The Essentiality of Understanding

At 165 feet tall, the massive, ornately designed bell tower looms over students as they enter Topeka High School each morning. Topeka High is an inner-city school located just blocks away from the Kansas State Capitol building. Students rarely fit stereotypes at Topeka High, as Topeka High is not a typical secondary education institution.

There is something to be gained at Topeka High not many other schools provide. It is not the courses offered, the graduation rate, the number of college-bound students, or even the architectural uniqueness of the building. What makes the Topeka High experience special for many students is the diversity of the student body. At Topeka High, students come from all walks of life. According to the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE), nearly 1,900 students attend Topeka High School. In the same report from 2017, KSDE reported 60 percent of Topeka High students as racial minorities and 65 percent of students as economically disadvantaged.

In one class period at Topeka High, it is possible for a student whose family is struggling daily to make ends meet to sit on one side of you, while a member of one of the wealthiest families in Topeka sits on the other.

As racial and economic divides continue to mount in the country, students at Topeka High reflect on the importance of going to a school with a diverse student body.

“It is very important to have a diverse student body because it helps to create a better sense of togetherness,” said Jiana Higgins, a Topeka High senior. “It helps educate each other and helps us to be more understanding. If not to help rid our generation of division, then it will help future generations.”

Kainalu Rader, senior, similarly stated the greatest advantage of attending Topeka High is working with people from different backgrounds.

“The biggest advantage is understanding you’re not the only person in this world, that there are other people in the world with different beliefs. This prepares you for the future of working with people from different backgrounds than yours,” said Rader. “Not only does this prepare you for the future, but it makes you a better person. At Topeka High, kids are a lot more knowledgeable about the real world, due to the fact we are so culturally diverse.”

Kirsten Cigler has been teaching English at Topeka High for 23 years. Cigler says understanding others is part of Topeka High’s tradition.

“There’s a long tradition here of listening to people’s stories, trying to appreciate people who are different from you.”

If someone has never stepped foot inside of Topeka High, they would never be able to truly understand the atmosphere. At Topeka High, students take the time to understand each other. They take the time to have real conversations with their peers who might be completely different from them. While this may sound all too perfect to an outsider, it is true. There are Topeka High students who face real-world struggles — homelessness, poverty, and economic disadvantage. Some kids are relied upon to take care of younger siblings. Some kids are in gangs. Some kids are in the foster care system. On the flip side, there are students who are scoring high on standardized tests, doing work from within the Topeka community, and are getting into some of the best universities in the country — none of those things being mutually exclusive.

“Topeka High is really odd. You know, when I first came here, the governor’s kids went to school here and then you have the kids who are working three jobs because their families need it,” said Cigler. “I think part of it is that there’s this location that’s in the inner-city that is going to create diversity no matter what, but there’s also a long tradition of a lot of electives, great arts, great music, great debate, great forensics, that bring people interested in those things here as transfer students.”

Cigler said parents have told her in the past they want their kid to “see the real world.” Cigler said, “parents see the value in exposing their kids to lots of different kinds of people.”

Going to Topeka High means learning from and about others. It means taking the time to consider other people’s circumstances and experiences.

As an example, Cigler described a situation in which a student might smell bad to others.

“It’s really easy if you have a pretty good life to think ‘Well, why don’t they just take a shower,’ when in reality, maybe they don’t have hot water at their house,” said Cigler. “Maybe they’re at the homeless shelter. Maybe they don’t have a washer and dryer. So what you assume the answer is, and what the answer might really be are different.”

Cigler explained that teachers need to point out to students examples of circumstances that could be the cause of problems. She also stated, “what’s normal here, is not normal other places.”

At Topeka High, students are surrounded by people who do not look like them, who do not share the same beliefs as them, and who have different interests. There is an ethereal beauty about the mixture of people at Topeka High. While every student who attends Topeka High is uniquely different, we all understand we share our learning spaces and we respect each other because we are different. At the end of the day, we all understand there are parts of us we share and parts of others which are shared with us.

Not only do Topeka High students have the opportunity to engage with students of different backgrounds and walks of life, but students have the opportunity to become politically engaged, as Topeka High is located only a few blocks away from Kansas’ State Capitol building.

After the presidential election in 2016, students were feeling upset with the outcome of the election. There was a group of students planning a walkout in protest of the elected administration, as they felt president Trump’s election was a green light for racist attitudes and remarks. Students planned on walking out of class to protest racial discrimination. When school administration got word of what students had planned, they intervened. This upset some students. However, instead of shutting the walkout down completely, the administration proposed a “unity walk,” in which students of all different political beliefs would come together to walk to the Capitol building to show the community “Topeka High is unified.”

Topeka High students gather on the Kansas State Capitol steps during the walkout against gun violence on March 14.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, approximately 1,000 Topeka High students took part in the national walkout on March 14. Due to the school’s close proximity to the Kansas Capitol building, Topeka High students once again marched to the Capitol building, this time in protest of gun violence and in support of the Parkland victims, survivors, and their families.

Topeka High students are diverse, understanding, and politically engaged. Taking the time to listen to other’s experiences, cultures, and outlooks can transform us in the most beautiful ways.

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