Cedar Grove and West Side High Schools are separated by fewer than 10 miles. Their 2002 graduations were held the same week. And seniors in both schools, like their counterparts around the United States, dream of new directions and great achievements.
But for the two groups of teenagers, the paths traveled to reach this point where dreams are possible and the future looks bright have been starkly different.
Cedar Grove High is nestled in the leafy green suburbs, surrounded by blocks of single-family homes that for many represent the American dream. Life here is so stable that most of the graduates have known one another since kindergarten.
West Side High School stands on a grim Newark thoroughfare. Immediately across the street are empty lots where buildings have been razed; abutting the school is an aging cemetery. Schools are large and families move frequently, preventing the graduating class from developing much sense of cohesion.
Nevertheless, on graduation day, as the outgoing seniors of both schools look to the future, differences seem to yield to the common ground in their visions.
On one point, there's no doubt: Graduating from high school feels like falling off the edge of a cliff.
"It's the last day of certainty in our lives," says Cedar Grove High School senior T.J. Martin. "Up until now, it's all been structured."
"It's scary," admits Marquida Hankerson, member of the class of 2002 at West Side High. "At least here I know people and what to do. Out there I'm not going to have anybody to pull me up."
All the young graduates are emerging into a post-Sept. 11 American landscape. All were close enough to the World Trade Center on the day of the terrorist attacks to smell the smoke as the towers burned.
Almost to a one, they agree that the world is a somewhat scarier place as a result.
Yet when it comes to their sense of the future, virtually no one admits to major fears about world events. The vision of each student seems personal rather than collective, shaped by a buoyant confidence that the United States is a place where dreams can still come true.
For the majority, their concerns seem to be less about changing the world than finding a comfortable place within it.
Although traditionally students at Cedar Grove have attended college at higher rates than their West Side counterparts, students at both schools seem fixed on the idea of higher education, recognizing that today's economy will require it.
And for the West Side students, college is a more viable reality than ever before, with more than $1 million in scholarship money being awarded to this graduating class.
The voices of both sets of seniors suggest a great eagerness at the prospect of joining the professional world. Yet, despite many lofty goals, it is touchingly clear that few from either school really grasp much about the world of work. Most are simply dreaming of a lifestyle.
"I was eating with my parents in a restaurant and I saw a group of guys, all in suits, with cellphones," says Mark Traina, a Cedar Grove graduate headed to the University of Richmond in Virginia this fall to study business.
"It was obvious that they worked together and they were enjoying each other's company. I liked the way that camaraderie looked. My job could be almost anything, if it was like that."
"I see myself in the garden planting tomatoes," says Krystle Sempel, a West Side student, looking ahead 20 years. Ms. Sempel hopes to become a pre-med student at William Patterson University in Wayne, N.J., although she hasn't yet applied for admission.
"I have two kids, a dog, and I'm married," she continues. "I own my own house in Pennsylvania." Is she working? "Oh," she adds, almost as an afterthought. "I'm a pediatrician."
If there's one sharp difference, it's how the two groups of young people look back at the road they've already traveled. A number of the Cedar Grove students say their principal dream is simply to live in the manner in which they've been brought up. Most of the Newark students long for improvement.
"Our parents have already done what we want to do," says Mr. Traina. "They have families, some job, they live comfortably. I would have a real sense of satisfaction living in a town like Cedar Grove and having kids like us."
Nafisah Laboo, a West Sider who will study child psychology and education at Temple University in Philadelphia this fall, also wants to return home but for different reasons. "I want to come back to Newark to help make it a better place," she says. "My dream is to open a community center for troubled teens, who are overlooked in Newark."
One aspect of that goal troubles her. "I wouldn't want to be too confined you know, always in an office."
On this day, the Newark students appear as optimistic about the future as their Cedar Grove counterparts. But it is clear that, while struggling through high school, they harbored far more serious doubts.
In Cedar Grove, few questioned that everyone would make it to the finish line and beyond. "Not going to college didn't even seem to be an option for me," says class president Corey Lane, now bound for Syracuse University in New York to study marketing and management.
But in Newark, many classmates have already fallen by the wayside due to drugs, disease, crime, and pregnancy. "It's sad to think about your friends who should be here," says Alonzo Lister, who will begin a stint in the Navy in August.
As for pregnancies, "there were so many we can't even count them all," says another Newark student.
The graduating West Side seniors say repeatedly that their school has improved greatly in recent years. Many credit Fernand Williams, ex-Marine, former police officer, West Side alumnus, and principal of the school since 1997, with ridding their halls of violence and crime.
But most also harbor a bitter belief that, in some ways, they have been shortchanged.
"If I could change one thing, it would be to equalize the education system," says Hakeen Brown, one of West Side's top students, who will be studying computer technology at Katherine Gibbs School in Montclair, N.J., in the fall. "In the suburbs, the schools are better furnished. They take trips, go to museums, plays. We don't get those trips."
In Cedar Grove, in contrast, some seniors insist it's hard to think of a single complaint about their high school.
"This has been such a great experience," says Alex Salkeld, a young woman who will be studying engineering at Tulane University in New Orleans this fall. Her only lament, she begins to say, is that, "high school social life has been pretty ... "
"Dull," interrupts classmate Marcia Robiou. "Sheltered," suggests Ms. Salkeld.
Despite that sense, it's the Newark students who more often express an avid sense of adventure not their Cedar Grove counterparts.
"I'd like to go to Europe, Africa, every continent there is," enthuses Alexandre Choute, a West Side grad planning to study business management at Johnson & Wales in Providence, R.I. "There's so much to know."
The Cedar Grove students, instead, seem to rank professional attainments far above any urge to venture outside the US.
"Traveling around the world doesn't interest me much," says Salkeld. "Me neither," agrees Mr. Martin. "Why leave this country?"
Establishing a life here is much more important, says Mr. Lane. "Why postpone your career?" he asks. "We've all worked so hard," adds Traina. "We'd lose our momentum."
Yet all the seniors harbor almost identical concerns about the immediate future. Studies after high school will be harder. Managing their own time and making decisions independent of family and classroom teachers will not be easy.
And leaving an environment where they have felt nurtured is disconcerting.
"The teachers here treat us like their own children," says Mr. Brown of West Side High. "In college, it will be up to us."
On graduation day, Cedar Grove transplants itself to the school's football field. The night is hot, but the surroundings are green and serene.
The ceremony begins exactly on time and the crowd remains hushed except for occasional bursts of cheering when individual names are mentioned from the moment the 85 seniors march across the field to the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" till the joyous moment when they finally toss their caps into the air.
In Newark, the ceremony is held in the sweltering gym. Parents and guests of the 243 graduating students talk loudly throughout the ceremony despite several admonishments from the principal.
But at the moment the seniors are pronounced graduates, the two scenes become virtually identical. It's all about family: the hugging, the crying, the intergenerational photo shoots.
At both schools, most students are quick to insist that family is a central fact of life, both now and in any future dreams.
And yet there is the occasional maverick.
"I have no interest in ever marrying or having a family," says Rahman Cox, a sharply dressed Newark student who sports a diamond ear stud and will be studying psychology at Kean University in Union, N.J., this fall.
"I want to be a psychologist to the stars, live in L.A., have my own home, at least 10 cars, and travel the world," he pronounces.
"Having a family is not a priority for me," says Cedar Grove's Ms. Robiou, who will be studying natural sciences at New York University.
Yet in a way, she speaks for much of the class of 2002 when she adds, "Just living comfortably and being pretty happy with myself is the really important thing."
Nationwide, 74% of all high-schoolers graduate ñ 78% among whites, 56% among African-Americans, 54% among Latinos. (1)
42% say they were frequently bored in class during their senior year of high school.
35% did homework for six or more hours per week.
Over the past four years, 44% earned A averages.
83% do some volunteer work.
21% frequently discuss politics.
Of all high school graduates, 97% plan to pursue some sort of postsecondary education; 75% enroll somewhere within two years. (2)
21% claim to be "conservative" or "far right."
50% say they"re in the "middle of the road."
30% consider themselves "liberal" or "far left."
48% participated in organized demonstrations during the past year.
32% percent say they are committed to helping promote racial understanding.
In the past year, 70% have socialized with someone of another ethnic group.
At least once a week, 66% pray or meditate.
Sources: 1 Based on 1998 figures from The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which does not include in its count of graduates students who go on to earn a GED or similar credentials.
2 Analysis of 1992 graduates in "Access and Persistence," a 2002 study by the American Council on Education.
All other figures are from a survey of more than 400,000 incoming college freshmen taken in fall 2001. Most completed the survey before Sept. 11. Survey administered by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA"s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies.