Two years ago Khyati Shah walked into Von Steuben High School for the very first time, a 14-year-old sophomore from Bombay. She knew no one, ached with loneliness, and wondered how she would survive. Journalism saved her.
That's right: in an age of rising illiteracy and adolescents raised on TV, when everyone from Saul Bellow to Scottie Pippen is whining about the media, journalistic idealism still flourishes--at least at the northwest side's Von Steuben High.
Shah and some 30 other students are members of the newspaper club there, which puts out four issues annually of Expression, a glossy, 16-page two-color newsmagazine. At this year's Scholastic Press Association awards ceremony it won seven honors, including overall staff excellence.
But the paper has also helped each student who works on it find his or her way. "When you get to high school it's easy to get lost, especially if you're new," says Shah, who works as a reporter for the paper. "So many people want to stereotype you. They want to say, "Oh, you're Indian, this is how you should be.' Working for the paper is one way for me to say, "No, this is who I am."'
In many ways the paper reflects both the school's ethnic diversity and its academic excellence. Enrollment at Von Steuben is controlled by a lottery, weighed to guarantee an almost even mix of blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. The school ranks fifth in the city in composite ACT scores, third in graduation rate, and second in attendance. The newspaper is lively and well written, and faculty advisor Joan Bjorklund, an English teacher, says she makes no attempt to censor coverage. "It's the students' paper," she says. The latest issue, for instance, features an article by Eulalia De La Rosa on the sexual preference of General Frederick Von Steuben, the revolutionary war hero for whom the school is named.
"I got on to this story--you'll die when you hear this--by listening to MTV," says De La Rosa, one of the paper's four editors. "Kurt Loder was talking about gays in the military, and he says, "Did you know that Baron Von Steuben, one of the first guys in our military, was gay?' I almost fell off my chair 'cause, I mean, you never think of the guy your school is named after as being gay. I did some research, and it was funny. One book said Von Steuben was just this lonely guy. Another said he didn't have any kids. And another said he was probably a homosexual." In the resulting article ("Homosexuality in the military is nothing new") De La Rosa wrote, "Army general, founder of the national guard, and, yes, probably homosexual. It all made up our good old Von Steuben."
Response to her article was mixed, De La Rosa says. Most students liked it, some teachers didn't, and the owner of a local pizza parlor got offended and pulled his advertising. "Some teachers said, "Why are you writing about this man's personal life?"' says De La Rosa. "I thought, geez, it's not like he's still living. He's only been dead for 200 years. Besides, so what? He's gay. Big deal."
Other articles have been more predictable: an expose on sanitary conditions in the lunchroom--which drew a bitter letter to the editor from lunchroom staffers who felt they'd been unjustly maligned; a front-page obituary for Sheldon Terman, a well-liked math teacher who loved Mahler and Beethoven and once met Sir Georg Solti; a poem written by Takisha Collins in memory of her 16-year-old friend, Verkita Owens, who was shot to death last December.
One of the lighter features, an essay by Rachel Hauser and Konark Patel, offered suggestions on how students might spend Christmas break. Among their tips were sleeping, partying, shopping at malls, and driving around in cars. "If you feel like staying home, just sit in front of your favorite television and vegetate for a while. Watch whatever comes on the tube and turn into a couch potato for the next week or so."
Each issue also includes a student survey, the most recent of which reveals that almost 70 percent of respondents believe racism exists at Von. "But over 80 percent said they were not racists," says Vickie Heller, an editor on this year's staff. "I guess they're pointing the finger at everyone else."
While most of the paper's staffers say they enjoy reading--their favorite book, hands down, is Catcher in the Rye--few read the daily newspaper. Most are hard-pressed to name any local journalists other than pictured columnists like Mike Royko. Heller says she plans to pursue a career in journalism. But the others aren't sure.
Mostly, they say, the paper offers them a place to go. Once a week they gather in the office they share with the yearbook staff to plot strategy, assign stories, edit copy, or just shoot the breeze.
"I just sort of wandered into the newspaper club--I guess I was looking for something," says Heller. "I didn't think it would be such a big deal, but then you see your name in print over the article you wrote and it makes you feel so proud.
"I didn't start at Von. My freshman year I was at Lane [Tech]. I hated Lane--it was too big. Von is the only place I feel at home at. I think my problem is that I'm too honest. People say I have no tact. I say what's on my mind. I don't like hypocritical things. But here I feel free to speak up. I guess that means I have a place here."
This year's editors--De La Rosa, Heller, Richard Dang, and Shayma Quraishi--graduate in June; next year Shah will be among six editors running the paper. "I have a lot of ideas for what we can do," says Shah. "Maybe we should do something on stereotyping. That's a big problem here. One day I wore shorts and people said, "Hey, how can you do that? You're Indian.' They expect me to be like their image of all Indians. They won't just let me be who I am. They think that all Indians are Muslims or Hindus. I have nothing against Muslims or Hindus, it's just that I'm not either. My religion is Jainism. You have to accept people for who they are."
At the Scholastic Press Association conference last week, which attracted hundreds of high school journalists from private and public schools across the city, Shah, Heller, Dang, De La Rosa, and Margaret Hilburger, another writer at the paper, led a seminar on why they publish quarterly and not monthly.
"Until this year we used to come out with a four- or six-page issue once a month," Dang explained. "But all the news we were writing was old news by the time we wrote it. So we decided to use more space to really get into stories. That means we don't do a lot of stuff about things like who won what in the science fair."
But what about the kids who won the science fair? someone asked. Don't they want to see their name in the paper?
Dang shrugged. "Well, they get their name read over the loudspeaker."
After the seminar they joined the rest of the students for lunch and the awards ceremony. De La Rosa won an award for her article on Baron Von Steuben, though she was temporarily overcome by modesty when it came time to walk to the podium and receive her plaque in front of hundreds of other teenagers.
"Go, girl, go," Heller pleaded.
"I can't," De La Rosa said.
"Oh, gosh, Evie," Heller gasped, and she walked up to receive the award for her friend.
Afterward the Von Steuben students posed for pictures. Then they stayed behind, long after the room had emptied, to reflect and reminisce about their accomplishments. "Overall I liked Von, but it's very split here between blacks and nonblack kids," said Heller. "People aren't hostile to each other, they just don't mix. I wish it weren't like that. Sometimes you just got to get out of Chicago and see how the rest of the world is."
Last fall Heller took a first step in this direction when she and De La Rosa traveled to New York. It was her first out-of-town trip since she went to New Hampshire for a wedding seven years ago. "It was so exciting," Heller said. "We walked around the city day and night, and we hung out a lot in Greenwich Village. I'd like to go to college there and be a writer. I keep a diary, and I'm ready to get serious about this."
The other seniors agreed that the time had come to move on with their lives. "There's things I'll miss, particularly working at the paper, but I hate the cliques," said Hilburger. "All schools have them, I guess."
"Some people might say we're a clique," Heller added. "But we're not. Anyone can join the newspaper club. Anyone. All you have to do is write."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Alexander Newberry.