Munching on a bag of jalapeño potato chips, 16-year-old Emily Conner is cooking vegan food for the homeless and talking about how much she hates her high school.
Emily was a theater tech student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts until her mom got sick and decided to homeschool her so they could spend more time together. Her mother's stomach cancer worsened and she got too tired to teach, so Emily enrolled at Lamar. After her mom died last November, Emily started skipping classes; since she wasn't getting credit for the time she was homeschooled, and she was going to have to repeat most of tenth grade, she didn't see the point in attending class. She went to the library, read, took long walks or hung out with friends.
She moved in with her mother's best friend, violist Erika Lawson, in a house two blocks from Empire Cafe. The living room is filled with books, geodes sparkle in front of the fireplace, and issues of Harper's and National Geographic are stacked neatly on an antique coffee table. Emily started skipping less, but by the time Erika talked to the school's counselors it was too late; Emily had already been sentenced to 180 days at CEP for excessive absences. "They had decided to get rid of her," Erika says. "We were talking about options, and then the options were gone."
CEP isn't an easy fit for a person like Emily, a teen who doesn't respect authority and wants to someday start an anarchist collective community. She's a counter-culture Wiccan with dyed black hair, a radical cheerleader who regularly riots against capitalist corporations like CEP. A for-profit school frustrates her, because it's exactly the type of company she would protest. "They're making money off me," she says.
She wants to drop out and get her GED, but Erika insists that Emily needs a high school diploma. Emily plows through her work trying to finish as soon as possible; in the month she's been at CEP she's finished all the science credits she needs to graduate and still finds time to crawl under her desk for half-hour naps twice a day. Emily's a model CEP student, but the stress of being there watching students stab each other with pencils -- and hearing rumors about kids breaking each others' arms and throwing computers at each other -- works her stomach into knots. Some days all she wants to do is throw up or go home. "My head is always hurting there; I think I get migraines because of it," Emily says. "I never used to get headaches."
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Emily is a smart girl, a voracious reader with an enormous vocabulary. She likes learning, but she doesn't respect her uncertified teachers because she feels that she's smarter than they are. She's exasperated that her English teacher uses the word boringer. "As in boring and boringer," Emily says. "The teachers, if they're not complete idiots, they're complete fascists."
Erika promised Emily that she will not return to CEP in the fall. She's meeting with other parents, looking into other options. "Emily is going to be saved because I'm fighting and other parents are fighting. It's unconscionable," Erika says. "If she has to be in it very long, something bad is going to happen. CEP is driving her further down the road."
Emily can stick it out for another few weeks; she'll take naps and earn credits, but she can't stomach the idea of serving the full sentence. "I don't think I could physically -- not mentally, but physically -- take that much CEP," she says. "I'd have to regurgitate every day."
"It's a depressing place," Emily says. "Everyone is so stuck. They have no choice. The happiest I see kids is in gym class -- even fat dorky kids who never do anything in gym are elated because they get to move around."