A lesson in empathy: Freire charter students ‘Take Back the City’

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     Spruce Street Harbor Park, the summer pop-up park at Penn's Landing, has been extended through September 28. (Photo courtesy of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation)

    Spruce Street Harbor Park, the summer pop-up park at Penn's Landing, has been extended through September 28. (Photo courtesy of the Delaware River Waterfront Corporation)

    In the stained-glass light of a Center City Philadelphia church, students, faculty members, and even neighbors came together to share stories in the name of empathic understanding.

    Discussions surrounding Philadelphia public schools often get bogged down in the seemingly neverending back-and-forth over funding and the hyper-focus on things that are easy to measure, such as standardized-test scores.

    But for the 200,000-plus students attending public school in the city, these issues often take a back seat to the heartache and stress that many wrestle with in their personal lives.

    In order to give students the forum to grow as a community of listeners, one public high school recently took a two-day break from curriculum to focus on a simple, yet powerful, prompt:

    “If you really knew me, this is what you’d know.”

    That was the impetus of Freire Charter School’s recent Take Back the City event.

    After brainstorming on day one, day two found students inclined to an unbelievable sense of bravery, volunteering to stand before hundreds of their peers and share some of the most intimate, emotionally wrenching details of their inner lives.

    Freire, located on Chestnut Street in Center City, doesn’t have an auditorium big enough to hold its entire student body, so the event was set at the First Unitarian Church, a block up the street.

    In the church’s stained-glass light, students, faculty members, and even neighbors came together to share story after personal story in the name of empathic understanding.

    Some were simply too raw and traumatic to reproduce. Even for the segments we play in the above audio and video, we have agreed not to reveal students’ names.

    One 10th grader from West Philly woke up one morning to find her mother — who she says was a drug dealer — strangled to death by her boyfriend.

    An 11th grader from Cobbs Creek revealed to the school that her diagnosis of lupus gives her a life-expenctancy of just 30 years.

    From Olney, one 10th grader said he’s glad to have many good friends — and an especially strong relationship with his grandmother — but the darkness of depression, he says, pushes him to contemplate suicide.

    An 11th grader from Nicetown voiced the major theme of the day: You have no idea what life is like for someone simply by judging how they appear on the outside.

    “Just because I come in jolly, and I’m happy and I walk in heels and I strut, doesn’t mean I live a happy life,” she said. “And I try to stay strong, but sometimes it’s hard, and people don’t understand that, when you say things, sometimes it hurts.”

    Dave Shahriari, the Friere administrator who organized the event, says there’s a metamorphosis in school culture after such a cathartic sharing and listening experience. Still, he can hardly even believe that the event happens at all.

    “I don’t know how a kid that’s been through something like that and is that vulnerable has the guts to get up in front of 400, 500 people and share that,” Shahriari said. “I really don’t know. But I do know, at that age, there’s no way you could get me to go up there.

    “I mean I had two loving parents and never wanted for anything, and a stable home environment, and I barely made it out alright,” he said. “So it’s just shocking that kids can come from an environment like that and really still achieve at such a high level.”

    To listen to the radio story as heard on WHYY-FM, please click the yellow speaker button above.

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