Stuyvesant in the ‘90s: Reunited Alumni Recount!

Judging by the closeness of the group that remains today, it can be seen that Stuyvesant, despite its harsh academic nature, was a place to foster friendships and build lifelong connections in the 90s.

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The ‘90s in New York City was a period of paradoxes. The city itself, grappling with simultaneous economic resurgence, rising crime rates, and racial tensions, embraced the sonorous pulse of hip-hop, the aspirational allure of Wall Street, and the lingering echoes of the crack epidemic. Amid this patchwork of contradictions stood Stuyvesant. For those who treaded the linoleum-tiled floors of Stuy in the 90s, the school wasn’t just an academic institution; it was a metropolitan microcosm of the city itself—a melting pot of collective ambition. Now, in 2023, Stuyvesant remains a point of connection for its alumni. Rebecca Neuwrith (‘91) brought together a remarkable group of former students from her year, still friends today, to recount their experiences at Stuyvesant in the ‘90s. Not everything was rosy; there was high pressure to perform, and an overreliance on test scores rather than deep learning.

Stuyvesant in the ‘90s embodied a high-stakes academic arena. More often than not, the relentless pursuit of excellence took priority over genuine learning, creating an unhealthy environment steeped in the pressure to succeed. This heightened atmosphere of competition cultivated a culture where, when Julie Clapperton (‘91) attended, cheating became almost ingrained. “There were some very clever and underhanded ways that people found to cheat on tests,” she said. “It's kind of sad to think about it, that the pressure was so immense that people felt the need to do this to advance. Looking back, it just feels kind of dirty; it’s not so much about getting an education and learning as it is about just the grades.” 

Amid this academic pressure cooker, Clapperton recalled a vivid anecdote, showing the lengths some students went to for an academic edge. “Some students in Albany stole the Chemistry Regents and the answers and, long story short, it was published on the front page of The New York Post—while waiting in line outside the school to go in for the Chemistry Regents. And I remember [someone] ran across the street to the bodega and bought The New York Post and brought it back. And we were all sitting together, memorizing, I think we had got through the first 16 answers,” Clapperton recounted. Students found creative ways to bring the answers into the exam, showcasing a different set of skills that Stuyvesant taught students: how to cheat the system. “I remember trying to carve all the answers into a number two pencil when it was announced that the exam was canceled,” Jeff Koo (‘91) added. While humorous, these anecdotes offer glimpses into a period where chasing grades momentarily overshadowed academic integrity. 

Students at Stuyvesant in the ‘90s, much like those entering the school today, navigated the challenges of adjusting to high school life by immersing themselves in various extracurricular activities. Koo recounted how he “was trying to find [his] people at Stuyvesant” by joining a sports team and playing games with peers in the cafeteria. Students discovered a sense of community whether it was through sports teams, clubs, or the annual SING! competition. Dan Abrams (‘91) participated in SING!, Stuyvesant’s annual student-run musical production for all four years of high school. “[They] had firework explosions on stage and no one got in trouble,” Abrams shared.

For some, the rigor and various opportunities at Stuyvesant prepared them for college and life after high school. Koo, who went to City College after Stuyvesant and is now a licensed architect, expressed that Stuyvesant provided a foundation for him in his career. “It did set me on my career path, exploring all those drafting classes back in the day. That was my happy place,” he said. “Our academics kind of put us on a pedestal to a certain extent, and not everyone in this world performs at the same level. So I used to be very frustrated, ‘How come not everyone’s getting it as quickly as I do?’ And I realized, well, you know, a lot of people don’t. And that was the eye-opening part.” 

Adding on, Rebecca Neuwirth (‘91) explained how her activities allowed for skills with lasting values that went beyond just social connections. “I did Speech and, even though it wasn't a big thing for me [...] That experience of having to speak in front of other people and be competitive about it and get feedback was a real, big academic experience,” she recalled. And for Abrams, participating in SING! inspired him to further pursue his passion for film. “It helped launch me into my television and feature film career. You know, I got to direct for House Hunters International and all these plays, etc. And I probably would not have gotten there had I not made that feature film,” he said. “But that was that same team. You know, in the entertainment industry, they say you grow up, your cohorts hire you, you hire your friends, one of you gets over the wall before the others, and they take those talented ones over. And then if you’re successful enough, you have enough power, you can bring over the cool friends who don’t have talent.”

Despite attending a specialized public high school themselves, many members of the group considered different paths for their children’s education after attending Stuyvesant. “I’m actually homeschooling my kids. I wanted to go as far away from Stuyvesant as possible for my kids’ education. I think for the right kids it can be a great place. But for my kids, I just knew they wouldn't be interested in math and science to [the] extent that they would really enjoy Stuyvesant,” Sarah Jensen (‘91) said.

With the pressure at Stuyvesant to seek higher education, academics often seemed to take precedence over enjoying adolescence. “To have [getting into a good college] as the goal and to put all your energy into that just feels foolhardy or something. They still need to have a childhood,” Clapperton said. “They’re still kids, you know, and they still need to have a life and be with friends. [...] Most of their life is spent there, so if they’re not in a place that they’re enjoying themselves, and feeling like they have a voice and that they feel comfortable, and that they can relax a little bit.”

Despite being academically rigorous, Stuyvesant offered students a place to find a community of like-minded people where they could grow as both academics and individuals. “I wasn’t aware of Brooklyn’s Chinatown at the time. So it was kind of refreshing to have people that kind of look like me. And so it was a little different to kind of be able to find my people,” Koo said. Judging by the closeness of the group that remains today, it is clear that Stuyvesant, despite its harsh academic nature, was a place to foster lifelong relationships.