Elisha Cooper spent a year tagging along with students at Walter Payton High School in Chicago, experiencing their senior year along with them. Grades, classes, sports, arts, and college applications are high on the list of most seniors, and these teens were no exception. Theirs was a typical high school in some ways, atypical in others. But these teenagers experienced the same academic challenges, emotional dilemmas and relationship woes as teens in other American secondary schools.
Cooper didn’t go for the standard cliques — the jocks, the cheerleaders, the geeks, the gangsters. Instead, he followed eight individual students through their everyday lives. Cooper’s book paints a picture of personalities against a backdrop of classes, sports, proms, sports, college applications, and more. The diversity in the eight students profiled reflects the diversity of Payton High School as a whole.
Daniel, the class president. Emily, the star athlete. Maya, the actress. Anais, the dancer. Diana, with family obligations that put enormous stress on her. Aisha, caught between two cultures. Anthony, who holds court in the cafeteria to the detriment of his classes. Zef, whose sleep disorder puts him at risk of failing. Each of these teens has his/her own strengths, weaknesses, plans, and outlook on life.
I enjoyed getting insight into each teen not just as a student, but as a unique individual. Emily, the star athlete, had a fear of failure that prevented her from scoring even though she was the best ball handler on the team. In her role as team captain, however, she guided her teammates to improve their game and led them to many victories. In a very different family, Diana found herself in tricky situations where she had to translate in court for her parents and her older brother while her other sisters sit back and refuse to help. She used this motivation to set personal goals, apply for colleges, and look for financial assistance to make her dream of attending college a reality.
Following these eight teens on their way to young adulthood was a fascinating journey. I enjoyed getting to know them and seeing high school life through their eyes. I questioned, however, why Cooper chose to write in such a choppy style, with short sentences that bordered on fragments. This style made the reading rough going at first. Even as I adjusted, I found myself wanting to revise some of the paragraphs to flow more smoothly. High school students, at least the ones that have spent time living and hanging out at my home, don’t speak in short sentences like this. Text or IM maybe, but that’s another genre altogether.
Dreams are a big part of high school. Those students with dreams and goals are more likely to succeed. I see that in the elementary school in which I teach, a diverse neighborhood not unlike that of Payton High. I wish for my students some of the same hopes and dreams and successes of these Chicago students. Fortunately, Cooper added an epilogue to let readers know what these kids were doing six months after graduation so we could follow their progress toward their dreams, too.
Mothertalk sent me a free copy of the book in order to review it. My teen, Amigo, loved the title; he hopes it will become available in audio book or in Braille so he can read it. I hope so, too; I think he’ll enjoy and identify with the stories. He might prefer a high school named Ray Nitschke or Don Hutson, though. Think about it.