Go Falcons (Franklin, That Is)
Elite public schools might not be right for everyone, but Ben Franklin was right for me.
Not a week goes by in New Orleans without someone asking me where I went to high school. It doesn’t really bother me, and I do it to other people all the time myself. Most often, it’s just an innocent conversation starter, a way to figure out how many people you know in common. Sometimes, though, it’s a little more insidious; it can serve as shorthand for “tell me your socioeconomic status without my having to actually come right out and ask you.”
Regardless of the questioner’s intent, I am always pleased and proud to answer, “Ben Franklin.” I had a fantastic high school experience, and I love meeting other alumni – we immediately start discussing which campus we attended, which teachers we might have in common, how much we have consistently sucked at football.
And if you’re trying to find out how much money my parents made, sorry. My status as a Franklin alumna tells you something about my IQ and my work ethic but nothing about how well-off my family is. I attended Franklin with kids who drove their own BMWs to school and whose families belonged to old-line Carnival krewes and kids who sometimes got to borrow the family’s 1979 Datsun and who had to run around their houses putting out buckets to catch the roof leaks every time it rained. Franklin allowed all of us, regardless of our backgrounds to that point, to get an excellent education that enabled us to thrive in college. (Not all of us did, of course, but I believe all of us were capable.)
When people hear I went to Franklin, their response is almost always, “Oh, man, you’re one of those smart kids, huh?” or “Wow, you must’ve been a huge nerd.” I don’t take offense at this. I completely self-identify as a smart kid and a nerd.
There are complaints, always always always, about how unfair Franklin is. I hear these complaints now, and I heard them when I was a student there. I graduated in 1998, in the heyday of Carl Galmon and Sandra Wheeler Hester, and I remember going to school board meetings to show my support for my high school and listening to them yell about how we were all racists. I was bewildered. I wasn’t a racist. I was just a lower-middle-class kid trying my best to get a good public education. The answer, it seemed to me, was to make the other public schools better, not to try to close down Franklin.
I remembered all of this when I saw a story in Slate last week arguing in favor of shutting down Stuyvesant in New York City – by a Stuyvesant alumnus, no less. “I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that Stuyvesant should close its doors,” Reihan Salam writes. “The same goes for elite public high schools like it across the country.
There are points to be made, of course, for closing selective public schools, but I am firmly on the side of keeping them, and my daughter does not even attend one. Morris Jeff does not require an admissions test and eagerly and effectively accommodates students with disabilities, and I love that about it. It also has a student body that looks like the city, and I love that, too.
But even if my own kid isn’t among them, I still think the city needs a school to serve high-achieving kids – because honestly, no, they can’t thrive anywhere. I was teased, bullied, and ostracized from kindergarten until I got to Franklin, where suddenly I found my community of fellow nerds. I made friends. I had a social life. I was happy. In some ways, going to Franklin actually was not beneficial to me: For example, some college scholarships are only given to students in, say, the top 5 percent of their class, regardless of how prestigious the high school may be. Not to sound like a smug jackass, but I have no doubt that I could have been in the top 5 percent of my class at practically any other public high school in New Orleans with much less effort than I expended at Franklin. But at Franklin, even working my neurotic little butt off, I was barely in the top 50 percent. Whatever cachet I gained via the Franklin name was canceled out by my lower class ranking when it came time to hand out scholarship monies. Even so, I would still attend Franklin a hundred times over because of the incredible boost of self-esteem and sense of belonging I got from attending, the study skills I learned, the lifelong friends I made. I learned how to work hard at Franklin, but probably even more important, I learned how to have fun.
Ruby is a smart kid and a hard worker, but I don’t know that I see Franklin in her future. She is much more well-rounded than I was – she likes to read and swim and put on fashion shows with her Barbies and have sleepovers; I really just liked to read. Her current friends are not all adults, the way mine were at her age; she is more comfortable at a pool party than an art opening whereas I was the exact opposite.
Of course I would be happy for her to attend my alma mater, but I would also be happy for her to find a high school that would allow her the freedom to do a lot of extracurricular activities, hold down an after-school job, play sports, and still make decent grades. I want her high school reality to be whatever happiness looks like for her.
But whether she attends Franklin or not, I still want it to be an option. And I hope that in another 20 years, when people hear I went to Franklin, their response will still be, “Wow, you must’ve been a huge nerd” and not, “Oh, that used to be a really good school.”