It's not easy being a Stuy kid. In recent years, students at Stuyvesant High School, the crown jewel of New York City's Specialized High Schools, have grabbed national attention for cheating on tests with their cell phones, recording racist rap videos, and organizing an event called "Slutty Wednesday" to protest the school's dress code. The latest controversy to befall one of the nation's most elite public schools is a bit less flashy than organized cheating, however. On Monday The New York Times investigated the recent election — and subsequent disqualification — of Stuyvesant junior Jack Cahn, who in early June won a school-wide race for President of the school's Student Union but was stripped of the title on June 11 by the school's Board of Elections. Comprising 19 of his peers, the Board accused Cahn of attaching too many campaign posters to a specific board and, more egregiously, "slandering" another student running against him in a private Facebook message. In response, Cahn's twin brother, David, uploaded a petition to reverse the decision to Change.org, where it has collected 356 signatures. "[It is] not Bush v. Gore," the Times notes.
No, it is not. Geoff Decker at GothamSchools, which first reported Cahn's ouster, noted on June 14: "The saga is decidedly low stakes. ... Many seemed only vaguely aware of the controversy and two teachers said they hadn’t heard about it at all." Discussing Cahn's predicament, a Stuyvesant sophomore told the Times: "It's very melodramatic and unnecessary. I’m surprised so many people even care." Indeed, there aren't a lot of lessons to draw from student government drama that cannot be gathered elsewhere and far more easily. Remember Election and Tracy Flick's antics? Teenagers have overestimated their own importance since the beginning of recorded history.
And yet Stuyvesant High School, which accepts just 3 percent of applicants based on notoriously rigorous standardized testing, presents a special case. Along with public peers like Hunter College High School (which administers its own test) and the upcoming Brooklyn Latin School, Stuyvesant serves to counterweigh New York's infamous collection of pricey private schools — anchored, on either side of Central Park, by Trinity and Dalton — and the city's massive public school bureaucracy. This unique status makes Stuyvesant an ideal target for tongue-wagging trend pieces, like the aforementioned "Slutty Wednesday" episode, a 2006 New York feature about the evolving sexual mores of Stuyvesant's female students (sample passage: "The Stuyvesant cuddle puddle is emblematic of the changing landscape of high-school sexuality across the country"), and, more recently, a serious look at the school's racial makeup. Being free, well-funded, and very hard to get into, Stuyvesant is one of those rare places where young people can freely grapple with ambition and intellect without being weighed down by questions of money and privilege. "Make Stuy your #1 choice. It will change your life," the school's official marketing materials read. (Stuyvesant alumni seem to agree.)
At the same time, Monday's Times investigation isn't really a trend story. There is no discernable trend here. (Besides, perhaps, teenage intransigence, plus the ever-amusing theatrics of political campaigns.) Instead, we have politics in its purest form: unproductive tantrums, imagined persecutions, sudden shifts of power. In the summer before New York chooses its next mayor, perhaps this city needs to be reminded that the democratic process, for all of its stated ideals, revolves around flawed human beings.