Tag Archives: New York City

Nowhere Man

Author André Aciman is at home everyplace. Sort of.

The first night of Ramadan wasn’t much different from the rest of the winter nights on the Alexandrian Corniche. The air was cool and salty, overwhelmed by the crashes of water. Apart from the rare, white headlights passing by with recurring intermittence, the stones of the wall that separated the land from the sea were only lit by the feeble rays of night stars.

A 14-year-old boy walked along the coastline. He was a French-speaking boy, born into a Turkish family who spoke Ladino, living in Alexandria, and attending a British school where they were trying to teach him Arabic. The boy held a sheet of newspaper hiding a soggy pancake, a delicacy with which one of the street vendors had just granted him. The boy sat on the wall facing the sea. Behind him the city he never loved spread far and wide. It was the boy’s last night on the Corniche.

This time tomorrow his Turkish and Jewish family would be escaping Nasser’s anti-Semitic Egypt. They would be headed to Rome, Italy.

It was 1965.

Rome was the first stop for the boy’s family. Locked up in his room in an apartment in working-class Via Clelia, the boy spent three years hiding behind the pages of the novels that he wished his world resembled. There was no television in the house, no money, no friends, no relatives – there was only the #85 bus, from Via Clelia to the city center. On Saturday mornings, it took the boy 22 stops to get to Piazza San Silvestro, where he would get off and start wandering, stumbling into one bookstore after another. Via del Babuino, Via Frattina, Campo Marzio, Piazza Rotonda, Campo de’ Fiori – anywhere that would take him away from Via Clelia, where the boy hid his shame and his yearning for the worlds of Ovid and Dostoyevsky.

It was as if the boy was cursed to hate all the places, all the cities, all the streets. Rue Delta in Alexandria was first, Via Clelia in Rome then. But there was one city the boy thought he loved. It was a city he had only read about but never seen. It was Balzac’s labyrinthine city and Baudelaire’s splenetic metropolis. It was a place full of stores where the boy could buy Pelikan pens and cigarettes without questions asked. It was a city where the Seine would run adrift “scarcely seven minutes away” from the boy’s great-aunt’s apartment.

It was Paris.

When his family was still living in Alexandria, his Uncle Isaac teased him about his longing for Paris. “Wants to be a petit monsieur,” he used to say. “All he needs is a monocle, a top hat, and off goes our jeune flâneur through the grands boulevards de Paris.” His haggard, aging uncle asked him what he wanted to become when he grew up.

“An ambassador,” the boy said.

Uncle Isaac asked him of which country – “Which country are you a citizen of?”

“France, of course,” the boy said.

France, of course.

France was where his father, Henri, had taken a temporary job before losing his knitting factory and leaving Alexandria. So every Christmas, Easter and sometimes twice in the summer, the boy, now 15, would be boarding the 3:30 direttissimo at Stazione Termini and was off to Paris with his mother and brother. Each time, it took a lot of convincing to board the train back from Paris to Rome. As he said goodbye to the city he thought he loved, the boy was already missing it.

Aunt Flora knew it. Years later, long after the boy became a man, he would recall his asking her to play the Shubert again while they sat in the kitchen where she cooked, ate, wrote letters, read, watched television, corrected homework. In the other room of her ground floor apartment, two grand pianos sat side by side, making it hard for anyone to squeeze behind the first piano and reach the second one. The small window in the room was closed. Outside, the Venetian Grand Canal lay surmounted by bridges and crossed by gondole.

Aunt Flora would ask him if he really wanted to hear the Shubert. Shubert was what she played while the Germans stood outside Alexandria, and the whole family thought the end was near. Shubert was what she played when she did not want to think about what they were about to lose.

But Aunt Flora would play the Shubert for him, even if with all the music recalled.

“We let it happen, as Jews always let these things happen,” she would tell him. “Because, deep inside, we know we’ll lose everything we own at least twice in our lives.”

The boy’s family would lose everything they owned at least another time.

Three years after moving to Rome, the boy was headed to New York.

It was 1968.

Now 17, the boy was growing into a young man. In New York, he looked for a job. Two weeks after his arrival, he got one as a mailboy at Lincoln Center. Thirty streets below his parents’ house on 96th Street, the boy fell in love (if “love” is the word for it) with the city of art and culture which the place he worked for represented. In the mailroom, everyone liked him, and he liked everyone. In apparenza, he would later say using the Italian word, apparently, he had found a place where he belonged.

But this realization only came to him later, during his first few weeks of college. At Lehman College in the Bronx, the boy studied English and comparative literature. He had only gone there because it was a free college, though he was sure he wouldn’t like it. Then, it happened. The first snow came to dust over the city, and, while he walked across campus, the boy heard someone say loudly, “Fucking snow.” For the first time in forever, he felt comfortable in a place where people expressed themselves in a way that riveted him. For the first time in forever, he felt like he belonged.

Maybe he was a New Yorker after all.

In New York, the boy didn’t have to fake being a Christian. In New York, people were nice in the same way he was. In New York, people weren’t touchy in the same way he wasn’t. In New York, the traffic between possibilities and impossibilities and the constant shuffling of the city became the boy’s home.

That is, until he moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

It was 1973.

Oxford Street, Ware Street, Concord Avenue, Prescott Street and Lowell House are all the places the boy lived in while earning his doctorate in comparative literature at Harvard.

During summers in an empty Cambridge, the boy divided his days between Houghton Library and the roof terrace of the Lowell House building where he was a resident tutor, armed with a folding chair, a bathing suit, cigarettes, music, a bit of booze and, of course, books. Right there on the fourth floor of a college dorm overlooking Cambridge, the young man from Alexandria, who felt unable to fit into the strange New World, imagined paradoxically to be lying by some beach on the Mediterranean.

Paradoxically because he didn’t just hate Alexandria, he also hated the beach. Back in Egypt, he would get paralyzing migraines from being in the sun for too long. On that terrace, with an equal amount of books and Tom Collins, the boy realized he wasn’t longing for the beach – he was longing for the sea, for those “quiet beach-day Sundays” right before the crowds headed out to the beaches in early summer. And, yet, he had never thought about those beach-days before. They had come to him, as memories, only once they stopped existing, during a stroll on Riverside Drive in New York City or during conversations with friends on the terraces in Cambridge.

Because every place in the boy’s life was nothing more than a throwback to Egypt, to a life he sometimes missed, mostly just remembered. Lawrence Durrell once wrote about Alexandria, the “capital of memory,” that “the city, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory.” The boy didn’t even love the city or the things he remembered about the city – he simply loved remembering. It was within his memory that Alexandria had started existing again.

And, on the terrace of his college dorm, the boy remembered the sea that had followed him from the tip of North Africa all the way to Italy, France and the United States. He remembered how the water looked, glimpsed through the trees on the direttissimo from Rome to Paris. He remembered how he grew to love the sun in New York. He remembered how he caught his old aunt staring at the Mediterranean in Alexandria, longing for the Seine. He remembered the summers spent in the town beaches on the Italian Riviera. He remembered the view of the Lido from Aunt Flora’s house in Venice.

It was Aunt Flora who had taught him to swim.

Suddenly, Harvard became too much for him and not quite enough. The boy moved back to New York and there, away from anything academic and completely immersed in the metropolis, he wrote his dissertation in six months and fell back in love (again, if “love” is the word for it) with a city he hasn’t left since.

It was 1980.

The boy is now 65. The body of a small, French child has turned into the short but slim body of a grown man. With thinning ivory hair, André Aciman has his mother’s eyes. Like Gigi’s eyes, his are almond-shaped, dark and Mediterranean in color. Like Gigi, he carries himself with a combination of elegance, grace and utter boldness.

His eyes have the confidence of a man who has spent his youth flirting with girls in bars, exploiting his French accent. But his eyes also seem doomed by the knowledge that that same accent has prevented him from fitting in his whole life.

Apart from the years, seven books have also gone by. The first one was Out of Egypt, an account of his last days in Alexandria, published 30 years after his exile, in 1995.

There was False Papers: Essays on Exile and Memory in 2000, a collection of essays on cities, memory, Marcel Proust and exile. False Papers is also the book that narrates his return to Alexandria, the capital of memory. “This, I realize, is what happens when one finally comes home: one hardly notices, and it doesn’t feel odd at all,” he wrote. In Alexandria, the boy realized the city was dead, Egypt was dead and even he was not alive anymore. He vowed never to return. But he forgot to kiss his grandfather’s grave.

“Maybe next time,” he wrote.

Then, in 2004, The Proust Project was published. It was a collection of essays he had edited from 28 writers about their favorite passages from In Search of Lost Time. The year of his first novel, Call Me by Your Name, was 2007. Even this work of fiction was created because of the boy’s longing for a place he couldn’t have – Italy. He fantasized about the country, the Riviera, the town beaches, the villas and the days by the sea. So, Elio, a slightly younger version of the Alexandrian intellectual educated in those bookstores in Rome, was born.

The protagonist of Harvard Square (2013) was also another version of himself, if not simply himself as a graduate student at Harvard. In Cambridge, at his favorite hangout spot, Café Algiers, the boy met a Tunisian cabdriver called Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov. Kalaj reminded the boy of Henri, his father. Like Henri, Kalaj was a misogynistic womanizer with North African values but also with an earthy love for France and anything French.

But there is only one book Aciman is proud of. It’s the work that “every author wishes to be able to write at least once in his life.” Eight White Nights was published in 2010. The novel was a journey through an asexual romance between two upper-middle-classers in New York City.

Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere came in 2011. A collection of travel essays and trips down memory lane, Alibis was also where he wrote,

“I am an exile from Alexandria, Egypt.

Like the nomad, an exile is someone who has no home to go back to. He has lost his home; it’s no longer there; there is no going back – Odysseus just got wind that Ithaca was entirely destroyed by an earthquake and that every person he knew there is gone. Unlike the nomad, though, an exile is not resigned to homelessness; perpetual transience feels as unnatural to him as it would to any tourist who’s lost his return ticket. An exile wants a home, not a provisional rest stop. But having lost his home, he hasn’t the foggiest notion how to go about finding a new one. He is even wary of having to ‘choose’ a new home. Can one choose one’s home any more than one can choose the color of one’s skin? Anyone can build a house – but is it ever a home?”

New York should be his home. Sometimes, it’s not. Because, sometimes, André Aciman dreams of being in Italy, sunbathing on the poolside of a beautiful Mediterranean mansion, or in France, strolling in a narrow cobble lane street, or in Egypt, longing to be out of there. But New York should be his home. That’s where he’s a professor at CUNY. That’s where he lives with his wife Susan, also a Harvard graduate he met at a former student’s party. That’s where his firstborn, Alexander, and the twins, Michael and Philip, were born. That’s where Gigi and Henri are buried.

Sometimes, though, the boy had to flee New York. Paris, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Jerusalem, his return to Alexandria. Intermittently over the years, he left New York, longing for other places.

It happened in 2000 in Paris. During his stay in Place des Vosges, the boy sat in his hotel room, thinking about every corner of the square he had experienced. The grocery stores, the bookstores, the art galleries, the tiny synagogue and the nursery school underneath the arcades – after a few days, everything had grown more and more familiar, including the faces. He thought he was ready to write about it. But he didn’t. He wanted to be back in New York. He knew that, only once he was no longer in Paris, he could begin to remember it, pretend to be there still, long for it.

It happened again in 2003, this time in Tuscany. At Il Leccio, one of many timeless villas in central Italy, the boy realized that the way he traveled was also the way he lived. It wasn’t about being in a place, it was about planning the itinerary for the next trip. Wherever he wasn’t, that’s where he was. That’s where they all were, David Ostwald said. A lawyer with an optimistic attitude, Ostwald didn’t even know how he had ended up becoming Aciman’s best friend. He just knew he was, probably because they were so different. Ostwald saw the glass half full. Mr. Quicksand saw it half empty. That was Ostwald’s nickname for him. Sometimes he called him Mr. Somewhere-I’m-Not. Sometimes, Mr. On-the-One-Hand. Other times, Mr. On-the-Other-Hand.

In Volpaia, the wine village in the Chianti region that Aciman adored, walking with Ostwald and their wives, Mr. Quicksand thought he was there, but he really wasn’t. In reality, he was already longing to be back in New York. He ran from one place to the other, one street corner to the next.

“Why don’t you just slow down?” Ostwald urged him.

His friend stopped and said, “I can’t, I want to see this whole town.” But he wasn’t seeing it. He knew that the only way he could see it was to be back in New York, remembering it.

So he went back to New York.

On a freezing Saturday afternoon, André Aciman left his apartment on the Upper West Side and biked to the intersection of Broadway, West End Avenue and 106th Street. It was a route he had known since his college days, when he would ride his way to and from the Bronx.

The sun tried desperately to heat up the hazy laziness of the after-lunch hours in empty Straus Park, shining weakly on the back of Mnemosyne, mother of all muses, whose bronze body lay before an inscription, “In memory of Isidor and Ida Straus / who were lost at sea in the Titanic disaster April 15, 1912 / Lovely and pleasant were they in their lives and in / Their death they were not divided.”

In memory of. Mnemosyne. The personification of Memory.

Aciman was drawn to this place. He used to walk here when he needed a break from writing his dissertation in the somber stacks of Columbia University’s Butler Library. Every day for a summer, at noon, he would come down Broadway. He did it mostly for the statue of the muse because she, like him, was doomed to be stuck in a place halfway between places, on an island in the middle of another island, in the accidental quietness among the traffic. Mnemosyne didn’t really have a home address. She lived at the intersection of four different addresses. Just like he always had. That was why, in Straus Park, he felt at home.

He grew so fond of the place that, in 2007, unaware of the restoration the park was undergoing, he panicked at the thought of its imminent demolition, believing that a part of him, imprinted in that oasis in the middle of a city, would have died with it. Aciman held tight to his affection for the park for years, to the point where his friends and family made fun of him each time he told them he was going there.

“Are you sure you’re where you are?” David Ostwald asked him.

“Not Straus Park again,” the twins said.

But it was Straus Park, again.

He secured his bike to a bench to the right of Mnemosyne. He took off his bright green helmet and sat down on the edge of the bench, elbows on knees, fingers intertwined. This time, he had gone there almost reluctantly. Then he started looking around, and he saw it again. Home.

He fixed his eyes on the intersection between West End Avenue and 107th Street but didn’t see West End and 107th. Instead, André Aciman saw townhouses, coffee shops and old lampposts along the canal. He saw Amsterdam. His gaze followed the Dutch canal south, to West End Avenue and 106th Street. And there it was, London.

He stood up impatiently. He turned around and faced the bench. Narrowing his eyes to block out the sight of the Manhattan traffic, he fixed his gaze on 106th Street as it continued east toward Central Park. His imagination traveled faster than the blink of the streetlight. The paved road of a town on the Italian Riviera lay before him. He saw the row of Mediterranean poplars, the colors of the beach ombrelloni, the pavement slowly turning into sand and then, finally, he saw the blue of the sea.

He sat back down. Suddenly, he felt Paris on his skin. It seemed that, if he followed the crisp breeze passing through the park all the way west on 106th Street, it would lead him to the bank of the Seine, flowing quietly behind Riverside Park.

Just sitting there, on that bench, trapped in a transitional place of remembrance, would make him think of all those nearly abandoned but unexplainably snug parks in Rome, where he used to rest his feet on his Saturday morning walks.

But it was just Straus Park, again.

It was just New York, the city he didn’t love – the one he preferred to others.

He thought about leaving New York.

But where would he go? Paris? Too many tourists. Rome? God, no. He laughed. New York was his home, a place where he could be everywhere – Amsterdam, London, Paris, Rome, St. Petersburg – in all of his shadow cities.

Of course, Aciman knew he was going to leave New York someday. There’s a small cemetery in Rome in the shadow of the Egyptian-style pyramid that Gaius Cestius forced his heirs to build for him in 330 days. Officially, it’s called Cimitero Acattolico, but the locals know it as cimitero degli artisti e dei poeti. The hill-like greenery is the final resting place of Percy Shelley, John Keats, William Story, Antonio Gramsci.

It will also be home to André Aciman.

Or, at least, to one part of him. The rest remains a mystery.

The Death of “Freedom”: Last Days of a Dying School

I first visited Freedom Academy High School on a dreary March day. The clouds were hanging low and there was a sprinkling of the last of winter’s snow. Despite the gray day, I felt an unusual air of excitement while ascending the stairs to Freedom’s sixth floor lunchroom. It was Spirit Week. It was Nerd Day.

Freedom Academy is in downtown Brooklyn, and inhabits the top three floors of a seven-story former industrial space that also houses a clinic serving patients with psychiatric disabilities. The entire school of about 175 students quickly filled into the eight-table lunchroom, which offers expansive views of Lower Manhattan.

In celebration of Nerd Day, the students were decked out in black rim glasses and short pants, looking not too dissimilar from some of the borough’s hipster class. Lunch was the high point of the day. During lunch, there would be a contest for best nerdwear and the taping of the school’s obligatory Harlem Shake YouTube upload.

The students were excited.

“Shanice, girl you look like a nerd,” one girl yelled excitingly as her friend walked into the cafeteria.

I initially suspected that as a stranger in this small school taking notes in the middle of the lunchroom, I was being overlooked because of all the day’s excitement. Chris, a tenth grader who commutes 45 minutes each way from East New York, later explained that strange observers are not an unusual sight at the school. Most of these visitors, Chris told me were, from the Department of Education.

Spirit Week’s timing, which had been planned back in the fall, was both fortunate and disheartening.

“We are just having fun,” Chris told me. “We don’t have to think about next year right now.”

The students were celebrating a school that had just six days prior been deemed a failure of such a magnitude that it necessitated the school being dismantled by this school year’s end. This story is a partial chronicle of Freedom’s slow demise—why it happened and how it feels to its inhabitants. A school is a community and like the death of any community, its passing has not been easy.


Originally an alternative school for some of the city’s hardest to educate, Freedom in its current form was born in 2002. Like the reform movement that advocates closing schools based on student scores on state administered standardized tests, the reform movement that opened Freedom was designed to finally close the achievement gap between black and Latino inner-city public school students and their more affluent peers.

During the second half of the 1990s, educators, school administrators, parents, community organizers and philanthropic groups all galvanized around a new idea to transform the urban school landscape in this country. The premise was simple. Large, impersonal inner-city schools were to blame for dismal academic outcomes. In response, these groups, broadly referred to as the small schools movement, advocated for large schools to be replaced by smaller schools, schools that fostered closer bonds between educators, students and parents.

These were the principles of Freedom’s founding, principles that remain ingrained in the culture of Freedom. Each student I talked to used the exact same phrase, “small school,” in defense of their school.

C, B, C, B, F, F

Data show that for many years, Freedom was doing a decent job at its tough mission of graduating low income, minority students. The school was posting above average graduation rates and from 2007 to 2010 received passing marks–C, B, C, B–on the all-important progress reports that are used in closure decisions. But these grades fell off a cliff in 2011. Since then the school has received two Fs.

In 2011, the school’s four-year graduation rate plummeted to 56 percent from 70.7 percent the previous year. That number slid further the next year to 50 percent. These numbers are DOE’s primary justification for closing Freedom. Freedom supporters counter that the school accepts any kid and often needs more than four years to get their students to graduation. They point to Freedom’s six-year graduation rates, which have continuously been above 80 percent.

Freedom students offered several explanations for the precipitous decline: a shrinking staff, the absence of any extracurricular activities, and the school taking in “problem kids.”

Jeremy Del Rio, the founder of 20/20 Vision for Schools, a non-profit group that brings resources into schools under the specter of closure, has been working with Freedom since it got its first F.

“I came to Freedom with promises that DOE would help turnaround the school by bringing in new personnel, funds and programs.” Del Rio said. “None of this has happened. These students come in two or three grade levels behind. They just need more resources.”

Students say that the only new resources at Freedom since last January is the arrival of unpaid advocates like Del Rio and Susanne Veder. Del Rio and Veder have conducted field trips, brought in Broadway actors, and started dance classes. Veder is at the school almost daily working with students and teachers to produce a blog about the students’ experiences at home and in school.

Susanne does her sweeps

Getting off the elevator on the fifth floor at Freedom, I found myself in a dim, almost prison-like, stairwell. In the stairwell, the cinderblock walls are painted gray and there is mesh fencing around the stairs to prevent falls. I walked through the double doors into Freedom, to a hallway of blinding fluorescents, inspirational posters, and bulletin boards. Susanne Veder was already there.

I first met Susanne at an Upper West Side Starbucks in early February. We talked for hours about her history working in corporate America, how she raised her two children, and her role at Freedom. Even after that four-hour chat, I had a hard time picturing exactly what Susanne did at Freedom.

Now Susanne was patrolling the hallway, though it was difficult to determine in what capacity. Not that the hallways were unattended. Freedom’s Principal Alyson Forde, a tough but graceful woman, who often pulls her hair into a tight bun, had long before assumed the difficult job of maintaining order at her school – with the assistance of four unarmed NYPD school safety agents patrolling the halls. Forde liked to handle discipline herself.

She would yell, “Gentlemen, I’m not saying this again, lets get a move on,” to two boys lingering in the hallway during lunchtime. This was not their first warning but it was their last. The young men, still trying to play it cool, picked up their pace and headed upstairs to the cafeteria.

In the hallway, Susanne spotted Duncan, a senior from Bed-Stuy, had been kicked out of class. Duncan was upset. Susanne asked him what happened and calmed him down. She asked him to escort me to the classroom where her always-changing group of students gathered to work on the various projects Susanne had taken it upon herself to launch at the school. Duncan, a lanky and mindful dresser, and I chatted as we climbed the stairs. We talked about our mutual hatred of the SATs and how he and his friends play keyboards on Sundays for their church.

Susanne overhearing our conversation chimed in, “Duncan, you’re a natural aren’t you?”

Duncan responded confidently, “We be killing it.”

“Why didn’t you play at the talent show?” Susanne then asked. “I just thought that everyone would…” Duncan trailed off.

After she spends her mornings taking it upon herself to do damage control, Susanne gathers with students in the afternoon. From this room, she runs her internship program that works with the students to create the blog, plans cultural excursions, and tutors for Regents exams.

Joining the group this day was Susanne’s son, Marshall, Marshall is a videographer and together with his friend, Carol, was working with the students on a short documentary about the end of Freedom.

Duncan was named the film’s “sound guy” and was given the “bootleg boom,” which was essentially a recorder attached to a long pole.

“You’ll get your first video credit,” Marshall told Duncan.

The plan was simple. Susanne, Marshall, and I would ask the students what Freedom meant to them and how they felt about its pending closure.

“The chemistry can be really powerful,” Susanne warned us, “but you never know what you are going to get.”

The students walked into the class in that unmistakably teenage way, appearing both confident and guarded. But their reserve soon melted away. This was still their space, and quickly we just became props in it.

Seeing Duncan’s newfound role as sound guy, the group clapped. “Duncan! I know him,” yelled Tasha from across the room.

Kevin, a 12th grader, and Kurt, an 11th grader, were two Jamaican brothers who looked as if they had planned their matching outfits before coming to school. They are charmers. Kevin walked up to one girl’s desk and asked half-jokingly, “Sontique can I sit next to you?”

The recording went on for two hours. Some of the students there were on free period, others, as the group expanded, arrived from classes from which they had been kicked out.

What did they like about Freedom?

“I came here in grade 10 and I met my best friend here,” said Angelique, a 12th grader. “I know everyone’s name here, even the freshmen.”

“The whole school knows your name within two weeks,” added Akin, an 11th grader.

“I was very antisocial at first because of my accent,” said Kevin, who has a heavier accent than his younger brother. “But I soon made friends here.”

“I’ve learned you can trust people here,” added Sandy.

Then came an exchange between Angelique and William, a Latino 11th grader, one of the school’s few non-black students.

“I’ve felt like an outsider even here,” William said. “I have struggled with depression and am very sensitive.”

“Is that why you make your masks?” Angelique asked tentatively. “Is it because of your depression?”

William smiled and said, “That’s one reason.”

In his free time, William, an aspiring artist, makes the sort of pre-Colombian folk-art masks often worn by Mexican wrestlers. The lead dancer on Nerd Day’s Harlem Shake video was wearing one of them.

The conversation turned to other problems. Sontique, a 12th grader, whose Far Rockaway home was flooded during Hurricane Sandy, was allowed time to vent about the troubles she was having with her grandmother. “She just thinks everything has to go a certain way,” she said.

Marshall then asked the students how they felt about Susanne, his mother.

“The first time she came, we were like who is this white lady? She is going to be gone in less than a month,” said Angelique. “But she really cares. She is on a level with my mother. Everything she says she will do, she does it.”

Finally, Marshall asked how they felt about Freedom’s closure.

“There are problems in every school, but they make it feel like it’s our fault,” Sandy said. She paused. “Maybe we should have worked harder.”

The tone then grew hostile and conspiratorial. Many of the students are longtime residents of Brooklyn, a borough known for its gentrification, and they suspected the invisible hand of developers were at work.

“There is nothing we could have done. They want the building,” said Angelique. “I hear they want to make it into condos, that’s why they are closing us. It’s all because of the Barclays Center.”

“They are going to put in a gym,” said Sontique. “But they never could put one in for us. You want to change this into condos, but you didn’t ever take the time to change it into a school.”

“The whole story is a farce,” added Akin, who wants to be a musician. “I really believe this was a setup. They wanted the building, so they didn’t give us anything, so that we would fail. We use to have a nurse and a Spanish teacher, now we just have the bare minimum.”

“The gym teacher has to bring his own equipment and take us to the park,” Angelique added.

“Some of these teachers try so hard,” said Sontique. The city, she went on, is “just throwing that away. They rush to close us down, but not to help us.”

A small hearing

The Department of Education held a hearing on Freedom’s closure on February 25 in Freedom’s cafeteria. It was clear from its setup that these hearings are usually contentious. Two bulky men were tasked with manning the microphone to keep speakers from going over their two-minute allotment.

Tom Bennet, a representative from the teachers union, insisted on holding his own microphone. When his request was denied he pointed at the window that overlooks Manhattan and yelled, “With this mayor none of us have a voice. The people do not have any kind of power.” Eventually people stopped using the microphone all together, opting to shout at the officials behind the table.

Behind the table sat a team of district and school level officials. David Weiner, a DOE deputy chancellor, and Karen Watts, the superintendent of Brooklyn high schools, were there to argue for closure. They shared the table with four parents on Freedom’s School Leadership Team who argued against closure and Principal Forde who remained silent throughout the meeting. There was also an empty chair. David Goldsmith, the president of the area’s parent oversight committee, refused to take part due to his opposition to all school closures.

Weiner started the meeting by arguing in favor of closure: “We must hold every school to the same standard of excellence because every child deserves it.” He went on. “We will hear some success stories tonight, and we honor those but we must think about the others, they deserve better.”

Weiner pointed to the graduation rate and the results of a parent survey that placed the school in the bottom fifth percentile of city schools in terms of how safe parents think their children are at school. However, nearly 80 percent of students and over 40 percent of the teachers surveyed reported feeling safe at Freedom, though that number plummeted last year.

Weiner then explained that current students who are not graduating this year would be offered spots at high schools in either Brooklyn or in their home borough.

But the long, combative meeting that DOE expected didn’t materialize. The meeting was over in less than 45 minutes.

Not one parent or student in the audience spoke. Instead most of the speakers were anti-closure activists there to protest all closures, not just Freedom’s. They were there to air their grievances against the whole of Mayor Bloomberg’s educational reform policies. “Why are you closing this school?” asked Mariana Russo, the Brooklyn representative on the Citywide Council for High Schools, the city’s parent oversight committee for high schools. “Aren’t we closing big schools to create small schools like this one? With funds and extra support this school will succeed.”

Some of the speakers did know Freedom well. “These kids come in two or three grade levels behind,” argued Jeremy Del Rio. “This is why you have to look at the six year graduation rate which is at 84.5 percent.” Del Rio also complained about the timing of the announcement in January, right before state tests. “Basically what they told the school community right before this big test is, ‘You’re a bunch of failures.’”

“We need to educate children,” Susanne shouted. “We cannot close schools. We cannot just throw children into 60 different schools. It does not work.”

All the while, as speakers insulted the district officials and praised Principal Forde — for her insistence on accepting any child and her hard work to get these children to graduation — Forde sat stoically.

24 schools are sentenced to death

On March 11 the Panel for Educational Policy met to vote on 24 closure proposals. There are 13 voting members of the PEP, five members each appointed by a borough president and eight mayoral appointees. The factions were clear the entire night. The eight mayoral appointees and the Staten Island borough president appointee voted in favor of all DOE’s proposals. The other four borough appointees voted against.

This meeting was largely ceremonial. No school has ever survived a PEP closure vote. But that didn’t stop the meeting from being contentious.

It was a beautiful place to make a last stand; the two-tiered Brooklyn Tech auditorium has gold plated fixtures and an endless amount of ornate molding. It was hard to believe that this public school, less than three miles from Freedom, could be so much grander.

There was a large crowd. Some were there to protest all school closures. Others were there to make last ditch efforts to save their schools. Freedom’s delegation numbered just five: Susanne, Jeremy, Principal Forde, Assistant Principal Collins, and Kathryn Russell, the parent of a 12th grader.

On at least half a dozen occasions, the crowd’s chants halted the meeting’s progress, turning a meeting with pre-determined outcomes into a seven-hour debate.

“Don’t phase ‘em out, fix ‘em up,” shouted the pack on several occasions. “They say shut down, we say fight back.”

Patrick Sullivan, the Manhattan representative on the PEP, joined the crowd in calling the nine pro-reform members, “the mayor’s puppets.”

One non-voting student member of the PEP, a high school senior whose school in the Bronx has been on and off the closure list over the years and was just a week before again pulled off the list, asked “How can you learn when you are trying to save your school.”

“These are lives,” he said. “This needs to be about the students.”

Only two closure proposals called for the schools to shutter at the end of this school year, Freedom and M.S. 45, a small East Harlem middle school. The other 22 schools would be phased out, allowing students to graduate from their current schools but then shutting them. DOE argued that Freedom and M.S. 45 served such small populations that phase-outs were not practical.

Public comment began at 9:30 p.m. Susanne spoke just before 10:00 p.m. “I know you are going to close my school,” she said. “But I implore you to keep my kids together.” After her two minutes were up, Susanne walked to the back of the auditorium, where Principal Forde was sitting to talk about next steps, she then left the auditorium and asked one of the NYPD’s school safety agents to walk her to the subway.

After three hours of public comment – the high point being when a group of unassuming elementary schoolchildren accused the panel of “sabotage” and “educational murder” – the panel began voting at 12:45 a.m.

The clerk read out the title of each of the 52 proposals, at times sounding robotic.

“The Proposed Opening and Co-location of a New Elementary School (12X314) with Existing School P.S. 050 Clara Barton (12X050) in Building X050 Beginning in 2013-2014.”

The vote never changed, eight for, four against, but each time the clerk counted the hands and announced: “Eight for, four against, the measure passes.”

Finally at 12:55 a.m., they arrived at Proposal 20: “The Proposed Closure of Freedom Academy High School (13K509) at the End of Year 2012-2013.” The measure was approved by a vote of eight to four.

Schools don’t have life expectancies. As students that fact can at times feel unbearable but eventually offers comfort. You are a part of a community that is ostensibly timeless. But a sense of community is immeasurable and didn’t prove sufficient to save Freedom.

A Post-Mortem

I returned to Freedom, just a few days after the PEP officially closed their school. Marshall, who was still filming, Susanne, and I gathered on the seventh floor and sat down with a group of students.

The conversation was brief that day and focused on what the non-graduating students were worried about.

“I’m really actually very shy,” said a freshman. “I’m really scared. I can’t do another day one [at a new school].”

“I have made at least a handful of close, close friends here. I will make new friends but it’s going to be hard,” added Briana, another freshman. “No one liked me in middle school because how I talked. They said ‘I talked white.’” But Briana does not idealize Freedom. “90 percent of the kids are like 20, they are not supposed to be in high school,” Briana said. “They would be kicked out at any other school. I get that they need to be given second chances, but this is a small school and they are really bringing down our scores and stuff.”

Just as before, the conversation turned accusatory.

“They’re not hearing our voice. They should have come and met with us and gotten our opinion,” said Kevin, the older Jamaican brother.

“They don’t care. I’m angry but I didn’t expect them to come and talk to us,” replied Akin.

“But if you don’t consult with us how do you know what’s really going on?” added Duncan. “It feels like they didn’t want us to be heard.”

What comes after Freedom?

I originally thought that the small school rhetoric was just a talking point in favor of their school. But I have come to see that these students are close, so close that they like and, more importantly, trust one another enough to do wholly uncool things like the Macarena in the middle of the lunchroom.

The students told me that they were afraid of being bullied at their new schools and of losing friends and teachers. One important question, however, did not come up: will we end up at more academically rigorous schools?

Their fate is difficult to determine. As of mid-April, the vast majority of them did not know where they would be attending school next year. Two of the students I met at Freedom told me that they only transferred to Freedom after their original schools were closed. There is no data indicating whether New York students end up at better schools after their school closes, but research done in other cities have shown that students often do not. According to a study done in Chicago, the majority of students from 44 closed schools did not find placement in better schools.

Susanne believes that the DOE will scatter “her” students across the city and as a result some will fall through the cracks and never graduate. She is looking for funding for a program that will allow her to continue to work with former Freedom students.

But in the long-run Freedom’s closure is not just about its current students; it is an attempt by the city to save future students from what it has deemed a failing school.

But this is an abstraction for those directly affected by Freedom’s closure. For them, their community is being eliminated by powerful outsiders who don’t understand their ways and don’t want to.

“It’s like the government is coming in and breaking up your family,” remarked a usually quiet freshman. “Would you want that?”