Can Bill Gates Rescue Evelyn Cabrera?

The journey of one high school senior through the small-school experiment of America's most generous philanthropist

Watching Evelyn walk through the Bronx Guild halls early in her senior year, it's easy to picture her managing a hotel. These days, she in many ways "rules the school," presiding over senior class meetings and marching through the halls, head held high, as boys greet her with a kiss on the cheek. She speaks loudly and confidently to teachers, fellow students, and hall aides, never lingering quite long enough to hear their responses.

In mid October, on senior picture day at the school—another milestone not only for the 52 seniors expected to graduate, but for the school as well—the professional photographers have converted the foreign-language classroom into a studio for the day. Evelyn's friend Elisa, also a senior, has converted a corner in their classroom into a beauty salon. Other students apply makeup, comb their hair, and double-check their appearances in bathroom mirrors. Evelyn waits for her 11 a.m. slot as Elisa puts on dark red lipstick and ano-ther friend, Jasmine, a sophomore, straightens Elisa's hair with a ceramic hot iron.

Evelyn Cabrera in the doorway of Bronx Guild High School, her alma mater.
photo: Fiona Aboud
Evelyn Cabrera in the doorway of Bronx Guild High School, her alma mater.


See also:
Lost and Found in the Chalkboard Jungle
A Bronx kid's year in the Bill Gates experiment
Photo Slideshow

Unlike Jasmine and Elisa, who experiment weekly with different hair colors, wear makeup, and have at least a few facial piercings, Evelyn makes no fashion statements and rarely wears makeup. She usually comes to school wearing a T-shirt and jeans, or sometimes her flannel pajama pants. For senior picture day, she remains natural, wearing only a touch of mascara, clear lip gloss (after some prodding by the photographer), and a solid black button-down shirt. A simple chain with a dangling heart pendant has replaced the rosary she usually wears. And of course, she never comes to school without her "Eevee" hoop earrings.

Evelyn, all dressed up with someplace to go: The senior prom with Ben Whitehead, her date, at the Marina del Ray in the Bronx
photo: courtesy Evelyn Cabrera

But when it's time to sit for the photograph, Evelyn becomes uncharacteristically uncomfortable. "You must not want to smile because you're not going to graduate," the photographer teases as he strategically pulls her hair to one side. Kara, another senior, interjects from the waiting area, "Yeah, right. She's too smart to not graduate."

After relaxing long enough to have her picture taken, Evelyn returns to her classroom to take over straightening Elisa's hair and sends Jasmine back to her own classroom. As she clips and unclips her friend's hair, she talks about another scholarship application essay. For this one, she has written about her parents' divorce and her mom moving out. She describes the experience without the emotion to match her words: depression, drama, and turmoil. She brushes off Elisa's suggestion that she get someone else to finish her hair so she can talk in private. She jumps around in subject, following statements like "Instead of doing drugs or giving up, I just stayed focused on school" with "Oh, I gotta call to get my work schedule."

Elisa interrupts to add that she once overheard Evelyn's mom say how horrible her daughter was. "Yeah," Evelyn adds as though talking about a classmate. "My mom always talks crap about me."

Evelyn's mother's departure from her life has given the young woman an early maternal instinct. Evelyn frequently reminds her friends of the credits they still need and constantly urges Jasmine to go back to class, pay attention, and take better notes. Elisa, who transferred to Bronx Guild after two difficult years at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Westchester Square neighborhood of the Bronx, says Evelyn is like a mom to her and their other friends. Elisa prefers the smaller school because at her first school, she was just a face in the crowd and cut class a lot. Now it's easier for her to stay out of trouble, with the teachers paying so much attention to her and with "this one," she adds, nodding toward Evelyn.

To an outsider, Bronx Guild might seem quirky at best and chaotic at worst. Students frequently linger in the common area lounge and the hallways, chatting with friends, teachers, or the school aides who monitor the hallways. Inside Evelyn's homeroom, crew leaders Jay Lee and Raul Vazquez do not lecture the class on world history, classical literature, or other subjects that one might expect in a high school. Instead, the students talk about last weekend's Giants game and gossip about who is dating whom, while Vazquez does homework for his graduate math course and Lee comes in and out, dealing with attendance and individual student projects. Evelyn, meanwhile, always sitting in the red-and-black wooden chair she and her crew built last year, usually works on college applications or chats with Elisa.

One afternoon in late October, structure does seem to emerge through the chaotic surface. Students still linger in the common area, but this time, they're talking about schoolwork. A freshman girl asks Geraldine, a junior who also works as Principal So-guero's assistant, for ideas for her first-semester project. Two other students sit at a table in the corner with a Regents exam tutor reviewing word problems likely to appear on the math test. One boy, a senior, sets up materials on the common area's center table to build a Mayan temple with clay, part of an assignment for the group going to Mexico over spring break.

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