Crystal Fresco

Featured Alumni Profiles

Crystal Fresco

MA '02, Social Studies Education

As a teacher, Crystal Fresco didn’t want a repeat of her own high school experience. Growing up privileged in suburban Washington State, she didn’t share a classroom with a person of color – neither teacher nor fellow student – until her senior year of college in Seattle. So after coming to NYU to earn a master’s degree in education, she decided to stay and teach in the city’s public schools. For the past two years, she has been a social studies teacher at Satellite Academy High School in Jamaica, Queens.

Fresco writes of how the school, which offers troubled teens a second chance, gave her the education she craved.

Walking into my classroom for the first time, I wondered if I would finish the year alive. I had come with all the stereotypical preconceptions about teaching in an urban school – the gangs and guns, security guards patrolling hallways, metal detectors welcoming you at the front gates. As I entered the building, the school looked nothing like any high school I had known. No trophy cases, carpeted hallways or sparkling new lockers greeted me. Neither, however, did metal detectors and any sign of gangs.

But my biggest fear remained: Would my students respect me? They came from every race, every walk of life. They were children, yet some had children of their own. And they were nearly my own age. Immediately they challenged me, asking jarring, off-topic questions just to see how I’d react. During class, they walked in and out of the room to test my strength of class- room management. Within the first month, I had witnessed and tried to mediate several verbal fights – girls teasing girls, boys aggressively hitting on girls – as well as the every- day roughhousing that, I would soon learn, is just a way to attract attention, particularly from teachers. I also had to accompany one of my advisees to the local police precinct after she was arrested at school. Because the girl didn’t have a supportive mother, and her father was nowhere to be found, I was her “guardian” – though I had met her only three weeks before. It was the first time I had ever stepped into a police station, and I had never seen a young person treated in such a disrespectful manner. I felt helpless.

Soon after, I was pulled into confidences: Two of my students told me they were pregnant, and I became a “grandma” later that spring.

I made it through the first hurdles of discipline, of earning the students’ respect. But another challenge remained: how to make history come to life for them. For that, I relied on the city. I decided we would take field trips to put the history they were learning into context.

Our first jaunt was to Ellis Island, and I was surprised to see that the students were fearful of the ferry. Most of them don’t venture out of Queens, so traveling to the southern tip of Manhattan was a big deal. It was a cold January morning, and they were tired and cranky. But once the ferry got close to the Statue of Liberty, their faces lit up. They had seen Lady Liberty on television and in the movies and knew her place in history, but they had never seen her in person before. They came alive. So did I.

After the success of this adventure, we embarked on several others, including Seneca Village, the New-York Historical Society, Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Television & Radio. Students shared heart-to-heart talks about their recent immigration experiences after we visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and others swapped childhood stories while strolling through the Bronx Zoo.

I survived the first year without too many other incidents. The smiles and hugs have been my trophies, the burgeoning historians and critical minds my reward. The trips are my most precious memories.

I hope someday to be able to turn any city into a historical playground, but for now, I continue to teach at the school and take my students on historical journeys in the city that we all call home.