New York City’s intense high school choice process ends with students being matched to one of more than 400 high schools — at least most of the time. Here’s one take on the stressful rite of passage from a student who has had time to reflect on it.
When I walked into first period art class, I was hit with the question: “Where did you get in?” It was a Monday morning in the spring of my eighth-grade year, and we had all gotten our high school acceptance letters over the weekend.
“High School for Environmental Studies,” I answered, the name feeling sour in my mouth.
“Oh my God! You know how bad that school is, right? It’s so ghetto!” said my good friend Jude. He and another classmate laughed.
Tears threatened to spill as I tried to come up with a mean comeback. The large room felt like it was shrinking. The colorful paintings on the walls even seemed to be making fun of me.
All my friends were so happy about where they’d been accepted. They were going to top-rated schools like LaGuardia, Beacon, and Millennium. I had applied to those schools, too, but I hadn’t been accepted.
Six months earlier, when it had been time for me to start applying to high schools, my mom and I had already been to high school fairs and tours and had decided on LaGuardia, Millennium, Bard, and Beacon. According to my teachers, these were where the smart and talented kids went. A lot of past students from my middle school had gone to those schools and were referred to as “Beacon kids” or “LaGuardia kids.” Environmental Studies was my safety school. I only chose it because my dad worked near there.
Of all the schools on my list, I believed that I had enough artistic talent to make it into LaGuardia. I’ve always been interested in art and the lives of artists. I often brought my sketchbook with me to school and on vacations. I love drawing flowers and abstract pictures that look like stained glass.
I put so much effort into my paintings for my admissions portfolio. I stayed up late finishing my colorful imitation of a Picasso and my well-shaded drawing of a city made of bottles. My pencil carefully danced over the hills of the canvas paper as I shaded my bottle apartments under the huge winding bridges going across them. My fingers were gray with shiny graphite as I shaded the fur of the wolf I spent days drawing.
In the fall of eighth grade, in addition to submitting a portfolio, we also had to take a drawing test at LaGuardia. Butterflies fluttered in my throat and stomach. My friends and I encouraged each other. “We can do this!” we all said, hopeful that we would get to stay together the next year.
As we journeyed to the test room, I scanned the realistic still lifes and funky abstract paintings adorning the white and blue tiled walls. I thought: “This is the place for me. Even if my art isn’t as good as the pictures on the walls, they would be able to help me improve, right?”
We all sat in the art room with tables forming a U-shape. My mouth went dry as they told us what our test was: Use oil pastels to create a scene and to draw the model in front of us.
At the end, my drawings looked like a kindergartner drew them with her left hand. My friends reassured me that theirs were just as terrible. Still, I thought my acceptance wouldn’t be primarily based on this test. I hoped they’d love my portfolio.
When my acceptance email came, I was devastated. Only one school name was on it, the High School for Environmental Studies. None of my dream schools wanted me.
My mom lay with me in bed until my dad came home. All night they kept repeating, “It’s OK! This school really wants you. They liked you!” But this wasn’t the school I wanted to like me.
When summer came, I thought I’d feel better. I didn’t. I imagined a place with mean kids who didn’t care about anything. I imagined the students being like the typical high school delinquents on shows with a lot of drama.
But then, I got sick of crying and thinking the worst. Instead, I started looking forward to making cool friends and getting good grades. I imagined all the cool, typical New York City teen things we were going to do, like hanging out in trendy places, going to concerts and movies, and working on fun club activities together.
On the first day, I wore an outfit from my new school wardrobe: an off-white V-neck that I tied up in the front, a navy blue mini skater skirt, and shiny black Mary Janes with ultra-cute, white frilly socks. To top it all off, my hair was a freshly re-dyed red that was as bright as my lipsticked lips.
Even if this wasn’t the school I wanted to go to, it wasn’t going to stop me from looking cute.
Still, my stomach felt sour and I could feel sweat on my forehead as I stood with my mom in the sun outside the school. I stared at the swarm of kids waiting to be allowed in.
I thought to myself: “They all look so old.”
Finally, the clear doors swung open and the kids pushed in like a pack of wild animals.
“How am I supposed to get through that? I’ll get crushed!” I said.
“You’re going to be fine. You will make so many new friends. I love you!” my mom said, leaving me to fend for myself.
After finding out my homeroom number, I wandered through the school’s maze-like hallways, trying to find it. I made eye contact with a girl about my height with long, chocolate brown hair. She looked equally lost. We showed each other our papers, asking, “Do you know where this is?” Then we realized we were looking for the same room.
After we found the room, we introduced ourselves.
“Hi, I’m Gabby,” I said with a huge smile.
We liked each other instantly. I actually met someone and she was nice! We talked about what we did over the summer and how nervous we were. She even complimented my outfit! I felt so relieved that she wasn’t like what all my middle school friends told me the students here would be like: dumb, “ghetto,” and scary.
In fact, all of my judgments and preconceived negative attitudes toward the school and the students there left me by the end of my first day. I felt silly for letting myself get so worked up about my school’s reputation. I made a lot of friends.
I enjoyed all of my teachers and classes. I looked forward to seeing my friends in our Living Environment class in the morning and joking around while dancing to bachata in my dance class. I was excited to go to English class to work on my book analysis essays and to learn about Mesopotamia and Taoism in my global studies class. I felt content and happy. I wasn’t ashamed to tell people where I went to school.
Many of my teachers were passionate about what they were teaching and helped students outside of the classroom. My ethics teacher, Mr. Marx, hung out with us in our feminist club meetings and would talk to us about real-world issues.
During my senior year, he took the time out of his busy schedule to edit my college essay. He even wrote my recommendation letter for college. He cares so much about his students that he helps us with the college application process and to get internships, although none of this is part of his job.
My AP U.S. history teacher and feminist club advisor, Ms. Rosenberg, talked to us about politics and she was there when we needed advice. She gave us information about protests. She is passionate about teaching us about social issues and believes we can make a difference in society.
My creative writing teacher, Ms. Ray, saw my potential as a writer, something I didn’t see in myself.
I hear college application horror stories about absent advisors who don’t help at all, but mine made sure to get to know every student in the senior class and to meet with them every few weeks. She set up meetings with colleges. She made sure we were all on top of everything and took time to help those who needed it.
I applied to 17 colleges. My target schools were the University of Vermont, SUNY New Paltz, and SUNY Plattsburgh. I got into all but two including my dream school, the University of Vermont. I didn’t need to attend a specialized school to get into a highly rated college and feel successful.
At the High School for Environmental Studies, I made the principal’s honors list and graduated with an advanced Regents diploma. I was able to discover my desire to study communication sciences, a subject I would not have been exposed to at LaGuardia, which just focuses on the arts.
When I was in eighth grade, I thought to be successful I had to go to a school that had a reputation for being one where the smartest kids went. Now as an 18-year-old, I know that reputation isn’t everything, and you can flourish anywhere there are people who care about you. You are in charge of your success, not the school you attend.
Gabby Felitto graduated from the High School for Environmental Studies in 2018 and attends the University of Vermont. This piece originally appeared in YCTeen, a magazine by and for teens published by Youth Communication, a nonprofit organization that helps educators and youth workers engage young people.