Video: Inspired, but watchful

Investigative reporter Bill Dedman of msnbc.com
By Bill Dedman Investigative reporter
msnbc.com
updated 10/31/2008 11:04:44 AM ET 2008-10-31T15:04:44

At Validus Preparatory Academy, a new public high school in the poorest congressional district in America, students have kept journals since the early primaries, created election art, studied opinion polls in math classes, designed brochures on the issues, read memoirs by the candidates and even delivered speeches in their stead. And after the principal dashed around to plumbing supply stores for enough PVC pipe to build a voting booth, they got a chance to punch their own electronic ballots in a national mock election for students.

Being so steeped in the presidential race, the students at this predominantly African-American and Hispanic school on Bathgate Avenue are a little on edge about the outcome. They say they are excited about the possibility that Sen. Barack Obama could become the first black person elected president of the United States. (In the mock election results so far , 88 percent of Validus students chose Obama.) But many also admit to some nervousness that it won't happen. And even if he does win, they're crossing their fingers that he'll be up to the job.

"If Obama doesn't win, it's a big disappointment," said Dorian Whyte, 18, who moved to New York City from Jamaica. "And I think if he does win, also, it can be a disappointment, if he doesn't deliver."

‘I just hope that he keeps his word’
"I just hope that he keeps his word, as he's said, that he's going to make a lot of good changes," said Shaday Brown, 17, whose uncle is the noted Black Arts playwright Ben Caldwell. "I just hope he's up to his part, just hoping he's going to do what he says he's going to do."

"We're in an economic crisis. He's going to really have to step his game up," said Jaquan Arzu, 16, from Honduras, whose father is serving in the U.S. Army. "First day coming in, he has to hit the door running."

The students said that the Democratic candidate's life story is not unlike theirs. Many of the students are immigrants from Africa and Latin America. Many have multiethnic ancestries. Many, maybe most, are being raised by single mothers and grandmothers. Like Obama's family, they are putting their hope in a better education, and in the belief that minorities can get a fair chance in the United States.

These students didn't live through the 1960s. Heck, they didn't even live through the 1980s. More than once, when asked what role race plays in their lives, they answered, "Can you repeat the question?"

‘Race doesn't really matter’
In some ways racial tension is muted in the South Bronx, where there are few whites. The school rolls list only one white student out of 426.

"I live in the Bronx. Race doesn't really matter," said Ahmed Hunt, 18, who played the part of Obama in a school program. "We can go as high, as far as we want. Bronx has some really good schools, some really good students. I go to a real great school."

But there is racial tension at times between blacks and Hispanics in the neighborhoods, and between recent immigrants and established families. There are fights in the lunchroom, as at any school anywhere, though the spark is more likely to be a filched French fry than a racial slight.

At the same time, students are well aware of events in the wider world. The same day that students were calmly talking about race and the election, federal agents from the ATF were busting up a half-baked plot by skinheads in Arkansas and Tennessee to attack a black school and assassinate Obama. "In some places it's different," Hunt said. "I went to Ohio. I would go to use the bathroom in a public place, it's like they'll treat you differently."

Hunt said he has been following the election closely, staying up to watch debates. "It's pretty historic" whether Obama wins or not, he said. "If he loses, it's history because he got that far."

As one of about 15 Muslim students in school, he also has been listening carefully to some of the campaign rhetoric.

"They say, 'Oh, he's Muslim.' It does make me upset," Hunt said. "They say it in a way of, like, oh, that's bad, why would we want an Islamic person in office.

Image: Ahmed Hunt
John Makely  /  msnbc.com
Ahmed Hunt: "Even if he is Muslim, why does it matter?"
"They're putting my religion down. They don't really know the religion. Even if he is Muslim, why does it matter?"

Some students said they could barely believe that the country would elect a black man as president.

"At first I'm like, he shouldn't even try, 'cause they wouldn't let him," said Stacia Thomas, 17, from Guyana. "After all, he's African-American. They would never let that happen, a black guy in the office. But then I'm like, he has a chance."

'I'll try to pick up the pieces'
Now she has her hopes up. Like many students, one of her main concerns is the high cost of college. Tuitions in colleges across the nation ust went up by another 6 percent on average. At Validus, about seven in 10 seniors are on track to graduate on time and go to college. Most will start with applications at the City University of New York, others at the state universities, and a few speak of the private schools whose banners hang in the school atrium, such as Georgetown and NYU.

"This is the first time that I'm actually into it, like I really want to know who's going to win, and I'm hoping it's going to be Obama," Thomas said. "Because he's young, he's vibrant, he appeals to youth. Because it's like the problems that we're going through right now, like financial issues, concerned about college and being able to pay for it, he's the only candidate that's prepared, ready and willing to help us make a brighter future.

"If McCain wins, I'll be crushed, because I do not want to see McCain running this country. I don't think he's fit enough. ... I'll try to pick up the pieces and move on, I guess."

There are McCain supporters at the school, 19 students out of 270 voting in the mock election, but they didn't turn up for videotaped interviews (on this page) with msnbc.com.

‘You have to look at other aspects’
The Obama supporters are quick to state that they're not supporting him just because he looks different from the 42 white men who have been president.

"Everybody's like, 'Oh, he's black, let me vote for him.' That's not how it falls," said Kenneth Obasuyi, 17, whose mother and father came to the U.S. from Nigeria. "You have to look at other aspects, too."

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Students listed their top issues, in the mock election, as health care, the economy and education.

Interest in the election began early in the long primary season. A retired special-ed teacher, Brenda Walton, started papering the walls of Validus with election headlines last fall. (She had the tabloid Daily News and the Post, so the main characters in the news are known as "Hil," "Mac" and "Bam.")

She said the possibility of a black man in the White House might seem to offer Validus students a role model. But with few fathers at home, and only two black men on the 30-person faculty, "that's so far out there, they can't see it. They need role models they can touch," she said.

The school was created by Brady Smith, a former English teacher who not only is the principal but also a dominating presence with "mad skills" in the faculty-student table-tennis tournament held in the atrium at lunchtime.

Principal Smith said it would be too easy to reduce the students to demographic stereotypes. He referred to critiques such as comedian Bill Cosby faulting black parents for not instilling proper values.

"It's a shame that it's oversimplified: 'single-parent families,'" he said. "It's an issue, but the fact is, it takes addressing so many different issues. It's different for every student. To pull a Cosby is incorrect for many. Once you're on the ground, things that seem like issues from 20,000 feet are not issues — they're realities. You can't let them be the barriers to success. You have to overcome them. "

Obama's appeal in the school is not confined to black students. Excitement is strong among Hispanic students, too.

Abigail Payano, a senior who will be able to vote for the first time on Tuesday, will be going to the poll on Tuesday with her daughter, Abriana, who will turn 2 on Christmas Day. After supporting Hillary Clinton in the primaries, Payano is voting for Obama now.

Image: Abigail Payano
John Makely  /  msnbc.com
Abigail Payano: "He knows what we struggle for."
"In my neighborhood, I see that they're going for Obama. We're not even looking at his race," Payano said. "We're looking at what he struggled. He knows what we struggle for. You could compare our life struggle to his life struggle.

"I want for the election now: I want my daughter to have an education better than I'm receiving now. I want her to go to a better college."

Payano said she hopes to be a lawyer or social worker, helping women deal with domestic violence and civil rights.

Christopher Gonzalez, whose grandparents moved from Puerto Rico to New York, will also be voting for Obama.

"It just opens up people's eyes to see that anything's possible," said Gonzalez, 18, who lives with his mom, three sisters and older brother. "I mean, after centuries of white presidents, there's a black president. I mean, soon there's going to be a woman president.

"If he can become president, why can't a Hispanic become president?"

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