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This commentary originally aired on WAMU, American University Radio in Washington, D.C.
By Nicholas Eckenwiler, Latin American Youth Center (LAYC)
Being a public school student in Washington, D.C. is like learning to play soccer on a field of dirt and pebbles, just as some of the game’s best players have done. Let me explain.
My entire education has been in public schools, from Kindergarten to 12th grade. Friends who attend private school say this puts me at a disadvantage. They mention inferior teachers, second-rate facilities and disorderly and violent classrooms. But today, as I graduate and head to college, all I can see looking back on my public school experience is one unique opportunity after another.
Take for example this year’s AP Physics class. I was in Physics “C”. But I sat in the same classroom as the Physics “B” students, because our school only had one teacher to teach both classes… simultaneously. Of course that made it really hard to get help learning the material. But instead of complaining, I took the class as a challenge to teach myself concepts like torque and angular momentum. My classmates and I worked together to solve the problems ourselves. And in the end we had a strong grasp of the material… and good grades, too.
Because it may be easier to fail when you’re in a public high school, you quickly learn to work harder. That’s a life lesson.
Another lesson is how to thrive by working with everyone around you. Public schools are filled with all kinds of people, not only in terms of race, but also social class. I’ve learned to be comfortable with almost any kind of person -- a definite advantage in today’s world. The different perspectives public school kids bring to the table have also broadened my own worldview.
Now let’s go back to the soccer analogy – one I’ve used before to defend public schools against my private school friends. I tell them a soccer player becomes a star if he can play with any teammate. Even if they have different styles of playing. The Brazilian star Ronaldo, for example, has played for Barcelona, Real Madrid, and AC Milan. And he has adapted successfully to the style of each team.
I bet when he looks back at how he got to be one of the best players in the world, he remembers the dirt field where he first learned to play the game. And I bet he thinks of that tough experience as an advantage. Players who learned the game on manicured pitches can often only play their best under perfect conditions.
Ronaldo learned to play under the hardest of circumstances. Just like I learned I could get a good education in a D.C. public school…if I was willing to do the work, put in the hours and take responsibility for myself.
Nicholas Eckenwiler will receive his diploma today from Washington, D.C.'s Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, where he took a radio class taught by Tennessee Watson of the Latin American Youth Center. In the Fall, Nick will attend Yale University.