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Caleb Carman, an 11th-grader at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York.
Caleb Carman, an 11th-grader at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School in New York. Credit: Magdalena Slapik for The Hechinger Report

How would you describe your school?

My school has a reputation, by being cast in a movie called “Fame,” of being a sort of an attempt to try and drive the arts forward. That’s how it was conceived. It was meant to be a school that was both very good academically and that supported the arts. That’s why I wanted to go there. When I was in elementary school and in middle school, I always knew that I wanted to be a composer. I also play the piano, and I’m very interested in music history, theory and composition.

What can your school do better? 

Trying to run a school that actually successfully has top-notch academic education alongside a support of people’s artistic integrities and sort of nurturing their capabilities — that’s not easy. I don’t even think it’s possible with the kind of budget that the city gives LaGuardia, because it doesn’t really show. I mean, the academics, I think, are good, and they’ve gotten better. It’s clearly got more of a focus on academics than it does on the arts. For instrumental music, there is almost nothing. No resources.

I don’t have a piano class. After the first year of piano classes, I didn’t want to take it anymore. I mean, there were problems with it. We didn’t actually play real pianos. We played electric keyboards, and we were asked to bring our own headphones. It was just not a very helpful experience, partially because of the resources and the time. You don’t really get that much attention.

How would you describe the students at your school?

I haven’t seen any violence or bullying. The students are very, very nice. I think they’re just tired, that’s all. I think the atmosphere is sort of that people are tired and overworked and just lugging to different classes and just want to sleep in yoga. (It’s another option for PE class.) People in chorus are singing sometimes in the stairwell. But it’s not like “Fame.” I guess, the idea in “Fame” is that how people behave embodies who they are, and in LaGuardia, it doesn’t feel like that. When people are practicing singing in the hallways, it feels like an assignment or almost like they’re trying to memorize something for a test.

Many people who go to LaGuardia don’t have a lunch period. You need a signature from a parent to actually skip your lunch period, but people do that in order to fill up time with classes. I think that’s insane. I kept my lunch period. I mean, it’s a lifestyle where you’re sabotaging yourself with more work.  That’s kind of the mentality at maybe any school. It’s just work, work, work. Take these classes, take these classes. Take more tests, more tests. It’s just racing to the top instead of racing outward into the horizon.

What is the role school and teachers should play in students’ lives?

The role of education and the role of teachers is to empower students not just to do what they want, but to make mistakes. The more often you make mistakes, the more likely you will be to do something important. Messing up is something that we have to foster. Because, that’s how expressing yourself works — it’s when you get the chance to be wrong and to, you know, just sort of have a go at random things.

That’s the problem with our education system now, that mistakes are the worst things you can make. The reason that that’s bad is because it encourages students — when they take a test or when they study for something or when they do projects — to be dead inside. To sort of be sterilized. And music and the arts are about being fully alive, and about just being completely in the moment, where all your senses are enlivened and working. That’s the kind of experience that school should foster and harness and be focused on. Not in trying to get everyone to line up and just sort of follow the rules and take orders. That kind of environment is really destructive.

What do you hope to do after you graduate from high school?

It’s always been about balancing what I want to do with music and also academics. Stony Brook looks pretty good. Also Oberlin. Maybe Brown. I don’t know very much about all of these colleges. They’re all kind of just colleges. It’s sort of like applying to high schools. I feel disillusioned after applying to high schools. I already applied to a school that seemed like a good place. Now, it’s not what I expected.

Caleb Carman was interviewed on 5/21/16. Student interviews were carried out during the 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years. Posted grade levels are the grade the students were in when they were interviewed.  

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  1. My Daughter is a senior and each year the push to be more academic has infringed on the arts. Students and parents have noted. People are admitted to the school more on their grades than talent and there has been part of a massive effort by alumni to have this rectified. My daughter tells me it changes the quality of the artistic work produced because of the attitude of the students who may not be the tops talent wise. The academics are very good but in general there is too much homework for kids who spend a lot of time prepping for concerts, performances and art shows. The principal won’t let the show choir sing holiday tunes in the hallways on December 23rd as tradition has dictated because work needs to go on and that really is a shame! That changes the spirit and character of the school also…hence the feeling of being at any other school. There have been other skirmishes with the Principal for pushing too much of the academics and not enough of the arts which makes this school special.

  2. I was glad to read this insightful interview with Caleb… While there are certainly a variety of highlights, it was also saddening to me to hear about a number of his experiences and the way in which the school doesn’t seem to be structured to create the opportunity for educators and students to get to know each other deeply. It seems that only through relationships can you get to know how best to personalize learning experiences for each and every young person.

    I wanted to share another student’s story that is one of the most deep and profound, touching and grounding, real and inspiring, that I have heard in a long time. See this just released video of Big Picture Learning’s Met High School in Providence, RI student Taliq Tilman speaking a few weeks ago at BIF:

    I feel that Taliq’s voice and story is strong and needs no further explanation nor commentary from me. That said, I would love the opportunity to connect to discuss and hear what resonated, what questions, what inspiration…

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