Jazmine is a senior at Bishop Maginn High School. I’ve been hearing about her for months, I asked to meet with her.
Six years ago, Jazmine was living in a homeless shelter. For two years after that, she was in a group home for girls. Next year, she will be going to college on a full scholarship. Bishop Maginn’s Principal Mike Tolan and Teacher Sue Silverstein say, Jazmine, who is 17 and graduating next Spring, is one of the most remarkable students the school has known. They believe she might just change the world.
And this is perhaps what I love most about Bishop Maginn High School, a small and forever struggling Catholic school in the shadow of the Governor’s Mansion Of New York. There are all kinds of remarkable young children who have overcome the most shattering hardships and have worked long and hard to build meaningful and productive lives. They are all over the place there, they somehow manage to find the school or the school finds them.
I think the angels bring them there. Jasmine is one of them.
The staff speaks about her excellent character, courage, and compassion. They urged me to meet with her and write about her, and I am grateful for both. Jasmine is everything they described. She is honest, humble, self-effacing, and wise. Sometimes hardship can do that for you..
Jazmine, said one teacher “isn’t a Tik-Tok student.” She understands the benefits and drawbacks of social media and life on a cellphone. She knows how to take care of herself.
She doesn’t like to speak of those hard years, but I was told that she volunteered to cook for the other residents when she was in the homeless shelter. She did the same thing in the group home.
She decided to grow up. “Sometimes, you can have too much freedom, ” she said, “that can be difficult to handle.” She began a hard climb back. She worked two jobs, a kitchen, and a garden center.
“At some point, “she told me, “you have to decide what you want to do with that freedom; you want to grow the hardship, not let it take you down.” She said that if you stay where you are, there is often trouble. She believes social media can be a danger to young people, especially girls. “People on social media will put you down; there is too much talk about making money.”
I don’t know the details of her life, and I didn’t press her for them. Jasmine is not into drama or lament. She doesn’t want to be known by her troubles, but by her successes. She is not a victim, like so many Americans are these days, she does not want to be known as a victim. In our talk, I heard that loud and clear.
But still, I know that taking responsibility for your own life and troubles is a lost art in America in 2021. It took me many years to learn that, and Jazmine is only 17.
I saw right away what the staff meant when they praised her. She intuitively dwells on the positive, not the negative. She doesn’t whine or speak poorly of her life or blame others. She is smart and has enormous depth of character. “The problems I had,” she told me, “are all of my makings. They are all me. Mine. Nobody else’s.” The issue for people her age, she says, ” is
what do you want to produce? What do you want to accomplish?”
Everyone described her as remarkable, but I pressed Sue Silverstein to say what that means. She sent me this response:
“I’d like to know a little bit about your truth,” I said, “I want to know why everyone tells me you are so remarkable.” She nodded, and we went ahead with the interview, but she didn’t get comfortable with me until the end. She tracked me down later and told me more things she wanted me to know.
I’m always grateful for my years as a reporter. I know how to get people to talk to me, but I never pressure children to do that. They either decide to open up, or they don’t.
Jazmine opened up when she saw I wasn’t looking to dwell on her troubles. She wasn’t going there, so neither was I. Sooner or later, people get comfortable with me, or they don’t. She did. And she knows exactly what she wants to say and doesn’t want to say. I admire that.
When Jazmine got to Bishop Maginn, she felt safe enough and supported enough to work hard to turn her life around. She became a star student and someone of great maturity and character says her teachers.
“The pain I was feeling just prompted me to do something good for myself in a positive way. I decided to focus on my education, and I valued it. With a good education, no one can tell you that things are not possible.”
She went to some trouble to assure me she wasn’t a saint. “I love music, and sometimes I do slack off. But I always bounce back.” Humility, also increasingly missing from American life, is almost always a sign of special people.
Jazmine did one of the most challenging things for humans to do, especially for children.
She stepped back and looked at her life and grasped the very complex idea that she had a transformative choice to make and little time to make it.
And she made the right choice.
At every step of the way, the school was right there to support and encourage her. She said one of the reasons she felt free to change her life was that she felt so safe in the school. She listened to her teachers, and they helped steer her to a better place.
And she got a good education, as she wanted. She got straight A’s. Her teacher said she never got the chance to apply to college; several colleges came looking for her and asked her to apply. Jazmine has lived in Albany all of her life; she lives with her father and young sister.
Like so many Bishop Maginn students, Jazmine makes me understand that hardship can either build character in young people or destroy them. Bishop Maginn mostly has two kinds of students – inner-city kids who grew up in harsh and poor neighbors or refugee children who have suffered unspeakable hardship and violence. A lot of the middle-class students went to the suburbs with their parents some years ago.
More and more, I am meeting children whose character was forged in fire and pain. They all love the school.
The school’s extraordinary power is helping these broken children heal and move forward. I see it again and again. My friend Sue Silverstein is a wizard at that, so is principal Mike Tolan, who sets the tone.
I think Bishop Maginn challenges troubled children to make a choice – let their troubles pull them down or use the pain to build themselves up.
The school has its problems, but because it is a safe place – the students do not tear one another down – there is room and safety and the freedom to grow. I wrote about a young girl, a refugee, who was beaten so badly on a public school bus that she had to be hospitalized. She is cheerful, engaged, and confident at Bishop Maginn.
The teachers were right. Jazmine is a remarkable person of great character and strength. She is wise behind her years and has figured out how to escape the traps that can pull young people down and keep them down.
She has always chosen to “grow” the pain into something meaningful. She has no bad word to say about anyone, no complaints about a sometimes bone-chilling life.
At the end of every interview I have with a Bishop Maginn student, I ask them if anything meaningful I can get them – a cell phone, a laptop, a music player – that will enhance their cultural interest or education. Every time I asked Jasmine, she suggested things for the school – a new vending machine, some books. I kept bringing the idea back to her.
What could she use? What does she need? I said I wasn’t going to give up quickly or easily.
I finally wore her down – I told her I was just as stubborn as she is – and she said, well, okay, she would love to have an instant camera. A small and simple one. Enough said, I answered. Today, the Fuji Insta Max was delivered to Bishop Maginn High School, along with a truckload of toys from our wish list.
She’ll get the camera on Monday.
In an earlier version of the story, I misspelled Jazmine’s name. I called her “Jasmine” with an “s.” Sorry for the error.