Noah Caruso, 17, calls South Philadelphia home. Known for cheesesteaks, pizza, and bakeries, South Philly is a close-knit, largely Italian American neighborhood where much of the population has traditionally shared the same background, culture, and race. Though an influx of immigrants has made the area more diverse in recent decades, South Philly, like the rest of the city, remains highly segregated. Caruso’s predominantly white community was echoed at his middle school, Christopher Columbus Charter School, where he says all of his teachers were white like him, as were virtually all of his classmates. It was against this backdrop that Caruso enrolled in Science Leadership Academy (SLA)—a public magnet high school in the city—and landed in the freshman English class of Matthew Kay, his first black teacher.
Now a rising senior, Caruso looks back with appreciation on his ninth-grade year in Kay’s class. “He’s the most inspiring teacher I ever had by far,” Caruso said, recalling Kay’s emphasis and commentary on fraught topics such as present-day racism. “He definitely pushed us to really think about these social issues [that] weren’t talked about before in my life because everyone grew up in the same area,” he continued. “We were all white … and everyone had the same opinion.” Caruso recalled a class in which Kay had students watch a scene from American History X, a graphic 1998 film about neo-Nazis and white supremacy in America. The teacher, Caruso noted, didn’t hold back in expressing his perspective on the persistence of prejudice in the country. It was one of many discussions with Kay that Caruso said opened his eyes “to all of these things I never even thought about before ... It inspired me to want to do something about it.”