Stuyvesant’s Social Spaces Dilemma

An investigation into the English department room’s new policy of only allowing three students at a time.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Ori Mermelstein

Stuyvesant’s hallways are notoriously crowded, with each passing period bringing swells of students. Whether they are slumped on a bench for a quick nap, sitting on the floor completing homework, or talking to friends, students often choose random hallway spots to spend their free time. More intentionally placed are the bustling sophomore and senior bars, along with the junior and senior atria, which provide the student body with designated socialization spots. But for those who crave a quieter oasis from school stress, there has always been an alternative hangout space: the English department room, commonly known as the English office. Home to student monitors and open to anyone who wants to drop by, the English office has been a student refuge from the clamor of the sixth floor.

A rule was put in place this school year that allows only three students to occupy the English office at a time. This rule has altered the room’s traditional use as a student hangout space. “It’s definitely changed the atmosphere there. Following the implementation of the new rule, every time I find myself in [the English office], it feels as though I’m intruding on the space, that I really shouldn’t be there,” Anonymous Senior A stated. “The English office wasn’t some place for students to party or go crazy like in other social places. Instead, it was like a safe haven for students who weren’t in love with hanging out in the sophomore or senior bar[s].”

The English office is very different from a typical Stuyvesant classroom or social space. A soft couch inhabits the back corner and a round wooden table occupies the adjacent space. This creates an environment in which students can comfortably work, talk, or eat lunch. Though the library is another quiet space for students to work in, it lacks the English office’s homey atmosphere. English teacher and aluma Annie Thoms (‘93) described the room as a space for the student body. “You have students who are looking for other kinds of like-minded, really active readers and writers,” Thoms said. “We do want to be a place that facilitates student-student connection.”

Though students view the English office as an asset to their Stuyvesant experiences, some teachers feel the presence of visitors has made it harder for them to hold one-on-one meetings with students. “One of the other things that we need, as the English department, is a place for teachers to talk with students,” Thoms explained. She utilizes the English office to hold individual meetings with every student in her Writing to Make Change class, which is the room’s designated purpose. “I would come in [to the office], and I’d have to be like, ‘I’m so sorry, can you move all your stuff?’ Because I have had legitimate conferencing that I’ve had to do,” Thoms recalled. Additionally, she noted that some students prefer privacy when discussing coursework with teachers. “It’s not going to make them necessarily feel comfortable to have like, five upperclassmen listening in and eating their sandwiches,” Thoms elaborated. Private meetings between students and teachers cannot be conducted effectively in a room that doubles as a hangout space, which both teachers and students are beginning to acknowledge. “It felt like another social space that students had taken over,” Anonymous Senior A explained.

However, Thoms did recognize that there is a need for some students to spend their free time in the space. “We have amazing, wonderful student monitors who really help us out in the book room because […] in English, we’re constantly taking out books,” Thoms explained.

Thoms acknowledged the necessity of social spaces for every student. “I think that it’s very important for students to have in-person socialization,” Thoms explained. In a school as academically rigorous as Stuyvesant, forming strong peer connections can help students cope with stress, which is especially vital in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Junior Pepsi H. has found a space conducive to socialization just a few steps from the English office. They explained that helping purchase a Christmas tree for the sophomore bar connected them immensely with other students. “The amount of community effort I saw from people in both cases was incredible,” Pepsi H. said. They went on to say that they have actually had some of the best moments of their life at the sophomore bar. “I’ve been searching my whole life for that sense of home, and finally being able to experience it was a truly indescribable feeling. I cannot imagine my high school experience without spaces like this, and they truly are a hallmark of the essence of this school,” Pepsi H. explained. Stuyvesant’s shared spaces have fostered camaraderie and friendship for them, helping them navigate their high school experience.

Physics teacher and alumnus Jeffrey Wan (‘15) believes that socialization is also beneficial for academic growth. When his students struggle to grasp course material, he advises them to talk through problems with friends. Wan understands that students need to have an appropriate social space to do this. “It’s hard to work through the ideas unless you have a space that’s quiet, unless you have a space that doesn’t really have many distractions,” Wan explained. During his tenure as a Stuyvesant student, he often hung out in the Student Union room behind the senior bar, which has remained a place to spend free time. “I have a lot of good memories in that room […] [it was] definitely a positive experience [to be there],” Wan recalled.

However, Sophomore Sasha Murokh pointed out that students in hangout areas can be disruptive to the rest of the school. “Some of the social spaces, such as the sophomore bar, are pretty close to classrooms where teachers are trying to teach, rather than hear the sounds of a game of tag throughout the hallways,” Murokh explained in an e-mail interview. Murokh described the environment of the sophomore bar as “chaos.” However, Murokh does not think there are many other options for student socialization. “There really isn’t a way to fix this other than mutual cooperation to keep the noise levels to the minimum,” Murokh elaborated.

With concerns about the overpopulation of Stuyvesant’s social spaces comes a larger debate: are there even enough of them? Murokh believes that there are. “I feel like there’s enough hallways, atriums, and bars that the student population can hang out in during frees and before [and] after school,” Murokh continued. “Besides, staircases are always available if anyone wants a more private space,” Murokh suggested. If Stuyvesant were to create more social spaces, however, she recommends something simple: more benches. “There are so many students sitting in the hallways by the walls, and teachers often reprimand them for blocking the halls. More benches would solve this problem,” Murokh explained.

Wan disagreed with the opinion that students have enough hangout spaces. When asked if the building offers adequate student socialization spots, Wan said, “No, probably not, because there’s like 3,500 of you.” The official social spaces—sophomore bar, junior atrium, senior atrium, and senior bar (as well as the slightly less official half floor for freshmen)—can only hold so many students each, and there are bound to be people that have to find somewhere else to hang out.

Thoms also believes that there is a lack of social spaces available to students. “It’s one of the main problems with this building,” Thoms added. During her own senior year, when the school moved to its current location, she realized that the building was limited in social spaces. “There’s […] a lot of empty space, but a lot of it is in places [where] it’s hard for people to socialize without disrupting classes,” Thoms clarified.

There is no denying that social spaces are important at Stuyvesant, where students are faced with pressure from not only parents and teachers, but also from competitive classmates. Many students struggle to find a space that fulfills their emotional needs but is not disruptive to the classes or teachers around them. Stuyvesant’s building has the space to include more designated socialization spots for students, but initiative needs to be taken in order to transform these into usable areas. After all, even a few benches could make a big difference.