Enter Stuyvesant High, one of the most extraordinary schools in America, a place where the brainiacs prevail and jocks are embarrassed to admit they play on the woeful football team. Academic competition is so intense that students say they can have only two of these three things: good grades, a social life, or sleep. About one in four Stuyvesant students gains admission to the Ivy League. And the school's alumni include several Nobel laureates, Academy Award winners, and luminaries in the arts, business, and public service.
A Class Apart follows the lives of Stuyvesant's remarkable students, such as
Romeo, the football team captain who teaches himself calculus and strives to make it into Harvard; Jane, a world-weary poet at seventeen, battling the demon of drug addiction; Milo, a ten-year-old prodigy trying to fit in among high-school students who are literally twice his size; Mariya, a first-generation American beginning to resist parental pressure for ever-higher grades so that she can enjoy her sophomore year. And then there is the faculty, such as math chairman Mr. Jaye, who is determined not to let bureaucratic red tape stop him from helping his teachers. He even finds a job for a depressed math genius who lacks a college degree but possesses the gift of teaching.
This is the story of the American dream, a New York City school that inspires immigrants to come to these shores so that their children can attend Stuyvesant in the first step to a better life. It's also the controversial story of elitism in education. Stuyvesant is a public school, but children must pass a rigorous entrance exam to get in. Only about 3 percent do so, which, Stuyvesant students and faculty point out, makes admission to their high school tougher than to Harvard.
On the eve of the hundredth anniversary of Stuyvesant's first graduating class, reporter Alec Klein, an alumnus, was given unfettered access to the school and the students and faculty who inhabit it. What emerges is a book filled with stunning, raw, and heartrending personalities, whose stories are hilarious, sad, and powerfully moving.
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Simon & Schuster
August 21, 2007
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Excerpt from A Class Apart by Alec Klein
-- desktop graffiti, Stuyvesant High School
It's 7:38 a.m., and an old man boxes a phantom on Grand Street, jabbing and slicing the crisp air with his withered fists, the first ambition of the day. The rest of the morning awakens in slow motion on this unforgiving stretch of asphalt on the Lower East Side, a hardscrabble neighborhood on the edge of Chinatown in Manhattan. The Grand Spa down the block isn't open yet. Nor is the next-door Liquor & Wines. Nor Chester Fried Chicken across the street. All that can be traced on this gray February morning is the wisp of breath billowing like wordless cartoon bubbles from anonymous pedestrians as they trudge to work, huddled against the coming snowstorm.
And then from out of a nondescript red brick high-rise, Romeo emerges. Like the old man, he looks ready to wage combat against the day. That's the message conveyed in his baggy black Sean John jacket and baggy black Sean John jeans and black scarf and black skullcap and black shoes. But it's just urban utilitarian fashion -- black against the muted gray hues of the rising day -- which does little to disguise his broad shoulders or his chiseled 195-pound frame or the ferocity that he brings to the football field as a bruising tight end and defensive end who also played running back last season because he's so good, the best on his team. Romeo can bench more than his own weight -- 225 pounds -- no problem. Not that he needs to prove it. Jersey number ninety-eight commands respect, and the girls adore all six foot three inches of him -- the swagger, the charm, the dreadlocks, the silver earring in the left ear, the dark brooding eyes, the ambiguous smile full of braces.
Romeo is an archetype of the high school idol, a popular, powerful captain of his football team, except for one thing -- Romeo Alexander is also a sixteen-year-old math whiz.
He taught himself calculus by reading a tattered textbook. Then he got the top score on the advanced placement test and skipped a course in calculus to go straight into differential equations, the really hard kind of math. Girls flock to him for tutoring help, boys plead for help on homework.
Not your typical high school jock.
"I do a lot of math in my free time," he says without a hint of braggadocio. "After a while, it becomes a sport, fun."
If only the football team was as much fun. Last season, the team lost its first game sixty-four to zero, and it just got worse. The team stumbled to a one-and-eight record, its sole victory earned by default: the other team couldn't field enough players. Romeo's team was lucky to eke out the one victory. The school doesn't have its own football field. The team has to take a yellow school bus from Manhattan to Brooklyn to reach its so-called home field at another public school. The practice field is about a mile away, and it's not even a football field; it's a soccer field. Players say a mutiny forced the head coach to resign. "Almost nobody on the team liked him," a teammate was quoted in the school newspaper, the Spectator, which cited accusations of the coach's "extreme emotional outbursts." And to top it off, on a good day, only about ten Stuyvesant parents show up for a game.
"Nobody really cares," Romeo says. "It has its down moments."
A defensive tackle adds that it gets so bad that teammates don't like to brag about being on the team: "We don't really go around advertising it."
Perhaps the worst indignity, at least to Romeo, is the team name: the Peglegs. The moniker comes from the school's namesake, Peter Stuyvesant, the crotchety Dutch colonial governor of New Amsterdam, a man who hobbled around on one good leg, the other having been blown off by a cannon shot and replaced by a wooden leg. Such associations don't seem to inspire athletic greatness on the gridiron. Romeo would've preferred "the Flying Dutchmen." That suggests a certain grace -- nay, supernatural abilities -- which are sorely needed on the field.
But then again, this is Stuyvesant High School. And here, football doesn't matter. The brainiacs rule.
Romeo understands that, embraces it. Football drills under a baking sun don't match the pain of the academic workouts under a small pool of lamplight, the relentless nights when Romeo sits hunched over his small wooden desk, cloistered in his room, studying until two, three, four o'clock in the morning -- unless he dozes off while studying. His mother, Catherine Wideman, sleeps fitfully, knowing her son is up late studying, the only evidence a sliver of illumination emanating from the slit at the bottom of his shut door.
"Do you know it's two o'clock in the morning?" she will ask, knocking on his door.
"When the lights are off, I can relax," she says.
Not Romeo. Recently, he printed eight-and-a-half by eleven-inch signs from his computer and taped them up in his room, lashing Orwellian words to inspire, drive, compel.