“Yay! I did it!”
The cry of success pierces the air and is met by clapping and by the clamor of congratulations from the other students sitting at the table. The outburst is accompanied by what I can only assume is that feeling of pride and accomplishment so commonly felt in classrooms at Stuyvesant. I myself feel a sense of excitement for my friend who has just done so well. But what yields this great triumph? My friend hasn’t just aced an AP test or grasped a particularly challenging concept in one of her classes; actually, she just managed to match up the last two red images of Spiderman to win our latest round of a matching memory game we’ve been playing. Also, rather than a classroom, we’re sitting in the cafeteria, about 60 feet away from where you and your friends enjoy your lunch. In fact, the group of friends that I’m playing the matching game with aren’t Stuy students at all, they are students of P.S. 721, the invisible cohabitants of our school whomm you may have noticed but have probably never interacted with.
The students from P.S. 721 are teenagers who have special needs, and they share our great learning space largely to interact with a high school community and form social bonds outside of their family and few classmates. But it’s not your fault that you’ve never talked to them and don’t really know anything about them—there’s little reason you would. For most of the time that the students are here they are sequestered away in their classrooms, adhering to a different schedule than ours and in general, not traversing the building freely. In fact, you’ve probably only ever seen the P.S. 721 kids on their way to the elevator or outside one of your upper-floor classrooms. There have been essentially no mechanisms in place for us to interact with our fellow Stuy-dwellers, a fact that makes it all too easy to forget about their existence in the bustle of our all-important academic lives.
It was only at the beginning of this semester, the second of my junior year, that I became acquainted with the students. Around this time, ARISTA sent out an email announcing a peer partnership with P.S. 721 and detailing what it would entail, namely spending time with the students during their lunch period. Both of my parents work with kids and adults who have developmental disabilities similar to the ones some of the students of P.S. 721 have, ranging from cerebral palsy to autism and Down syndrome, so I was immediately interested in the program. My lunch period coincided with theirs, so I signed up to spend that period with them, playing games and having conversations.
The next week I reported to Mr. Colon, beloved SPARK coordinator and architect of the program, to begin what I had been told would be two days a week of volunteering. As Mr. Colon explained to me and senior Bernice Chan, the only other volunteer who had shown up, the history of the students being in our school, from the purported purpose of mainstreaming to the utter failure of previous interaction programs, I couldn’t help but feel a little ashamed that I, with all of my experience with people with special needs, had never reached out or tried to learn more about those who often took classes just across the hall from me.
My feelings of guilt were compounded when we went down to the lunchroom for introductions and I saw many of the students, long finished with lunch, sitting idly by with their attendants looking similarly wearied, all but counting down the minutes until the period was over. The students’ desire for social interaction was immediately evidenced by the eager and interested looks that many of them gave me and my fellow volunteer when we walked over with Mr. Colon, their sole liaison with the Stuy community. As Mr. Colon explained the reinvigorated partnership program to the students, many looked excited at the prospect, while others looked warily at us strangers. As I went around introducing myself, I did my best to make as good a first impression as I would with any social encounter, but it was clear that I would need to do more to prove myself to some of the more cautious students through persistence and reliability.
After lunch was over I went outside and discussed the program with Bernice. We talked about how moved we were just by the introductions and wondered whether we would end up spending more than the prescribed two days a week with the students. It seemed likely, given the small number of volunteers and our newfound desire not to have the students subjected to the state of tedium that we had found some of them in that day. We agreed to return the next day, along with the two volunteers who have joined us since then, and with one or two exceptions, we have spent every lunch period since then with the students. In fact, those 40 minutes have consistently been the most enjoyable of my day, even compared to stimulating conversations in Metaphysics and playing ultimate Frisbee with my friends.
Over the few months that I have been spending lunch with the students, I have come to know each and every one of them and consider them all friends. While the range of activities that we can partake in together is limited in a way, the joy that they take in the 40-minute respite from their routine school lives, and sometimes very troubled home lives, makes the repeated games of charades and Connect 4 highly enjoyable for me as well. We have also recently started discussions on gender and social issues to help the students learn the ins and outs of a functional social life.
My fellow volunteers have been strongly affected by the time that we spend with the students at lunch. Ezra Louvis, another junior who comes daily, also became involved through ARISTA, but has developed an emotional tie to the program. “A person can only stand so much competition and so many tests; participating in something that has a real world effect on people’s lives helps put the rest of what we do in school in perspective,” he said about the partnership. Ezra also feels that the students have benefitted from reliable social bonds. Speaking of the value of these relationships he said, “This program gives them the opportunity to socialize in a different way than they can in their classes or at home. It’s basically unconditional friendship that many of them don’t have access to.”
Bernice has also seen the program become a significant part of her life. When she heard that I was writing this article, she was very eager to share her personal experience with the program, saying that, “These students are a big reason of why I bother going to school—I’m a second term senior. We have so much in common through the simplest things: love of food, drawing, joking, laughing.” Bernice has made her mark by bringing various arts and crafts activities to the lunch tables, which have been very successful in connecting with some of the more shy students. The variety of personality of the Stuyvesant students who come to lunch has proven to be essential in engaging all of the P.S. 721 students, a fact which makes the expansion of Stuy’s side of the partnership vital.
The importance of being exposed to a wide range of peers cannot be overstated, and it constantly saddens me to think of this group within our school, who has for so long gone about their business alongside some of the most intelligent students in the country without being able to benefit from their acquaintance. As it is now, the program can still use more participants who need not be ARISTA students hungry for credits—just regular Stuy students who care about something besides grades and college.
The population of people in our country with special needs and developmental disabilities is already a socially ostracized and largely ignored group. The insecurities and stigma that they often feel on account of the poor hand that has been dealt to them start with their experiences in high school. Through my involvement with the students of P.S. 721, I have learned that by giving up a little bit of your time, you can greatly improve their quality of life, while getting a humbling daily reminder about what is really important and how little the low grade you got on your last exam really matters in the scheme of things. I’m not telling everyone who reads this to spend an hour every day with these students, but I am asking you to consider those whose lives briefly brush against yours and make an effort to give them a smile or greeting in the hall instead of ignoring their existence and continuing on in your lucky and privileged lives. It’s a small gesture that can go a long way in giving these students, our peers, the place they rightfully deserve in our great school community.