Just as Socrates defended his very beliefs when accused of betraying the city-state of Athens in 399 B.C., a dozen Boston high school seniors are now putting their own souls to the test to answer doubts leveled against them by society - and themselves.
By Ric Kahn, Globe Staff | February 10, 2008
Alienation. Rejection. Fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being alone.
Oh how teenage angst can cling silently to a young person's mental memory card.
At one Boston high school, students don't let those feelings lie there and poison their psyches. They stare them down. In public. At a podium. Before a crowd of people. Or they do not graduate.
While pupils elsewhere are focused on mastering the dull facts and equations of standardized tests, seniors at Dorchester's Codman Academy Charter Public School also must stand and deliver a public accounting of the sum of their own parts: Who they are, and how they got there.
As chronicled in their speeches, some of last year's seniors had to face their futures after confronting these circumstances: a father killed by heroin; a brother shot in the neighborhood; a native African nation seared by war.
"Our kids know themselves," says Meg Campbell, executive director of Codman. "They're incredibly resilient and bring a depth and richness that outshines many of their suburban counterparts who have been so sheltered."
A fortnight ago came the first of this year's senior talks, known as an apologia, a Socratic exercise defending one's beliefs or actions.
In ancient Greece, the philosopher and teacher Socrates was accused of refusing to recognize the standard gods of the state, and of corrupting youth by encouraging them to question conventional wisdom and to practice atheism.
More than just offering a narrow piece-by-piece self-defense, Socrates also put forth an overarching defense of self, as related by his most famous student, Plato, in a classic work called "Apology."
Through the apologias they're giving every Tuesday afternoon until mid-May, before friends and family in the historic Great Hall in Codman Square, these high school seniors are passionately defending themselves against doubts leveled by society - and doubts they carry within.
In the spirit of the Socratic creed they learn in humanities class - "The unexamined life is not worth living" - a dozen seniors in the coming months will complete this rite of passage by turning themselves inside out for all to see.
"It's a way for them to sum up their life so far, to claim ownership of it before moving on to the next part of their life," says Lisa Graustein, Codman's 12th grade humanities teacher.
Katherine Bonilla, 17, kicked off this year's senior talks on Jan. 29, her ascent to the rostrum aided by two classmates who also live in Dorchester.
Before the oration, one of them, Sandra Michaud, helped soothe Bonilla's nerves by gently rubbing her back.
Michaud knows it will be her turn in May. That's when she will tell her tale of how she came to be a high-school senior at 21, including a chapter, she says, about a father who suddenly reappeared in her life many years after she thought he was dead.
Also sitting in the front row, Tonya Brown, 18, bid Bonilla best wishes in Spanish. Brown will be up in March and plans to use a musical riff to present her own offbeat story: Just because she was raised in a two-parent home doesn't mean there weren't hard times, she says, such as utility troubles that caused her to bathe for a time in boiled sink water.
Bonilla took deep breaths as she encountered a packed house of more than 140.
But the heaving couldn't halt her tears as she read a 17-minute open letter to her parents, called "Ignorance and Hope."
With an attitude that shifted between vulnerability and defiance, Bonilla thanked her mother for always being there, while calling out her father for abandoning her on the altar of adolescence.
In an interview about her talk, Bonilla says she remembers a time when her father was there to protect her, when she was only 2 and he saved her from getting too close to a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
As she said to the gathering:
It looked like it was shivering from the cold
I wanted to warm it up/Like when you warmed me up during the wintertime
She recalls, too, how her Papi fixed his stare tightly upon her, as if he would lose her if he let his eyes wander off.
I can feel his big, round, coffee eyes gazing at me
I was his little girl for those cold winters
But then his focus starts to drift.
I am 10 and my family is falling apart/Papi is drinking and smoking constantly
His love is something he doesn't give anymore/But I give it to him
In three years, he is gone for good.
I haven't seen my father for a long time/It tore me apart when you left
She blames her father.
He left me/He stopped loving me/Why did you?
She blames herself.
Was it something I did?
She rebels. She is a no-show at school, playing hooky at the beach or the mall. She is a brat at home.
I woke up angry every morning/I fell asleep angry at night/I hated everyone
She fights with her mom.
I tend to hate even the one that I most adored/I would scream at my mother for telling me to behave.
She knows that a girl needs her daddy. To take her to the movies, she says. To ask his opinion of a boy she likes. To visit her in the hospital, where she mended for nearly a week after a pickup truck barreled into her and her friends as they walked to West Roxbury High, her former school.
I was angry he left me, but I was mostly hurt
Though they battle, she is thankful her mother does not lose faith.
Everyone gave up/Except for you
At church one Sunday, she says, the pastor picked her out of the crowd. He told her he knew what she was feeling. Through the tears of a teen on the cusp of 15, she found God. As the weight of her anger dissipated, she sensed her inner strength gathering. She says she forgave her father and now dwells on their good memories: like being inside those bear hugs he threw around her before he'd go to work, as a chef.
Even though my father couldn't see me grow up/I thank him/For teaching at an early age that everyone deserves to be loved
She understands her mother's worry that she'd backslide to her bad ways. Still, she chafes under her mom's old-fashioned strictures: Always checking up on where she is, who she's with.
I'm sorry but now is time to/Set my soul free
After all, she's been sticking to her studies since she transferred to Codman. She is hoping to attend a brainery like Mount Holyoke or Holy Cross. That would keep the school's record intact: Officials there say every senior has been accepted to college since Codman opened in 2001. She wants to major in international business management on her way to owning a five-star resort hotel.
Life helped me see that I can/Become who I want to be
After giving the performance of her life, Bonilla was greeted by a standing ovation. Many dabbed away tears as they clapped. Then she walked through a receiving line of hugs: From teachers and classmates and family. Her mother. Her uncle. Her two little sisters.