Notes from the Borough

This week I covered a public hearing at Brooklyn Tech concerning the closure of 19 schools to make way for charter schools.

This has been a huge issue in the city, as Mayor Bloomberg is a huge proponent of charter schools and already has closed a number of public schools in the metro area. There had been a couple of public hearings in the city, with this one being the last and the biggest right before the vote. Naturally, hundreds of people showed up to protest the changes, and though there were a lot of defiant statements, there was also a sense of futility. Many knew that no matter what was said that night, it was pretty much a done deal.

I was multitasking that night, as I interviewed, took pictures, audio and video. The story was my top priority, however, and I couldn’t get the video finished in time. Here it is in all its glory. There were lots of chants that night, a lot of anger, and I hope that’s pretty evident here (For those not familiar with NYC schools, Joel Klein is the school chancellor).

The auditorium didn’t provide a lot of light, and I have an aversion to using flash (which isn’t the smartest aversion to have indoors), so the pictures have a blurry effect. I used to shun blur altogether, but I’ve recently acquired an appreciation for them. I think it’s also effective in this set of pictures, where everything was moving at a frantic, active and very emotional level.

With that said, I feel OK about the pictures and video.

I wandered around the auditorium and barely sat down for the five hours I was there. Just when I thought I’d gathered enough notes, I found that people started getting used to my presence as I stood by the wall, away from the other reporters, and even initiated conversation with me. I got my strongest quotes then, reminding me that it’s best to sit back, observe and let things happen rather than force interviews with reluctant sources.

Here’s a segment that didn’t make it in the story. The teacher was standing next to me watching his students speak, and at one point shed a tear:

Students from various schools were bused in, and at around 10 p.m. they were allowed to speak  so they wouldn’t miss their rides home.

Michael Ross, a teacher at the slated-to-close New Day Academy in South Bronx, said regardless of the outcome, the students will have learned to question authority.

“I hope it teaches them they can effect change,” he said.

One of his students, trembling, approached the mic:

“Did you know that I worry about being shot at every day at school?”

“Did you know that I worry about being jumped by gang members?”

“I deserve a safe education.”

For more pictures, check out my flickr.

Conversations with Strangers

Albert was in his 50s, or given Asians’ tendency to look perpetually young, maybe even older.

He sat next to me on the plane, and as I’d gotten very little sleep before my flight (I’d spent the morning running errands and 30 minutes of it  packing), I was in no mood for small talk. I pulled out a book, turned on my ipod and hoped the plane would lull me to sleep.

But Albert was persistent. I can’t remember how the conversation started or what in my “I’m busy” demeanor gave him the indication that I welcomed conversation, but almost instantly the questions began. And they didn’t stop for much of our 12-hour flight.

He was curious about the dozens of college students on the same flight to Spain and perhaps he could sense my apprehension. At 22, I’d traveled little, as my parents could barely afford to send my siblings and me to college, let alone plan overseas excursions outside of going to the homeland to attend funerals (and for all those trips my mom went solo). I’d held jobs in high school and college, having to rely on those paltry earnings to fund my own excursions (which in college translated to beer, food, gas and more beer).

Though it was my first time alone on a plane, I’d always been independent. My parents didn’t like that. In fact, they discouraged anything I wanted to do that didn’t involve staying home until I was whisked away by a suitor, preferably Filipino, in some respectable profession. They especially couldn’t fathom how their youngest daughter could survive four months in a huge city like Barcelona.

“You have good parents,” Albert told me, “for letting you do this.”

And just like that, he put things in perspective.

When we landed we said our goodbyes, and I watched him disappear into the crowd.

* * *

Though journalism is in a downward spiral, I haven’t regretted pursuing it. Through it, I’ve grown accustomed to talking to strangers and developing an insight into all sorts of people. Albert was different because I didn’t need a story from him, and he actually taught me a thing or two about traveling (Lesson 1: Conversations with strangers en route might actually be quite meaningful).

I’ve applied that to everyday life. I can’t say I make friends with everyone I meet or that I haphazardly go to bars to talk to strangers, but when the situation presents itself I consider it an opportunity to potentially learn from someone. That’s not to say I don’t take necessary precautions or stay aware of my surroundings.

Naturally, it’s drawn some criticism from friends who don’t share the same view. Often they tell me horror stories of kidnappings and murders, with the implication I will meet the same fate unless I bring a weapon or bodyguard. But journalists are always on their own, I tell them. Though they write for news organizations and may be accompanied by a crew, journalists do much of the reporting alone before the cameras roll. It’s probably in their best interests not to venture to war-torn countries, but how else will these stories get told?

I haven’t been anywhere close to that kind of danger, but I’ve gone to strangers’ houses, been verbally threatened, taken rides with sources and have driven through desolate country roads to even more desolate spots past midnight with only a map in hand, vague directions and no phone service.

I’ve survived unscathed, I tell them.

“But you’re in New York,” they say, as if all the crazy people in the world congregated in this city and nowhere else (though city crime rankings seem to think it’s pretty safe here). They think of the crack epidemic that plagued New York in years past, not the current gentrified  Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn that have displaced the very people who are actually from New York.

I find it funny that my encounters are met with such cynicism amid our culture of oversharing on Facebook and the heyday of Craigslist, with people willing to live with total strangers. I stand by my belief that crazy things happen everywhere, whether you’re in New York or in a small unheard of town.

Sure, I can choose to hide in my illusion of safety and keep a closed off, cynical view of the world, never allowing myself to experience anything I can’t directly control. Or I can be smart about things and still revel in the unknown.

I choose to be the latter.

Into the Shadows

Barcelona, Spain

“The physical aspect of travel is, for me, the least interesting; what really draws me is the prospect of stepping out of the daylight of everything I know, into the shadows of what I don’t know, and may never know… a trip has been really successful if I come back sounding strange even to myself; if, in some sense, I never come back at all, but remain up at night unsettled by what I’ve seen.”

Pico Iyer

(Note: The guy in the picture is not some random street performer. It’s my study abroad friend Felix the Gato! He let me try swinging those things, but I can’t say I was very spectacular. Go, Felix the Gato, go!)