By Casey Koenig (from www.theodysseyonline.com)
Casey Koenig is a former HHS Journalism student continuing her studies in college, she has published a wonderful look back at HHS on TheOdysseyonline.com (more info on that publication at bottom of this story). We proudly reprint it here as a celebration of our HHs J-school alum continuing to wrote well.
We were all meant to be different
Casey Koenig in Ideas on Apr 5, 2016
I grew up in a small, middle class town in Bergen County, New Jersey that is a twenty minute or less drive away from a lot of upper class predominantly white towns. Being so small, my town didn’t have a high school so I, along with many others from my town, attended high school in one of the neighboring towns, Hackensack. Everyone from Bergen County has heard of Hackensack, and when they hear the name spoken, their reactions are often less than pleasant. They may cringe, or if they find out that’s where I attended high school, they may ask if I’ve ever been threatened or if I’ve seen a lot of fights.
Hackensack is one of the most diverse high schools in Bergen County. Rather than being extremely wealthy and 99 percent white, its families are typically from poor to middle class and there are a lot more families of color. Hackensack High School had a huge range of Caucasian, African American, Hispanic and Asian students. This was unheard of in almost every other nearby high school, where you could probably count the students who were not white on one or two hands.
I’ve gotten to know a lot of people and made a lot of friends from outside my area thanks to swimming on a YMCA team. Many of them are scared of Hackensack, both the high school and the town as a whole. A lot of them never believed me when I said that Hackensack was a perfectly fine place. They believe that it is ghetto, filthy, sketchy and scary. They don’t like going into the high school, and when they do, they usually don’t have nice things to say about it, calling it one or more of the adjectives I previously mentioned. They have asked me if anyone has ever been shot in the school and said that they don’t know how I attended school there because they would be scared to. A wrestler from a neighboring town posted a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #Blackensack in the caption after his town beat Hackensack in a match. I heard so many hateful things directed toward my high school in the four years I attended it, all because we have a lot of students of color and students who are far from upper or middle class.
Despite all of this, I don’t believe that my friends and other people saying these terrible things are racist. I think they are ignorant. Since they have never been exposed to diversity, they don’t know what it’s really like. If they were as lucky as I was and were able to experience it, I think that they would love it as much as I did.
If they had attended Hackensack, they would have seen that anyone can be friends with anyone. So many people stick to being friends with people who are the same race as them, but at Hackensack that was not the case. Friend groups were diverse; I would look around the cafeteria at who was eating lunch with who, and there would be many groups of white, black and Hispanic people, males and females, all eating together. No one cared about color. Everyone got along with each other.
In school, everyone always talks about the “real world.” In the “real world,” not everyone is rich, and not everyone is white. Being exposed to diversity every day is a glimpse into the real world. What if the person you share an office with one day is black? Are you going to cower in the corner every day and keep everything locked up at all times? If you’re going to share an office, you need to learn to trust each other and get along. Even though we have made many advances and have become more and more accepting of each other, there are still many instances where minorities do not get the same benefits as white people do. This can easily be changed if we simply look past our differences and recognize that we are all capable of the same things. By going to school with people who are a different race from you, you go into the real world knowing that you can work with anyone.
I wish that the people who turn a cold shoulder to Hackensack could get to experience it like I did. We were a school of talented performers, athletes and scholars. The support that everyone had for the various sports teams, the school musicals, concerts and clubs was sky high. Our pep rallies and football games were full of students cheering and donning blue and gold, our school colors. These were the only colors that mattered at Hackensack. “Bleed blue and gold” was written on the back of some football apparel. The Hackensack school culture was so beautiful and such a great experience, that many proud alums would come back to support the school even years after graduating. My high school was proof that everyone can get along and that people are just that, people. Whether someone’s ancestry is from Europe, Asia or Africa, we are not all that different from each other. I love the idea that if you strip away all of the skin and really look at ourselves as humans, we all look exactly the same. We have the same structures.
As a senior in high school, I attended my school’s banquet that they hold for senior athletes. A line that one of the speakers said at the end of the ceremony has stuck with me. He said, “People always have a lot to say about us… but they don’t know us.” To truly understand the charm of Hackensack, you have to live in it.
I’m really darn lucky and thankful that I got to live in it. Everyone is different for a reason. It’s what keeps things fun and interesting. It’s what keeps us all alive. It’s what makes life worth living.