Tonika G. Johnson is a photographer and cofounder/lead teacher of Media-N-Motion, a south-side after-school writing program that explores media stereotypes and overcoming bias.
It was fall of 1993, the eve of my first day as a freshman at Lane Tech high school, and the night was filled with serious stomach butterflies—and fashion preparations. As the television blared music from the now-defunct cable channel the Box, I prestyled my hair between the careful selection of my outfit, which I laid out on the bed to make sure it was properly coordinated. Afterward I packed my brand-spanking-new Eddie Bauer book bag with my yellow Sony Walkman, big headphones, and a couple self-created hip-hop mix tapes of songs I recorded over the summer from WHPK and WKKC. I also included the minimal amount of school supplies necessary for me to justify carrying my Eddie B bag on the first day.
By teenage standards, I was more than ready for the first day of high school. The only thing remaining was to tame my nerves and survive the first week by avoiding—or cleverly enduring—the indignities rumored to befall incoming freshmen: getting wrong directions to navigate the school from upperclassmen; having pennies tossed at you; the shame of freshman being required to eat in the cafeteria while everyone else enjoyed open-campus lunch. My anxiousness about every detail of my first day of high school was well deserved, because nothing could have prepared me for what I would experience as I ventured from my Englewood home to a school in a very different part of town.
My alarm clock went off at 5 AM. I was on the 63rd Street bus to the el by 5:45 AM. After a nearly two-hour commute, I stepped off of the westbound #152 Addison bus—and was completely overwhelmed by Lane Tech’s 4,000-student body and its massive, city-block-long lawn. At that moment I realized I was no longer a big fish in a little pond of my grammar school, Holy Name Cathedral, with just over 150 students.
Despite my nervousness, I successfully found most of my classes. I got lost twice, but no pennies rained on me. And though I did eat the nasty school lunch in the cafeteria, each day after the first got easier—and more interesting.
By the end of my freshman year I—a young, eclectic, poetry-loving, self-certified hip-hop girl from Englewood—collected new friends from all over the city. It was through these friends that I learned about Jamaican beef patties sold at the Caribbean bakery on Howard Street; bought books and thrift clothes on and near Belmont; went to poetry readings in Wicker Park; was scolded by my Latino friends about the distinct differences between Puerto Rican and Mexican cultures; found out what Belizean and Dominican was; tasted Thai food; was humorously informed to avoid Chicago’s west-side streets “from Cicero to Laramie and Laramie on down;” was invited to my first hip-hop party; applied and was accepted to the youth writing program, Young Chicago Authors; and, most special to me, met other like-minded teenagers from my own neighborhood—neighbors whom I grew close to after finding each other far from our neighborhood.
On the eve of my first day as a freshman at Lane Tech, little did I know the next day would be the beginning of my education in the beautiful, sociocultural diversity of my city, Chicago.