The walls are plastered with unabashed love for the students that walk through the doors. The welcome desk is backed by signs declaring “All Are Welcome Here” in multiple languages. Murals tell the stories of black kids, native kids, and everyone else who walks the halls of Minneapolis South High School.
I spent last Friday talking with students at South about life after graduation as a member of a Project Success alumni panel. The intent of the discussion was to absolve some of the students’ fears, give them ideas for the future, and listen to their dreams.
“Dream” is a key word in Project Success and has been since I was a middle school kid a decade and a half ago, listening to Jenny, my Project Success staffer, talk about college, theater, and dreams. I did not realize it at the time but Jenny was preparing me to years later step out of school and into the world.
South has not changed much in the ten years since I was a student. On a cloudy March day, the concrete, window-starved structure looks as daunting as ever. Inside, banners proclaiming the school’s ethos still hang from the walls.
Orange and black stripes still cover every available surface. I arrived a little before the start of second period and took a seat in the commons. I watched a few straggling students file in through the door and hurry to class. I listened to school staff chat idly with seniors who had taken an open first hour.
This place, I now realize, is a sanctuary. Students enter wearing an array of hats, head scarves, hoods, and hair colors. Most with eyes downcast, either at their phones or simply at the ground.
It’s easy to forget how it feels to be a teenager. You’ve left the ignorance of childhood behind and stare upward at the future looming large above you. I caught myself in judgement of kids with their hoods pulled close around their faces and put my thoughts in check; the world is scary, sometimes I want to hide too.
South High is not a religious sanctuary, though it certainly declares “your faith has value”. Its welcome is broader: You have value. This message is proclaimed again and again, hammered into the minds of scared-but-not-showing-it teenagers. You have value. It’s written on the welcome signs: All are Welcome Here.
It’s on the walls of teachers’ rooms: Black Lives Matter. It’s in the native murals painted on the concrete: Your History Matters. It’s written on doors like the blood of an Israeli sheep: Immigrants are Safe Here. The creeping terror of xenophobia will not enter this space.
The students shared their dreams, and their words buoyed my heart. They wanted to be social workers, engineers, doctors, and everything in between. Most did not know what they wanted to do yet, and I did my best to assure them; it’s OK, you don’t need to have everything figured out yet. I told them I was a software engineer. One girl asked, “is engineering school hard?”
“Yes,” I told her before pausing a moment.
I had prepared for the day by picking out a collared shirt and putting styling wax in my hair—deliberate steps to broadcast, I am an adult. I am successful. You should be an engineer like me.
I looked at the student in front of me and realized, these kids don’t need a laundry list of careers. They already know the options that lay ahead of them. They learn from teachers who have dedicated lives to pointing and guiding students toward careers. They study in a school that unrelentingly asserts their value. What they need from me, an outsider, is some small assurance that when they step out of the sanctuary, their value will not diminish.
I told them about my freshman year of college. The semester had just started but I felt like I was already far behind my peers. I walked out of Computer Programming 1901, overwhelmed and terrified because the material was not making any sense. I sat crying in my car outside of my parents’ house, scared that I’d chosen the wrong major.
“Yes, it’s hard,” I continued, “until you ask for help. You will find help.”
The kids I met were a cross section of Minneapolis, running the beautiful gamut of colors and creeds. Their dreams had no discernible correlation to their skin tone (though I did my best to encourage more girls to pursue engineering). This sanctuary-school had done its job—through the passion of their teachers and the words on every wall, these students knew their value. My task was just to stand as a bridge between the school and the world saying:
There are many paths before you and in absolutely every one you have value. You will find help because you are worthy of help.