Hold Fast to Dreams traces the paths of 10 low-income students and their college counselor, Joshua Steckel, through the college application process and the four years that follow. 

Steckel, who had previously worked as director of college counseling at an Upper East Side private school, started working at the Secondary School for Research (now Park Slope Collegiate) in 2006 as its first college counselor.

It is rare that public school students have someone to help them through the details of the college admissions process. A 2012 report by the New York City Comptroller’s office noted that over half of all high school students reported receiving college guidance “never, rarely, or only sometimes.” 

Even students who receive good guidance face steep challenges, as do their counselors.

This excerpt zooms in on a fraught moment in the application process: writing the college essay. For low-income students from an under-resourced public school, Steckel knows, these essays are a crucial way to stand out as individuals and to provide context for their achievements. But he is unprepared for the complexity of asking students to write about their lives when, in many cases, they have been shaped by struggle and trauma.

Josh knew that Kennetta and her family lived close to the edge economically. That summer, Kennetta and her friend Chiquita Hamblin had approached him to ask if subway fare could be provided for travel to Let’s Get Ready, the SAT prep program at the school. The student Metrocards they received for travel to and from school only worked during the academic year. Their families had trouble coming up with the extra four dollars each day, they told him, and they knew this was the case for others as well. Josh was able to secure free Metrocards for all the students, and was grateful to Kennetta and Chiquita for their courage in making the request, helping their peers overcome an obstacle he hadn’t anticipated.

The extent of the struggles his second class of seniors faced became even clearer that fall, when Josh began working with students on their personal essays in English class. After graduation the previous spring, the twelfth-grade English teacher, Menucha Stubenhaus, had been hit by a car on Coney Island Avenue, and her leg was seriously injured. Until she was able to return to school, Josh had agreed to cover her classes together with Leah Grossman, the school’s literacy coach.

Josh and Leah began the class by introducing the personal essay and distributing examples written by seniors from the year before. Leah read the class a brief definition she and Josh had put together: “A personal essay is an essay you write about your experiences. Typically, personal essays show how a memory of the past significantly affects the present or the future. They weave together the story with the explanation for why this memory is significant in your life now. Try telling the story of an important memory and why it is important to you.”

Midway through one of the first in-class writing assignments, Kennetta put her head on her desk. Josh walked over and asked, “Why aren’t you writing?” Kennetta didn’t answer. She pushed her spiral notebook toward him. Kennetta had written, in her large, rounded handwriting,

Do you know what it’s like to live my life?

Sharing one room with three siblings, living in a two-bedroom apartment with seven people. Hearing and seeing fights, gunshots all night, yelling and screaming every day. Scared to walk anywhere by myself, not eating for a day or two because we don’t have any money, almost being homeless a couple of times. Going to school trying to keep a smile on my face so my struggles at home don’t show. Having to listen to my friends tell me about their problems and having to encourage them while yet, I’m hurting inside myself. Running to almost everyone I see just for attention to make my pain go away.

That’s my life.

Josh looked back at Kennetta, but her head was still down. He stared at her notebook again, unsure what to say. For a moment he felt removed from the noise and movement of the classroom. Kennetta’s writing pushed back against the future-focused momentum of the college process, asking him, it seemed, to stop, and to try to stand inside her experience.

Josh knew from his first year at the Secondary School for Research how wrenching his students’ essays could be. But Mike, Abby, Kennetta, and others in Josh’s second class of students told stories that revealed with even greater rawness the poverty, trauma, and instability they experienced at home. Chiquita wrote about the day, the year before, when she came home to find her mother with suitcases packed, saying, “Let’s go, C.J.! We’re leaving! Get your things.” Chiquita stopped, paralyzed. Her mother screamed and cursed at her stepfather, then went into the bathroom and attempted suicide. Chiquita described her own psychological reaction:

All that year, I was so focused on my mother, I forgot how to be a kid, I forgot about Chiquita, how the simplest things in life make me smile. Seeing my mother’s pain affected me physically. I didn’t take care of myself, and I blocked out what mattered most to me: my social life, and, most importantly, my schoolwork. I felt like I was trapped in a glass bottle, like no one could be going through what I was going through, like no one could hear me because no one could understand.

Many students resisted writing about painful memories. “Why would anyone be interested in this?” some said, or “I don’t want people feeling sorry for me.” For most students, maintaining their poise meant blocking out the images that reminded them of their vulnerability. Angelica Moore, who Josh knew as high-achieving and charismatic, active in the Senior Committee, and earning mostly A’s, described how in high school her self-possession “was all a front. I can’t even say how insecure I was.” She explained, “I was always told since I was younger not to show my weakness because people will take advantage of it. It’s better to walk around with my head high and make it seem like I have it together.”

Hold Fast to Dreams was published by The New Press in April 2014.
Hold Fast to Dreams was published by The New Press in April 2014.

Angie described how the effort to maintain her “front” in school could be debilitating. During her freshman and sophomore years, she had experienced the sudden deaths of many people she loved. “I turn my head to the left and in a blink of an eye somebody else has died,” she wrote in her personal essay.

When Josh had first seen Angie’s transcript, he was shocked to see that during her first two years of high school she had earned C’s and D’s. Trying to explain why this happened, Angie speculated that “with stuff taking place at home, and then me coming to school and trying to pretend that everything is normal and realizing it’s not—that, I guess, took a toll on me.” Angie remembered with stinging embarrassment when, during her freshman year, she broke down in uncontrollable tears in the lunchroom. “I knew that I never wanted to do that again; I didn’t want to actually break down like that.”

Among their peers in class, reading the personal essays out loud seemed to bring responses of empathy, rather than pity or shame. Janet Wu, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, described how in her first two years at the Secondary School for Research, she had only “hung out with Chinese people.” Janet had been the target of incessant bullying, and when she went home to her parents, they would reinforce her fears and stereotypes about the kids who picked on her. To comfort herself, she would mentally repeat what her parents told her, “They are not going to graduate,” or “They’ll be out in the world dealing drugs.” Janet’s circles of friendship had widened as a junior, and now, beginning her senior year, Janet was moved by the essays she heard read and by the responses to her own. She began to see the kids who used to tease her as people with complex lives, and she felt they began to understand her as well. “You could see change, after the essays,” she said. “They would stop picking on me. They started respecting me.”

Copyright © 2014 by Beth Zasloff and Joshua Seckel. This excerpt originally appeared in Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, published by The New Press, and is reprinted with permission.