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The Tale of Two Schools - NYTimes.com


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Radical empathy is a great concept:

University Heights High School is on St. Anns Avenue in the South Bronx, which is part of the poorest congressional district in America, according to the Census Bureau. Six miles away is the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, with its arched stone entrance and celebrities’ children and $43,000-a-year tuition. Eight years ago, as part of a program called Classroom Connections, students from the schools began exchanging letters, which eventually led to a small group from University Heights visiting Fieldston for a day. “At the time in our school, these were tough street kids,” said Lisa Greenbaum, who has been teaching English literature at University Heights for 10 years. “They walked into Fieldston, and they were just overwhelmed. They couldn’t imagine that this was just minutes from where they lived, and they never even knew about it. One kid ran crying off campus. It made them so disheartened about their own circumstances.”

Over the next eight years, the two schools maintained their connection, groups of students meeting intermittently to talk about race relations, say, or gun violence, or to take a combined field trip to work on a community-garden project in Van Cortlandt Park. They most recently got together in early April to participate in an exercise in “radical empathy,” as it’s called by the group Narrative 4, which facilitates story exchanges between groups from all over the world.

Under the supervision of Narrative 4, the students paired off, one from each school, and shared stories that in some way defined them. When they gathered as a group a few hours later, each student was responsible for telling the other’s story, taking on the persona of his or her partner and telling the story in the first person (“shattering stereotypes by walking in each other’s shoes,” as one of the Narrative 4 facilitators put it).

It was a fairly remarkable thing to watch, the care each student took with the story that had been entrusted to her or him. David Fishman told the story of Angie Ramirez, whose father had died and whose mother had been sick. “I’m afraid of her going away,” David-as-Angie said. (“I shared a story about my Outward Bound trip last year,” David later wrote to me, as a way of talking about his awareness of the different kinds of strain in their lives, “and how I had to overcome peer pressure and stand up for what I believed in. My partner talked about her father’s death and an illness her mother had. She expressed fears about having to take care of her little siblings if her mother died.”)

The rest of the students’ stories ranged from the lighthearted (the first time I got drunk; my love of bowling) to the profound — stories of temporary homelessness and family suicides, of academic pressure and shame about being poor, of the struggle to help a mother overcome her troubles and find the physical and spiritual strength to turn her life around. That last story, which belongs to Johnny Rivera, was told to the group by Adam Ettelbrick. When it came time for Johnny to tell Adam’s story, about a first date that ended in the rain in Central Park — dancing, kissing, young love — he sold it completely. “It was so important to him,” Johnny said afterward. “And now it was kind of my story, too. So it was really important to me to get it right.” JOEL LOVELL

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