Photographs by Toshi Tasaki
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Carol Caffin [Moderator]: What have been some of the best aspects of your high school experience so far?
Elizabeth Fernandez-Fermin, Peekskill High School, Junior: I think sports have been the best part. You get to meet other students; it helps a lot to take the stress off, and it’s just fun.
Jaeger Dochtermann, Fox Lane High School, Junior: So far this year, I was able to start a debate club, and I’m teaching some of my fellow students how to debate. I’m taking a course over the summer on it and will be able to translate that knowledge.
Elisa Mateo-Saja, White Plains High School, Senior: I’m very involved in my school’s student government, and it’s one of my favorite things to do.
Spencer Kaplan, Blind Brook High School, Senior: I’m also involved in student government. I’ve been a class representative for the past four years. It allows me to be closer to my peers.
Sophie Masson, Scarsdale High School, Junior: Back in middle school, I was really shy and quiet. I’d sit in the back of the classroom with my hood up. But now, I’ve had teachers that have forced me, basically, to talk in class, to get good grades, which I want. It’s really opneed me up a lot. I’m grateful for that, because without high school, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
On the flip side, what have been some of the worst or more difficult aspects of your high school experience, whether it’s social, academic, extracurricular, or whatever?
Spencer: Something that has always been a bit of a challenge for me is that my grade has only 125 people; most of us have known each other since kindergarten. It’s good, in that you get close to your peers, but it’s also a hindrance, because people remember what you did in earlier grades, and they know pretty much everything about you.
Does anyone else have a similar situation?
Danny Maher, Ardsley High School, Senior: My school is also small; my grade is around 160-something. Ardsley is great with integrating a bunch of grades into different classes, so, in recent years, I’ve had a lot of friends who weren’t exactly my age.
How is it with a larger school? Do you encounter the opposite of that?
Elisa: We have cliques; that’s still a thing. My school is very diverse, and we have 500 kids graduating this year. There are racial divides, too. But we are so proud of our diversity — it’s really wonderful. I mean, it’s high school. It’s a bunch of teenagers, and teenagers will act like teenagers no matter where they are.
What’s your biggest concern with where you are right now in school, socially, academically, or otherwise?
Elizabeth: My biggest concern would be just getting into the college I want.
Elisa: I was going to say college. I guess friends can be stressful, too.
Sophie: I’m still a junior, so probably ACTs.
Spencer: I would have to agree on the college point, especially at this time of the year, when it’s starting to become really real.
Serena Sarkiso, Lincoln High School (Yonkers), Junior: My biggest concern right now is college. Being in the top 20 of my class, I have a lot of pressure put on me, especially by my administrators, because they are always pushing you to do amazing in everything.
Henry Titcomb, Sleepy Hollow High School, Senior: Yeah, college applications are pretty stressful.
Rebecca Taylor, Rye Neck High School, Junior: Definitely grades. I feel like it’s a big push to get very good grades this year, because in senior year, it’s only like the first two quarters, and then you send off your application.
Jose Boyer, Yorktown High School, Senior: The biggest thing for me is the competitiveness between students in the classroom. I play sports, and it’s not as competitive on the field as it is in the classroom. That’s definitely been the hardest part for me.
Jaeger: I absolutely agree. I think the biggest concern now is not only ACTs but also making sure you’re still viable and competitive for colleges. You have to make sure you are doing not only the same things as your peers, but something to “one-up” them, basically. It’s a perpetuating cycle of competitiveness.
Danny: I think the hardest thing is just keeping it all together — keeping your GPA and your grades up, right as the transcripts are being sent out.
What do you think your parents see as your biggest concern? Are they correct, or is it something else?
Elizabeth: I think they know, because they see how stressful it is. Like all the college applications and keeping all your grades up. So they basically know.
Elisa: I know my mom knows that my biggest stress is college.
Sophie: I’m pretty sure my mom stresses about my ACT test more than I do [laughs]. It’s my biggest concern and stress at this moment, but I’m not taking it as seriously as I should. I have no idea what I want to do with my life.
Spencer: For me, it’s not the college stuff that my dad would be aware of as the main stressor, but rather how the college stuff manifests itself in my other activities, whether school, or athletics, or extracurricular activities.
Serena: My mom definitely stresses about college and my GPA, because she always told me, “I want you to do better than I did.”
Henry: I guess my mom and dad don’t want me to start slacking off in senior year, as a lot of seniors tend to do.
Rebecca: It’s definitely my happiness my parents are concerned about a lot, because, if there are certain tests or projects coming up, I get into these moods where it’s tunnel vision, and I’m in my room and don’t come out.
Jose: I think my parents think my biggest thing is maintaining where I am now. They don’t want me to get overwhelmed, they don’t want me to slack off; they just want me to find that happy area in the middle where I’m doing the best I can in everything.
Jaeger [to Jose]: I think your parents somewhat mirror mine, in that they want me to be viable for college, but I don’t think their biggest focus is on grades. It’s kind of: “What are you doing with your summers? How are you using that to differentiate yourself?”
Danny: I think my parents are pretty confident in me. They just want to see me keep myself going and that I’m not slacking off. But also that all the things I’m doing are not stressing me out too much.
Okay, so it sounds like balance is a big part of everyone’s concerns. Do you think you have too much homework, or is it the right amount for your grade?
Elizabeth: In AP classes, especially, they give way too much. But in other subjects, it’s good.
Elisa: The classes you choose tell you what you’re going to have homework-wise and, with White Plains, you have a lot of options. So I’ve been able to choose, knowing in advance what homework I’m giving myself.
Sophie: I agree that in some classes they give way too much homework. I know in math you’re supposed to do repetitive questions, to understand whatever you’re learning, but it’s so time-consuming, and after a certain point, you just want to give up.
Spencer: A lot of times, students lose sight of the reason we have homework, which is to reinforce what’s being taught during that day. And if you aren’t going to do that, you simply aren’t going to learn the information as well.
Serena: In my regular classes, they don’t give too much homework; in honors and AP classes, you have more work. But that’s a class you want to take, and you should be prepared.
Henry: I think that homework should be eliminated in classes that don’t pertain to somebody’s chosen career path. When you’re doing homework for a class that you enjoy, it’s not really work.
Does everyone feel that some homework benefits you, and some doesn’t? Like, “I’m never going to use geometry or algebra, so why do I need to take it?”
Rebecca: I feel like doing it definitely benefits you, but it gets overwhelming when it’s in every subject, and there’s an influx of assignments.
Jose: I think we’re not getting enough homework in some classes. If I have no homework in a class, I don’t know what’s going on in that class.
So, Jose, you’re the guy who wants more homework. We’ll let your school know that [laughter].
Jose: Yeah, let’s not put my name down for that one [laughs].
Jaeger: I believe homework should be directly tied to comprehension.
Danny: At my school, homework is fine. The problem is procrastination. I’ll have homework, and I’m like, I’m gonna do it. But then I’ll sit down and play with my dog, and I don’t get it done [laughs].
How many of you have a set time that you do your homework every day? Do you usually do your homework in the evening?
Jose: I usually start at 11:30.
Danny: As soon as I get home from school, I need a little break.
Do you feel that your time is too structured? Is there enough unstructured, free time?
Elisa: I don’t have a lot of free time. I work, and I’m in extracurriculars, but I love everything that I choose to do. So for me, it’s not free time, but it’s time that I enjoy.
Spencer: I think it’s pretty evident that there is a fundamental flaw in how structured it actually is. If you look at kids when they get back from vacation, they are in a significantly better mental state than when they left.
Danny: I make sure to leave myself free time toward the weekend. And, going back to what Elisa said, if I’m at school, rehearsing for six hours, it’s not free time, but it’s me time. I’m having fun doing it.
What are some of the biggest social challenges? Dating life, bullying, drugs, alcohol, peer pressure?
Spencer: One of the biggest is cyberbullying. When I was growing up, I didn’t really see it, but once I got into high school, I realized it’s very subtle, but it’s there.
Can you give me an example of what you mean by subtle?
Spencer: Here’s one that’s happensa lot: Someone accepts a friend request on Facebook, and it might be some random person, maybe some underclassman no one really knows. People will comment on it, like, “Oh, Ben, it’s amazing you finally found The One.” It’s just joking, but it might be perceived by the person who was friended as kind of cruel, almost harassment.
Do your schools have anything in place to deal with cyberbullying? Or is it a ‘It’s not on school grounds, so it’s not our problem’ sort of thing?
Spencer: Legally speaking, they can’t do much because it isn’t on school grounds, but they do bring in a lot of speakers to talk about it, and it’s addressed in our health classes. If it starts to affect life in school, or if it endangers someone’s mental health, they might be able to take action. In fact, I’m pretty sure they’re required to take action if they’re aware of it.
Henry: For us, the students just deal with it. The school can’t really do much about it, so it’s up to the kids to raise their voices.
Rebecca: My school is really small, so if something happens on Saturday, everyone knows about it by Sunday. Our guidance counselors are proactive, so if you say something [wrong] on social media, they will know about it and call you in, and the issue will be resolved.
“People at my school are pretty responsible [concerning alcohol use]. They know what they can handle and look outfor and support each other.” — Danny Maher, Ardsley HS Senior
Serena: There have been incidents where something will get leaked onto the Internet, and we’ve actually had a few suspensions because of things like that. The kids whose things got leaked do deal with a lot of bullying. It’s really sad.
Elisa: My school’s big, so a lot of times, they don’t notice that kind of stuff happening. Kids will hear about it, like Henry said, and it becomes your job if you’re part of the leadership or if you’re just someone who wants to stop it. We struggle with a lot of stuff because, like on Twitter, people will “sub” other people.
I’m sorry, what does that mean, to ‘sub’?
Elisa: Subtweeting. A subtweet is when someone says something, but they won’t address the person directly. If you’re having a fight with someone, they will say something pertaining to the argument that you’re having on Twitter, but they don’t address you directly. So no one can say anything because there isn’t a name.
Do those of you who are in leadership positions or student government ever get picked on or bullied because of those positions?
Elisa: To some degree. Sometimes, other kids see it as being the snitch. But I’ve always been involved in whatever our school is doing, and I can’t let things go unnoticed, so I think they understand that.
Spencer: Real leadership is doing the right thing, even if it’s the unpopular choice. I think people respect that, too. I haven’t experienced any sort of harassment or bullying resulting from my leadership position.
What about traditional bullying — that is, physically or by intimidation. Does that happen?
Henry: Yeah. It would be ignorant to say it doesn’t happen, because obviously it does, but it’s not like the guy walking down the hallways who pushes a kid into a locker or something, and it continues day after day. That kind of mass bullying doesn’t happen anymore.
Tell me about drugs and alcohol. Are they a big issue in your schools?
Serena: At my school, there is a very big problem with marijuana use. There have been incidents where you’ll smell it in the hallways and in the back of the gym.
How about hard drugs? Are they an issue?
Danny: Not really — at least not out in the open.
Spencer: I also feel like the constituency you have here probably isn’t exposed. So, it might be a thing, but we might not know about it.
Jaeger: We’re definitely biased in the fact that we don’t see it nearly as much.
Is it the same with alcohol?
Danny: People at my school are pretty responsible. They know what they can handle and look out for and support each other. My school has taken some measures to discourage destructive decisions. We have a program called Ardsley Safe Rides, which I am president of, and we give students free rides home through the four Rivertowns — Ardsley, Hastings, Dobbs, and Irvington. Wherever you are, we’ll pick you up. It’s confidential. We get police involved if they need to be involved, but otherwise, we take you home, and we don’t say anything.
“I don’t have a lot of free time. I work, and I’m in extracurriculars, but I love everything that I choose to do.” — Elisa Mateo-Saja, White Plains HS Senior
Henry: We’re responsible with it at this point. People know their limits, and it’s not like people who drink and smoke and do that stuff…[are] bad people, obviously. I know plenty of people who have an active social life, active party life and still get good grades.
Spencer: Alcohol itself is not a problem in my school, but drunk driving is a bit of a problem. It’s not that prominent, but it’s naive to say it doesn’t exist.
How about in terms of acceptance of other students? How accepting are students of each other and of diversity?
Elisa: We do have a divide, and I think it’s largely because we go automatically to what we’re familiar with. I hang out with a lot of other Hispanics because I’m Hispanic, and we talk about Hispanic things; a lot of other kids in school identify with their race and hang out with their race. And we also have so many clubs; probably half of them are dedicated to different areas of diversity.
Danny: Coming from a small school, we’re obviously not as diverse, but there are people who stand out because of their race or sexuality, and I think that now a lot of things are more accepted. Some of the problem could actually be parents who don’t want their kids to be around this or that. They’ll say, “Well, back in my time, you were harassed for your sexuality.” They don’t understand it’s different now.
Spencer: Blind Brook is exceedingly not diverse. It’s pretty bad. We have 125 kids in my grade, and we don’t have a single black kid. Luckily, some of us get to experience summer camp where there is a lot more diversity. I do feel like our school is pretty liberal, and I think they would be accepting if there were more diversity.
Henry: My school is a lot different from yours, Spencer. Our town is about 60 percent Hispanic or Latino, primarily Dominican. And the high school is incredibly diverse. I’m grateful to come from such a diverse school and, regarding racial discrimination, we don’t let that happen. Our students are strictly against that.
Jaeger: I’m in a very similar situation. Fox Lane has about a 40 percent Hispanic population and a variety of other ethnicities, as well. So apart from the various cliques that get formed around some races, I’ve never seen any racism or people who’ve been segregated or treated differently based on race whatsoever.
Serena: In my school, I would say maybe 85 percent of the student body is African American and Hispanic, and we don’t have any racial problems, because we all connect somehow.
One last question: What is there to do in Westchester for people your age, other than extracurriculars?
Elisa: I go out to eat a lot. White Plains has a ton of food places, just on Mamaroneck Avenue. We go to a lot of sports games; that is big in White Plains.
Elizabeth: We mostly just travel around town, go to restaurants, go to the movies. We really don’t go out of Peekskill that much.
Sophie: There is this really popular restaurant in the little village of Scarsdale called Lange’s. Everyone hangs out there.
Spencer: One of the really big places is Rye Ridge, and a lot of people will go into White Plains because it’s pretty close. A lot of it is usually just watching movies, hanging out at each other’s houses.
Serena: We usually go to Ridge Hill in Yonkers; that is our hotspot.
Henry: In my town and Westchester as a whole, a lot of people don’t know, but there is an amazing music scene around here. There are tons of amazing locals bands with original content.
Rebecca: My friends either go to the city or go to The Westchester for shopping, see a movie, or go to sporting events at our school.
Jose: I think the whole sporting-event thing is huge for our town. We try to travel to everything we can. And there is this dairy bar in Mahopac called Bliss; I think if you go to Yorktown, it’s an automatic place to go.
Jaeger: There’s a prominent sports scene around us, as well, but a lot of it is getting together with friends, going out to eat and going to see a movie.
Danny: Ardsley is kind of in the middle of this gray area; we’re right next to Central Avenue, which is where everything is, including Eldorado III, the 24-hour diner where everyone goes to eat. If not there, we are either at a sports game, or we go to the city.
Any final thoughts?
Spencer: Westchester is a great place to live.
Does everybody feel that way?
[In unison] Yes!