Every Tuesday around 1:35 p.m., a group of 23 East Knox Local High and Middle School students collect in the library to have study hall. As of two months ago, I started joining them. I begin my class by having the students do a mind sweep, five minutes of continuous writing where the only rule is that they cannot stop.
“Can people tell that I’m a Kenyon kid?” I asked Derick Busenburg, the assistant principal at East Knox and a Kenyon graduate of the Class of 2005. “Oh, absolutely,” he laughed, leaning back in a large, squeaky chair.
Walking through East Knox, you notice many small but significant problems. The school was built and renovated in the ’30s, ’50s and ’70s, so lockers are oddly small, paint is chipping off the walls and the fluorescent lighting has a distinctly gray tint.
Because of eight failed tax levies, the school doesn’t have any money to fix these problems and has had to make numerous cuts, including: combining the middle and high school; no gym, art or music in the elementary or middle school; no Advanced Placement classes; no extracurricular activities; and 50 percent of teachers have left the district in the past year.
“Okay, time’s up,” I say. They all breathe a sigh of relief. Next, the kids get out their iPads (obtained through a technology grant) and watch a TED Talk about how appearances don’t really matter, because everyone is insecure.
We spend the next 20 minutes exploring the beauty standards that have been imposed on the students since seventh grade (their estimation, not mine).
Ashley*, a brunette who wears a lot of eyeliner, tells me her mother is morbidly obese and therefore refuses to leave the house. Matt* talks about his brother who has a “hot” girlfriend despite the fact that he is a “deadbeat asshole” who is being thrown out of the family home.
After they tire of the discussion, I tell the kids I’m working on an opinion piece about East Knox, and ask them what they want me to say about them.
“Tell Kenyon that we’re awesome,” Matt says.
And I will, because they are.
These kids have overcome difficulties I have never even dreamed of. Their resilience shows in the way they support each other, the way they support their school and how they still have big plans and bigger dreams, despite every obstacle in their way.
Later, I watch the students as they board the buses to go home. I see a little girl wearing ratty sweatpants that drag on the ground behind her, her pink backpack has a hole fixed with duct tape.
There is no real way (and certainly no politically correct way) to explain the differences that exist between Kenyon and East Knox students. It could be how we do our hair or that oaky liberal arts smell that wafts behind us everywhere we go; I say it comes down to money. Like it or not (deny it or not) money is everywhere; money is everything. Money is what we wear, what we drive, how we walk, how we eat, if we eat.
When I first found out about East Knox, I was furious that the Kenyon community could be so ignorant about the horrible situation happening just 10 minutes from campus. I rallied my friends, drank a lot of coffee and within about a month I was able to start a volunteer program which now includes roughly 200 Kenyon students.
Working at East Knox has helped me as much as (actually, definitely more than) I have helped anyone there. The students have taught me compassion, patience, how to be thankful. Nothing like a heavy dose of perspective to shake the winter blues.
Phoebe Roe ’16 is a psychology major with minors in Arabic and English. She is from Pittsburgh, Pa., and is the Collegian’s news assistant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Names of students have been changed.