Every Friday after lunch and recess, a group of six seventh grade boys at The Ella Baker School get personal. They enter a regular meeting with Louis Hernandez, a guidance counselor at the school who uses a unique approach to group counseling: separating students by sex, beginning in the third grade.
Hernandez says he sees kids beginning to discriminate against each other, sometimes by gender, as early as the first grade, and that addressing it early on leads to healthier relationships. The weekly sessions are a chance for the students to talk about the things that may be affecting their schoolwork—things they may not feel as comfortable saying in a co-ed meeting. They’re meant to increase their “emotional quotient,” or EQ, as Hernandez refers to it.
Ella Baker is located on the Upper East Side, but is a school for parents who work in the area and live elsewhere. Eighty-five percent of the students are blackor Latino, and 45 percent receive free or reduced-price lunch, compared to the city average of 70 percent in 2009-2010.
On a recent Friday afternoon, the six 12-year-old boys walked into Hernandez’s office and assumed their seats around the perimeter of the brightly decorated room. Some of the boys have been attending Ella Baker since preschool and have been going to meetings like this for at least a few years. They’re clearly comfortable in the space. “It sets a safe environment where you can be yourself,” says Elijah, a soft-spoken but talkative boy, about the singlesex meetings. “Boys can be with other boys and talk about what goes on in your life.”
Topics range from serious to silly—from family to girls to sports.
“Can we check in?” asks AZ, anxious to get started. “Checking in” is what they call the weekly updates on their lives, and every boy is eager to do it. After someone checks in, other group members can comment or offer any advice, some of which is wise beyond their years.
Brandon, his arms and head hiding in an oversized navy blue hoodie, asks to check in. He tells a story about how an elderly woman approached him earlier in the week asking him where the closest Starbucks was. He intentionally gave her misleading signals by pointing in various directions, sending her walking the wrong way.
“You tricked an old lady?” Juan asks, to a round of hesitant laughter.
“I don’t know why I did it,” Brandon reflected. “ I wasn’t thinking.”
“Does anyone want to add anything?” Hernandez asked.
“That was messed up,” Elijah said, and Brandon agreed and said he felt bad about it.
Hernandez mentions that people were laughing when Brandon told his story, and asks why.
“There’s different types of laughter,” AZ says. “Nervous laughter, funny laughter.”
A conversation about the different types of laughter follows.
Elijah checked in next, saying that he had a bad week because he fought with his mom and was now finding it hard to talk with her over dinner. Juan sympathized and said that he never sits down with his family, even for holidays like Thanksgiving.
When he heard this, Hernandez suggested that they organize a meal to have together in an upcoming session, treating it as a family dinner. Everyone is on board.
Some of the decisions the 11- and 12-year-old students encounter would be difficult even for an adult.
Juan shares that his sister, who recently moved down to Georgia, took his dog Chulo with her. He said he missed Chulo, and that when this happened once before, they changed the dog’s name and he didn’t want that to happen again. His aunt had offered to give him money for a PlayStation game system, and he was thinking about using the money to try and get his dog back up to New York instead.
“Is he family to you?” asks Elijah. “You should get the dog.”
But Juan’s mind was already made up, he said. He is going to try and get Chulo back.
Josh, who had been quiet throughout most of the 40-minute meeting, raised his hand to check in. He shared the happy news that after weeks of sleeping on the floor and couch because his mom had to get rid of his sister’s mattress, forcing her to take over his, he was finally getting his bed back because his family got a futon.
Michael, one of the boys at Ella Baker since preschool, said that he knew how Josh felt because his younger cousin used to take his bed when she came to visit, and he would sleep on the couch for up to a week at a time.
AZ begins with a story about how he and his girlfriend, who normally argue a lot, made it through the day without fighting.
“No more divorce?” asks Juan, seated on a small couch with his feet up, and a wave of giggles circle the room.
Hernandez asks AZ why he thought they didn’t fight that day, and after a moment of silent pondering, AZ says he’s not sure.
Elijah, raises his hand to offer his advice on women. “I think you should treat her nicely,” he says, explaining that he comes from a household of mostly women. “If you think it’s pretty, say yes. If you think it’s not, say no. [Women] want you to be honest, as much as it hurts.”