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Why I Dropped Out
My high school was no place to learn; I needed more support
Desmin B.

In poor neighborhoods, a lot of teens end up dropping out of school and finding their education in the street. I was one of those kids.

My problems started in junior high. That’s when trouble became my middle name. I went to a bad school, so I adapted to the foolishness. I’d talk nonstop and I had no respect for others or the rules. It made me feel bad about myself as a student, and that just made me spiral down further.

Things went from bad to worse when I started high school. My aunt chose an all-boys school in the Bronx, because she had connections there. I wanted a different school because I had heard lots of bad news about Taft. The things I heard were unbelievable: fights every day, stabbings. The gangs in the school meant business. It seemed like this school was a war zone. My first day confirmed my fears.

Surrounded by Sharks

Kids were forced to walk through metal detectors to make sure no weapons were brought into the building. This was stressful and made me feel like I had no privacy or rights.

As I made my way through the metal detector, I saw crowds of rowdy kids in the cafeteria. It reminded me of the prison yard at Riker’s Island. It made me feel like a little fish in a big sea, surrounded by sharks.

My school was one of six in the building. Walking up the stairs to my classes was wild and dramatic. Everybody was yelling, rushing, banging on the wall, bugging out on the staircase. I saw kids hanging in the staircase throwing trash. Kids were being bullied all around me. When I got to my floor, I saw a lot of cameras.

I quickly learned that being a freshman made you a target. So I only hung around the freshmen on that first day—strength in numbers. No joke, by the end of the first day, a kid had been stabbed right in front of the school.

Trying to Fit In

Taft felt like anything but a place to learn. It was part fashion show, part war zone, and part drug turf. And the way the school tried to respond made it feel like a prison. Police officers roamed the building checking for gang activity and drug dealing.

Every morning, kids would gather to make fun of people’s clothes. I made it my business to stay up-to-date with my gear and not to look like a bum. But there were times I didn’t go to school because I felt like I didn’t have the right clothes.

Having the right gear was part of what determined whether you were part of the “in crowd.” If you weren’t, you felt like a nobody. But if you stuck to yourself, you would be a constant target.

I was the new kid until I started connecting with peers in classes and at lunch. We were able to relate to one another because some of us smoked or hustled. Also, we all had a common goal to get females. Before that connection was made I was nobody; now I made my way into the in crowd and I was somebody.

But to be somebody, you also had to have cash. I had to buy my fancy gear. The kids I hung around with had money; everything they wore was name brand. I started selling drugs in school to make money. Selling drugs was easy because I hung around smokers.

I was valued by my peers in the in crowd for having expensive things, but my gear still didn’t get the bullies off my back. Bullying affected me in a major way. Two kids in particular loved digging in people’s pockets and taking things that didn’t belong to them.

Once they took an expensive hat from me; other times they took my money and my MetroCard. This made me worry about my valuables and the money that I carried. I went out of my way to make sure I didn’t run into them.

Enlisted Into the Chaos

As the year went on, I joined the chaos. I had learned to adapt to this war zone to keep from being victimized. And once I adapted, I loved the drama. It was fun running through halls of schools on other floors, yelling, fighting, and throwing garbage through the air. But it got me suspended many times. This took me off track, and it was hard to get back on the school path.

What was happening inside the classroom added to my problems. I needed teachers who could relate to me, and there was only one, my math teacher, who showed me that he understood. He actually got to know the students and showed us that he cared without disrespecting us.

Some days I’d come into classroom late, sagging my pants and talking as soon as I walked through the door. My math teacher would say, “Pick up your pants and stop the chatting. You know the rules—come in late, get straight to work.” I would respond, “Why you talking to me? I do what I want and I’ll do the work when I feel like it.” Then we argued, but it wouldn’t be serious because of the respect and bond I had with him. I trusted that he had my best interests at heart.

Besides him, though, I felt like a lot of my teachers stopped caring about my education. We’d get into battles about small things, like me not wearing my uniform, which made me feel like a church boy. When I didn’t wear a proper uniform they’d send me to a detention room, where I’d just sit for the whole period.

Trouble at Home

image by YC-Art Dept

Home was no escape from the stress. A lot of people lived under our roof: It was me, my two older brothers, my nephew, mom, and grandmother. Dishes in the sink piled to the top; stuff was all over the living room floor.

There was no such thing as peace and quiet in my home. Everybody was down on one another, and every day there were problems. I couldn’t sleep at night because of all the noise my brother made, and because he’d turn the light on in my face. So when it was time for school in the morning I often wouldn’t bother getting up because I was still tired. My mom and grandmother would give me a hard time about my grades and the fact that I was skipping school, and that discouraged me even more.

Over time, I cared less and less about school. If I did go, it was to goof off and wander. Sometimes I would miss a whole week. Soon enough, my teachers didn’t want me in the building at all.

I didn’t choose to drop out of school—at least, I didn’t think about it as a choice I’d made. The school took me off the roster. (See the sidebar below about your right to stay in school.)

When I found out, I didn’t care because it made every day feel like summer vacation. But now I feel stupid that I let that happen. I got stuck in a pattern of behavior because I didn’t know how to deal with all the stress in my life. I didn’t know then how hard it would be to get back on track.

Tough Kids Need Support

In spite of all the problems I had, I believe a student like me can be motivated to do better. It takes patience and school staff who care. Having cages covering the windows, metal detectors, and police walking through the school building makes things rough on students (and still doesn’t keep us safe). If you could make the school feel like a learning environment and not a prison, students like me who are struggling wouldn’t feel so trapped.

Students like me need teachers who aren’t overwhelmed and have the time to respond to us as individuals. We don’t need teachers who react in anger anytime we do wrong. I needed people who would be patient and listen to my problems. A teacher should never shun a student, even after multiple encounters of disrespect. They should know that that student is probably going through a hard time and try to reach out to him. Unless students like me find teachers and other adults they can trust, we’re not going to progress in school. Teachers need to love what they’re teaching and love their students.

Not Too Late

At this point in my life, I don’t feel like school is an option any longer. I’ve been out now for three years. I’m 19, and finishing high school would require a lot of work and catching up. I don’t have enough time to go through that, and I don’t want to face that prison environment again.

But I know if I don’t get an education, my options are limited. Running the streets is putting me at risk of ending up in a real prison. So lately I’ve been thinking of enrolling in a GED (now called TASC) program.

Today I feel more mature and focused on my future. I think I’ll be able to focus in a GED program because it’s a smaller setting with more one-on-one time with the teachers. It’s better if I don’t have to interact a lot with other students—that will help me stay out of trouble.

I hope I’ll be able to stick with it because I’ll have a clear goal. It won’t be easy, but I know it’s the only way I’ll be able to move forward with my life.

Your Right to Stay in School

In New York City
When Desmin wrote he “was taken off the roster,” that’s another way of saying he was pushed out of school.

Unfortunately, Desmin’s story is not unusual. The way the New York City school system is set up now, schools with too many students who have bad test scores, behavior problems, or are failing or “overage,” are likely to be shut down. (In New York City, a student is generally considered “overage” if he has been held back two or more grades.) Therefore school administrators feel pressured to push those students out.

But this is illegal; New York State law allows students up to 21 years old who have not obtained a high school diploma to attend high school.

If you feel you’ve been pushed out of school, you can fight it.

• First, ask for help. Had Desmin reached out to his math teacher, his outcome might have been different. Let a teacher, guidance counselor, or principal know what’s going on in your life and that you want to stay in school and have a right to do so. If they don’t listen, call 311 or the Department of Education’s office of enrollment in your school district to inform them and ask for help.

• If you’re being forced out because you’re having trouble with schoolwork, talk to your teachers or principal about getting help. You may have the right to free tutoring or counseling.

• Find an advocate: Contact Advocates for Children to ask for help at or 866-427-6033. They say schools can only ask students to leave for a limited number of reasons. A student who is over 17 can be discharged if he or she is absent for at least 20 days in a row. Still, the school must notify you and your parent in writing about your absences, the possibility of being asked to leave, and holding a planning interview with you before you can be taken off the roster.

Outside New York
Find resources that apply across the country here:

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