NEW YORK — They are called the old warriors of East Harlem-- whose conquests of other worlds have filled them with wisdom and made them heroes to their neighbors--even if they aren't old enough to drive.
When four old warriors recently returned to their training grounds at the East Harlem School at Exodus House, everyone came to hear them describe living far from the projects, at some of the nation's more prestigious prep schools.
Everyone but David Ward.
The 14-year-old eighth-grader, sent home for arguing with a superior, missed what is considered a sacred event. Although he could have benefited from the session, the suspension provided a deeper lesson to one of this private middle school's gifted but stubborn students.
"He's a lot more passionate and interested student than I've ever known," says teacher Laurent Alfred, who has taught David for four years. "But it's hard for him to focus sometimes."
Many schools might obscure their students' flaws. At the East Harlem School, teachers and administrators shine a searing light on them, trying to burn away bad traits. Education never stops for the 63 boys and girls, all from minority groups, and lessons often lie outside their books, multiplication tables and science projects.
Students who struggled elsewhere--some are castoffs from public schools--are challenged to be better people. They're told that maybe, if they push themselves, they can attain the success enjoyed by the old warriors, the term the school uses for its graduates.
"We look for a much more holistic approach with the students," Alfred says. "And we look for the kids that don't do so well. If not for this school, a lot of these students would be floundering, and I mean brilliant students."
Not every child succeeds. School officials say they have no list of youngsters who left or were expelled, but the numbers are fewer now than in the early days, when administrators acknowledge they failed to make it clear how strict they planned to be.
The dress code calls for white shirts, navy pants or skirts, and dress shoes. The students aren't supposed to date one another. They must sit and walk with an upright posture, speak English properly and sign a contract to skip TV on school nights. Strict punishments await those who break the rules.
But those are just physical lessons. The real education digs into deeper issues of intellect and morality to create young people with a sense of self and community.
When eighth-graders present their final project before the entire school, principal and co-founder Ivan Hageman sits quietly at the rear to hear their report on "Science and Revolutionary Change With Society."
He had been pessimistic about the eight students' chosen topic, thinking it was too much for them to describe with any real comprehension.
But after a 90-minute presentation, an impressed Hageman praises the students--then tests them with a series of questions, such as whether they think humans have evolved as a species from 150,000 years ago.
"I want them to feel pressure, anxiety on an intellectual level," Hageman explains.
His questions leave younger students shaking their heads in bewilderment, but the eighth-graders have answers.
Hageman beams. The session was just what he and his brother, Hans, had in mind when Exodus House evolved into a middle school seven years ago. The four-story building was previously a drug rehabilitation center, opened by their parents in the 1980s.
Although their now-deceased parents--their father was white, their mother black--had modest incomes, the Hageman boys attended private schools. Hans, now 42, became a defense lawyer and Ivan, 41, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard, a teacher.
Before starting the school, the brothers got the drug dealers who worked across the street to move elsewhere. Raising money was tougher.
The Hagemans relied on their ties to the cultural elite. An old classmate of the brothers from Manhattan's Collegiate School, John F. Kennedy Jr., was a board member of the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity of corporate leaders, and prodded it to donate seed money. Other donations came from newscaster Tom Brokaw and actors Paul Newman and Linda Fiorentino.
Tuition is on a sliding scale for parents who can afford it, ranging from $100 to $300 a month. Donations make up the rest of the budget. No student is turned away for lack of money.
Where the East Harlem School truly earns its marks is with the special attention given its students. Each class begins with a minute of silence. "It's a way to get them engaged, to make a transition, so they realize it's almost a sacred place here," Alfred says.
At least three times a week, Ivan Hageman leads groups of students on field trips he calls "the warrior walk." At times, he lets them stroll quietly, taking time to meditate. On other "walks," he pushes them to a jog, to toughen their bodies and give them a sense of strength and invincibility.