Need a place to find yourself? Try Muni (really).
Muni is the through line in this week’s podcast story from Simone Herko Felton, a senior at Lowell High School in San Francisco. Simone has lived here all her life and takes the 23-Monterey to go to school daily. She explains what it’s like to be a high school student in San Francisco taking this cross town bus, and why this particular line is symbolic of her multi-ethnic identity.
Listeners who went to high school in the city will especially appreciate Simone’s call out to how to pronounce “Lowell” in the appropriate San Francisco accent.
Listen to her story here:
We’re always looking for great stories from San Franciscans! If you have a story to share on the podcast, pitch your story to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and as always, add your own diary entry by tagging us @munidiaries on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
The 23 bus, which I take to and from school, goes from the Bayview in the east to St. Francis Wood in the west — from one of the poorest in San Francisco to one of the wealthiest. I lie somewhere in between.
I’m mixed. Half white, quarter Japanese, quarter Creole. Those are the facts, but what they imply in regards to my “race,” I’ve never determined. I’m not quite white, not quite brown, and not quite not either of them. Likewise, I’m not poor, but also not rich; I’m privileged enough to have college-educated parents, but not enough to pay for college. I’ve spent a lifetime searching for my place in this balance of race and class, attempting to understand both my privilege and my disadvantages. In this way, the 23 is the sliding scale that I navigate.
I don’t get on the 23 until it’s halfway through its route, and then it heads westward to my school, Lowell. The odd group of 23 passengers are both familiar to me and unknown. I often wonder about these intimate strangers — whether they feel their place in the world better than I do, how alike or different our lives may be. The branching variations of our destinations are abundantly clear; we may all be taking the 23, but we will all get on and off at different stops, go our different ways. I get on in the middle of the route, and I get off at Lowell.
With its round vowels and its near-perfect oral symmetry, Lowell has as a word nearly lost its meaning, being more idea than institution. People say it quickly, the two vowels merging into one so that “Low-ell” becomes “Lohl,” and suddenly it’s a dirty word. Officially, Lowell is an alternative school — a public school for the best and the brightest. It’s often criticized for its lack of diversity; in the 1980s it was called “the school for Chinese girls.” Today the reputation is essentially the same: a massive school of soulless, college-driven Asian kids. Racist, I know.
Outsiders hear “Lowell,” and they think not only of homogeneity, tirelessness, and ambition, but also of privilege, elitism, and injustice — never mind the fact that 40% of students here are designated “socioeconomically disadvantaged.” Students hear “Lowell,” and they think of stress, oppressive and constant. “Low-hell,” they call it.
That’s not what I see, though. Every morning the bus stops, and all the Lowell students get off and walk to the dreary cinder block building, and we are presented with a choice: to face the day with a love of learning and a willingness to engage, or to begin already defeated. Lowell is more opportunity than destiny. It’s a series of doors waiting to be knocked upon, if only you bother to look up.
The problem, then, is who gets to be there. My being in the middle of the 23 bus route is an advantage; in my Ethnic Studies class we talked about how transportation to Lowell, in the far western corner of the city, can be a major barrier to students of color, meaning that the location of my house literally places me a step ahead of kids in the Bayview.
To be in between, then, is a privilege. I’m still not sure where I stand on the spectrum of race, and even less sure of how my strange “middle” status can help me work towards greater justice. But I do know that my education is an opportunity to figure those things out, and so I take it on with gratitude and with dedication.
In my mind, Lowell doesn’t exist so that the “smarter” kids can get the “better” education; it exists so that people with diligence and drive can get where they need to be to make the world a better place. That opportunity still needs to be expanded to more people, but on the individual level, I think that my public education is not only a privilege, but a duty — an investment into me by the state of California.
And so I’ll continue taking the 23 each morning, continue applying myself to the best of my ability, without knowing my final destination, because I am certain that what I do is part of a greater whole.