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Excerpted from a speech written by Anna Vera, a senior at a NYC Outward Bound School in Brooklyn, for our 2018 gala

My name is Anna Vera, and I am a senior at Leaders High School, an NYC Outward Bound school in Brooklyn.

Four years ago, I would have never foreseen myself in this position: graduating at the top of my class, college acceptance in hand, speaking to you tonight as a representative of my school.

Before coming to Leaders, I attended a large school as a middle schooler. It’s just me and my mom at home and, despite her emphasis on education, I just wasn’t succeeding at school. I’m very visual, so I don’t always connect with a traditional lesson right away. My teachers never took the time to get to know my style of learning or my personality. If I didn’t grasp the material easily, they made an example of me for the rest of the class. After a while, I was no longer comfortable asking for help and fell behind even further.

We were expected to be in charge of our own learning and speak up for ourselves like adults, but never taught how to. Frustrated, I became disruptive and disengaged. I didn’t feel supported at school. I lost respect for the authority teachers held, and as a consequence, I also lost respect for myself and lost sight of the very purpose of school.

In 8th grade, like most New York City students, I had to choose a high school, and I chose Leaders, even though I wasn’t that enthusiastic about it. Remember: I didn’t really like school. But, the class sizes are small enough for me to get the individual attention I need to thrive as a student. My ideas are no longer dismissed, and while they are sometimes challenged, it isn’t to embarrass me or make an example of me, it is to ensure that I am thinking deeply. Here at Leaders, I am still expected to be in charge of my own learning, but I have the tools to succeed and I’m supported in the learning process to get there.

I know I’m making this high school sound like a dream, but, to be clear, there was a transition. Through middle school, I built up a hard exterior as a defense mechanism and I carried it with me to Leaders. I was totally prepared to have to defend myself in this new school, but I was caught off guard by how open and genuine everyone was.

With the support of my teachers and classmates, I became much more confident. I liked being heard! I liked being respected! I was able to slowly shed the hard exterior I had built. Being vulnerable was absolutely terrifying, but I started to see that making myself vulnerable had a huge payoff. Being vulnerable makes it easier to ask for help, and getting help makes it easier to be successful. Because of the immense support that teachers have to give, and the encouragement of my school community, I no longer need my protective armor.

It didn’t happen overnight, but over time, I began to excel academically. And I mean REALLY excel. Did I mention that I’m valedictorian? During my freshman year, my dean Jorge Gonzalez took me aside and urged me to use my skills to help others in the classroom. At first, I felt defensive, as I was used to being fiercely competitive, and I thought, “Why should I share my ideas with others?”

Then I remembered the student I was when I was younger, lost and afraid to ask for help, wrapping myself in armor made of insecurity and anxiety. Well, we have this thing we say at Leaders: Crew, not passengers. This means that no one person is acting alone and we are all responsible for each other. I didn’t have a crew in middle school. But I have one here at Leaders, and it’s my responsibility to support them.

So, I went for it, and I became a peer mediator, peer mentor, part of a restorative justice committee, and a student organizer at my school. I even went further and became an intern at the American Museum of Natural History, contributing to an even larger community. And next fall, I will be joining a new community at college.

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