“People look at you as if they know you but they don’t know you, they just think they do,” said the 17-year-old Castlemont High School student.
She had moved to Oakland five months earlier but had decided against trying to make friends at her new school. Given all the labels kids put on each other, it seemed too risky.
For youth at Castlemont, a high school in an East Oakland neighborhood where gun shots ring out daily and poverty is endemic, establishing identity comes with very high stakes: Who you look like and who others think you are could mean the difference between safety and considerable danger, between freedom to study or inexorable pressure to follow a path strewn with obstacles to graduation.
“There is always this dance, that is particularly acute in East Oakland and at Castlemont, where you have to make yourself safe on the street,” said Nonie Reyes, a guidance counselor at Castlemont. “That poses the possibility of being put in a box, like becoming a gang member, but what you really want to do is go to college.”
Castlemont High School lies at MacArthur Avenue and 86th Avenue, about half a mile from what the Oakland Police Department’s crime data system identifies as the City’s most concentrated area of violent crime.
In the four months of the fall semester, the area within a one-mile radius of Castlemont had 537 crimes, including 134 assaults, 26 of which were with firearms, according to the CrimeMapping database for the City of Oakland. The wider East Oakland police district, which stretches seven square miles from the Oakland Zoo in the east to Oakland International Airport on the west, accounted for half of Oakland’s homicides in 2013.
“I think finding identity in general, especially at the high school level, is hard,” said Castlemont teacher Timothy Bremner, a favorite with many students. “The difference at Castlemont is that it is embedded with all of the other challenges students face growing up in East Oakland. For example normal teen relationship drama can result in gunfire and death.”
It’s a neighborhood of turf warfare among gangs, of pervasive poverty and high unemployment, with a sizable number of undocumented immigrants living in fear of deportation. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 30 percent of children under age 18 in this zip code live in poverty. Because of need, Castlemont provides breakfast, lunch and dinner to a significant number of students.
In many ways, Castlemont High School is a refuge from the street violence and chaos, its veritable castle walls providing calm and order and a place to learn.
At only 641 students, Castlemont is a small community where teachers and students know each other and have an easygoing familiarity.
“There is a unique bond that exists between teachers and students here. It is profound. And more than is found at other schools,” said Principal Blye, who came to Castlemont in September.
This bond was evident when student Terra Pugh stopped by a teacher’s room spontaneously one afternoon after school, asked her a question, and a 20-minute conversation ensued. When student Leonardo Morales asked his government teacher if he could interview him, the teacher stopped what he was doing and gave Leonardo his uninterrupted attention for 40 minutes, not only answering his questions but also encouraging him to start a club.
Students say they feel safe at school, and a survey done by the site council indicates that a majority of students do.
“People think of Castlemont as dangerous, but it is more the people on the outside,” said Kourtney, another student.
Students come into Castlemont literally having dodged bullets. Young women sometimes arrive at school having fended off sex traffickers, according to administrators.
One Tuesday in November, gunshots burst through the air on MacArthur Boulevard near just south of the school entrance and just moments after school let out. Students ran every which way for refuge, including back into the school. A lockdown ensued; after-school clubs tried to continue, but a hushed gloominess hung in the air as Castlemont students and teachers consoled each other with the good news that no one was hurt.
The outside purveyors of danger are often gang members trying to recruit from within or pimps trying to build their businesses by luring new youth to peddle their bodies.
The constant need to be wary shapes you, students say.
“It is more dangerous here, so people think they should be more hardcore here,” said Jessyca, who recently transferred to Castlemont and its neighborhood from a school in a more affluent part of Oakland. “People judge each other more here.”
Students most often define themselves and their peer groups along racial lines. For some students, that provides safety. For instance, students who recently moved to this country and are confronting language barriers and new cultural practices often are drawn to students who speak their language. Likewise, those who have been here a while feel the need to protect newcomers.
“I translate for my friend in classes where the teacher doesn’t speak Spanish,” Jacibe explains. “She is new to this country.” Jacibe said Spanish-speaking students should have more support and recognition from the school. But absent that, she is among students who are going to provide it.
A look down the hallway or at the student congregations after school lets out offer evidence of how important race is to claiming identity. Latino students at Castlemont hang out with other Latinos and Latinas, African-Americans with other African-Americans. Students confirm these observations to be true. Those who speak Tonga or Vietnamese or Filipino hang out with students who speak the same language. Race even defines what sports you play.
“If you are African-American you play basketball or football and if you are Latino you play soccer,” explained Jorge about how it works at Castlemont. “It shouldn’t be that way. It is not that way in professional sports. Everyone plays everything.”
Yet those divisions are so true that Jimmie Ward, a tall African-American senior, became famous around school during November when he announced he was going to try out for the soccer team.
“I am going to play goalie,” he said, adding with a mischievous smile that he aims to break the stereotypes in school sports, as if doing so would be some kind of subversive activity. As tryouts began, his teammates asked why he was there. “They said ‘why are you here since you’re not Latino?’” Ward said. “I said ‘because I’m an ally.’”
Welcome words, teachers and students listening said. But too rare.
As Principal Blye describes it, the potential for a brawl often simmers right below the surface of an argument because of the groupings and gang membership.
“I have a posse and you have a posse. Someone says the wrong thing and a minor issue gets big very fast. People get riled up and it’s leading to potential violence in no time,” Blye said.
Blye said he and other staff members rush to diffuse such moments with restorative justice methods, asking students on each side of an argument to sit and talk with each other and listen to each other’s point of view while he or another staff member mediates.
One student who did not want his name published for safety reasons said it is common to be in a class with a member of a rival gang. You pretend to be listening to the teacher, he said, but all the while you are keeping an eye on that rival and it’s hard to concentrate.
Students here live with other challenges that also are beyond what young people should have to face. Some fear that their parents will be deported, Reyes said, some have siblings who are incarcerated and have brushed with the juvenile justice system themselves. Some students are foster kids while some others have many brothers and sisters and sometimes have to miss school to take care of younger siblings. Any of these challenges can hinder prospering at school.
Teachers try to help, Bremner said, by lending an ear, connecting students with helpful agencies, giving advice and support. Numerous community organizations, such as Youth UpRising, which partnered with Oakland Local to conduct the Education Voices journalism workshop at Castlemont, and Youth Together, have set up after-school clubs and services at Castlemont to help kids learn about new possibilities for their lives.
Some do break through. With the help of teachers, a group of girls enrolled in a computer programming camp offered at Stanford University. Now, several of them intend to pursue computer science. Four Castlemont students won a computer programming hackathon contest in Oakland in November for creating an app that makes it easy for people to report disturbances or crime in a neighborhood. A revived debate team has led students to visit other parts of the state and interested them in politics and law, teachers said.
“Challenges are economic for a lot of our young people. Not having opportunities to be exposed to different things, they don’t know what they don’t know,” Reyes, the guidance counselor, said. “On the flip side, Castlemont has an awesome array of service providers and staff that are collaborating to try to address the issues.”
Students see and experience crime, violence, poverty and racism, but they are learning that these forces do not always have to win.
“It takes a lot of support, insight and wisdom for young people to get a handle on what are systemic forces in society,” Reyes said.
This story and the entire “Education Voices: Youth seek identity” series resulted from an Oakland Local collaboration with Youth Uprising and Castlemont High School that was funded by The California Endowment. Oakland Local staff members Irene Florez, Barbara Grady and Jon Leckie and Youth Uprising multimedia coordinator Shaka Redmond trained students in journalism skills and helped them produce stories. The above story was written by Barbara Grady. Please return for more stories in the series all through this week. Our sincere thanks to Castlemont English teacher Marguerite Sheffer for her warm welcome and cooperation, Youth Uprising for their partnership and to the California Endowment for making the entire project possible.