Berkeley High is both a microcosm of, and a model for, America. It is through this one simple sentence that Meredith Maran explains the premise of her book “Class Dismissed: A Year in the Life of an American High School, a Glimpse into the Heart of a Nation,” recently released by St. Martin’s Press.
All Berkeley citizens know that Berkeley High has amazing qualities. It sends more students to UC Berkeley than almost any high school in the country, its students are among the most politically active of any their age, there is a nationally recognized jazz ensemble, its newspaper has been named the best high school paper in the country, and the list doesn’t stop there.
However, everyone also knows that Berkeley High has its share of deep-rooted financial, social, and cultural problems. The achievement gap is more apparent than ever; roughly one-third of African-American students either fail out or drop out. The administration is ever changing – BHS now has its third principal in the last four years. The school boasts a superior high school college counselor, yet doesn’t have a reading specialist on campus even at a time when an estimated one in five students read below grade level.
Class Dismissed took on the task of addressing the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The book is based on the lives of three seniors: Jordan Etra, Autumn Morris, and Keith Stephens. Maran shadowed these three students through their daily routines for one entire school year. And although the focus is on the individuals, the clear protagonist throughout the pages is Berkeley High itself.
“I think there are two different philosophies (about Berkeley High),” Maran said during a reading of her book Thursday evening at Cody’s Bookstore on Telegraph Ave.
“The first is ‘Life is just a bowl of cherries.’ Berkeley High has so many good things about it that it is easy to ignore the bad. But oftentimes people get caught up in the ‘Everything is going wrong and BHS sucks’ view. The point of the book is that you can’t separate one from the other.”
Roughly 200 people were on hand at Cody’s to hear Maran read from her book, which soared to number seven on The Chronicle’s Bay Area bestseller list after only five days in stores. They came from every area of Berkeley life, from the BHS teachers and students to UC professors to curious citizens who do not affiliate with the school at all, yet are interested to understand what really goes on behind those chain link fences.
Berkeley senior Niles X’ian Lichtenstein opened the evening with a poem that Cody’s owner Andy Ross described as “the most eloquent and accurate description of Berkeley High that I have ever heard.”
“(BHS) is like a TV evangelist- reborn every year,” Lichtenstein pronounced, drawing laughter and cheers from the audience. “Some find elevation, others are tucked into shadows (…) We’re not just building a school; we’re creating a culture.”
BHS English teacher and newspaper adviser Rick Ayers introduced Maran with a poignant speech reflecting on his years of teaching. “In this profession you see a dozen miracles a day and a dozen tragedies a day,” Ayers said. “But we’ve never had a witness. Last year, Meredith was our witness.”
Maran took the stage to applause and supportive cheers from the BHS students and staff who got to know her last year. “I wrote this book so that people can first see the problems that exist and then begin to solve them,” she said. “Just as Berkeley High led the nation as the first school district to voluntarily desegregate in 1968, the school now has the opportunity to serve as a model for public schools and for the country in taking steps to solve these problems.”
The book excerpts Maran chose to read displayed the variety of experiences she had while at BHS. One of the first stories was from the chapter based on October 1999, focusing primarily on Keith Stephens, a stereotypical academically-troubled, athletically-talented African-American student.
Keith sat in the front row of the audience laughing with friends as he remembered getting ready for senior pictures last fall. He fell silent, however, as Maran read her account of Keith and some friends being beat up by the police as they shot dice in an alley.
“The cops throw (Keith) to the ground face down, hog-tie his ankles and start kicking him in the back,” Maran wrote. “Not just two cops now, but a bunch of them, all of them white (…) They wrestle him into a body bag. A cop holds Keith’s mouth open, pulls out his gold teeth.”
The passage brought understanding nods from the Berkeley High students at Cody’s. They know the story; they’ve heard these stories of students being beat up by police officers over and over. Some of the older adults in the room, however, murmured with concern.
“That doesn’t happen in Berkeley, does it?” one woman whispered.
“They should be shocked,” Keith said afterwards. “These people don’t get it that this shit is happening every day!”
The readings were broken up by a series of poems by Berkeley High students and alumni. BHS graduate Cassandra Tesch gave a particularly touching reflection of dealing with daily life. “I’m supposed to be grown now, at 17,” she explained to the crowd.
Both Keith and Autumn spoke for a short time about their reactions to the book during Maran’s question period. The third student, Jordan Etra, is at college at UC Santa Cruz, and couldn’t come to the reading because of this week’s midterms.
“It’s hard to look at yourself through an outsider’s point of view,” Autumn said. “It’s weird to see everything that I did, and everything that I didn’t do, from somebody else’s perspective.”
The celebration continued with book signing, and Cody’s copies quickly sold out. People milled around, some lining up to talk to Keith and Autumn, while Berkeley students and teachers clustered in groups.
“This is my wildest dream come true,” Maran said about the reading. “I’m completely stunned by the interest in the community and the hunger around Berkeley High to feel good about what they have.”
Megan Greenwell is a junior at Berkeley High School and writes for the student newspaper, the Berkeley High School Jacket.