serious? She's not testing us on this?" Smack. That would be the sound of a textbook closing. If something wasn't on the test, you just closed your book and smiled. Problem was, even things that weren't on the test could show up on the final. Stuy finals tended to be standardized, so every biology class took an exam written collectively by the biology department. That meant every final included at least one question you couldn't possibly answer because your teacher had screwed up and not taught it. The final exams at Stuy were everything: the products of your labor, the causes of your anxiety, the details that kept you up at night, the challenges that, once met, oh boy. School's . . . out . . . for . . . summer! All you had now was a vague sense of dread that you'd messed up and wouldn't get into a Good College.
I went into Stuyvesant High School terrified; I came to think of the place not as a terror, but as a manageable form of pain. Not a sharp, wincing pain that went away quickly—a chronic, dull, four-year ache that, if pressed on the right way, felt kind of good.
Vol. 12, Issue 3, Pages 58-59Published in Print: November 1, 2000, as Behind The Castle Walls