Yacine Fall

What happened in 5 miles that determined who got to graduate, who went to college, who got to explore their talents, who learned to question?
Yacine is a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan. She's headed to Smith College in the fall.

Yacine is a senior at Beacon High School in Manhattan. She's headed to Smith College in the fall.

To Whom it Should Concern:

I live in the center of Harlem where I attended middle school, but now I go to an elite public high school in midtown. Two different worlds. Only 5 miles apart.

At my high school 93% of students graduate college ready. At my zoned school in Harlem? 7%. I was one of few students in my middle school to go through the entire high catalogue to find a high school outside of my neighborhood with more resources. I didn’t realize that an A in Harlem was not the same as an A in a majority white high school on the upper west side. I had to go through this process on my own as a low income child of immigrants who did not understand the American education system. At age 13, I had to create my own definition of a good high school, not knowing that the high school I attended would largely impact my future college and career.

In my school, I have the privilege of walking through unlocked doors.

Security guards sit in a corner, smiling, wishing us good morning.

Vast hallways, white walls, high ceilings, bright lights.

My own textbooks that I can bring home if I need to.

Multiple recording studios.

Professional 600 dollar cameras that I can rent for a day. 

A psychiatrist is offered.

Vegans are accommodated.

Teachers do not have to teach to a test and have flexibility in creating their own lessons, where group discussions about current events are far more common than multiple choice exams.

I go to a school where the majority of students are white, and I wonder how I made it there despite living in a neighborhood where opportunity is slight. Where teachers only stay in schools for 2 years before deciding they’ve had enough. Where poverty is high and expectations are low, and I cannot help but think, what made it this way? What happened in 5 miles that determined who got to graduate, who went to college, who got to explore their talents, who learned to question?

To whom it should concern, there’s a plague of poverty in my neighborhood that eats at our schools. To whom it should concern there are two different worlds only five miles apart. Please tell me what happened. 

P.S. I’ve always been told that I had to work two times as hard. I put in extra work and hours into academics and studying so I would not end up at my local high school where I would be cast away as a statistic. I worked through the system to find ways to open up doors for myself; going through ancient books to find the rules to a foreign game.

I was a black girl who was the daughter of immigrants with education the only hope of redefining her life. But it seemed like the bar was always set out of reach for people like me and most of our time was spent elevating ourselves to reach the bar instead of figuring out how to surpass it. It was remarkable that I “beat the odds” and thought I’d find greener grass, but instead I was introduced to an elite education system that had no space for me.

I walked into a school where my black and brown peers struggled to stay afloat and were barely passing their classes. I came into a school where we were made to leave our identities and struggles out of the classroom. My elite school thought diversity ended when you put black and white students together and did not create a space for us to learn from those identities. No one told me about the rooms and spaces I would need to create for myself in order to survive. I remember a teacher saying he wouldn’t learn to say the correct pronunciation of my name and another one going as far to calling me an “illegal refugee” within school walls.

The system tells us that getting into elite institutions is the goal to have a better education, but they do not know how to incorporate black and brown identities into their classrooms. I wonder why the more elite opportunities I can attain the more I feel I have to leave parts of me behind.

I am useful beyond numbers, so I ask: when will you be able to find talented black and brown students, and love us, too?