Category Archives: high school

A Vietnamese Lunch

I remember my first day of high school — mainly, the noise.  Three-thousand adolescents shouted in more than forty languages. We had a large population of immigrants and no single racial heritage constituted the majority. I spent a few days blitzed by the contrast to my previous school — immaculate campus, overwhelmingly White, academically outstanding, college prep. But even though I was intimidated by Hollywood High, I felt a magnetic draw, and gradually my experience began to shift. In this new environment with so many diverse folks, the usual judgments of adolescence fell away. We spoke different words, wore different clothes, ate different food, followed different customs…and I found it absolutely liberating.

I signed up to tutor other students in math and English. In my previous school, I was not admired (a vast understatement) for my Olympic-Caliber-Nerd status. But Hollywood High surprised me. Every time I helped students understand an algebra problem or read an assignment in English, they felt a heightened sense of belonging and a shot of confidence. What I didn’t expect was that I’d feel the same way. As their self-esteem grew, so did mine. In this new environment, tutoring was viewed as valuable, and I began to thrive.

I remember one girl from a small village in Vietnam. She struggled with geometry word problems. Her issue was the language, not numbers or geometric concepts. Together, we listed the words and phrases commonly found in her level of math, with definitions in both of our languages. She aced her next test. The following week, she brought me a gift — a meal from an old family recipe. I have no idea what it was, because she only knew the ingredients in her  language — a dialect filled with vernacular specific to her rural village. That day, I learned the powerful bond of sharing food cooked from the heart, offered from the heritage of an immigrant girl navigating a new world.

Circumstances were harsh for many immigrant students. Some lived in impoverished homes, or on their own, or with relatives who didn’t want them, or on the streets. Looking back, I realize how many were in desperate need of an intervention. At the time, the thought never crossed my mind. We didn’t question each other’s circumstances.

Today, several decades later, I’m deeply concerned about how the USA will recover from the previous administration’s approach to immigrants. I find it heartbreaking to imagine the weight of fear that immigrants have been forced to carry on their shoulders. They left a place of extreme hardship, for a land that offered possibility. We are their hope, but they are also ours. I wish that all people who are hostile to immigrants had tasted that girl’s special dish, cooked the night before by her grandmother, a recipe passed down from several generations. I’ve never known a finer gift.

Now, my heart goes out to those who were barred from entering the land that was supposed to be their sanctuary. With the ICE raids that took place, I grieve for families torn apart, for parents and children separated and shattered, a frightened and bruised group in need of immediate care. Together, one by one, we can reach out and make a difference in the life of a child, an adolescent, an adult — a future nurse, professor, artist, sales clerk — or possibly the owner of the finest Vietnamese restaurant imaginable.


Amy’s Novels:

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable

Caroline Black, 15 years old, leaves her wealthy prep school for her local high school, which opens her world. At Hollywood High, she finds a large immigrant population speaking over 40 languages. Although frightened  and intimidated as she navigates this new territory, Caroline thrives in the diversity of her new school.


Caroline Black, 10 years later, navigates her first year of training as a therapist. Chapters in her treatment of a talented but troubled young man are interspersed with chapters of her own personal history. This book explores how the individual and community mutually influence each other, and the importance of becoming your own full person. 

Visit Amy’s Author Page to read reviews, check out the first few chapters, purchase a novel.

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Filed under A Home Within, donation, foster care, high school, hollywood high school, immigrants, Uncategorized, Welcoming America

What If He Is?

When I was in high school, my friend stopped an incident of bullying with one quiet question.

“Pam” (not her real name) and I were at the beach, standing at the water’s edge, 16 years old. A  group of three guys stood to our right. Another adolescent, male, swam alone in the surf. At the same moment, Pam and I realized the group next to us was angling for our approval.

“Look at him!”

Pam and I exchanged a confused glance.

“Can’t even swim.”

They pointed to the water, where the swimmer navigated the ocean like a dolphin.

“He looks like a total jerk.”

The boy — maybe 17 — caught a wave and rode it to shore. He rose to his feet and headed back out, diving through the breakers. His timing was perfect, a strong swimmer, at home in the crashing surf of the California coast. His skill was clearly a threat to the three fine gentlemen to our right.

“He’s a f – -!”

“Total f – -!”

“Definitely a f – -!” They gave each other high fives.

I said quietly, “Let’s go,” but Pam shook her head. Instead, she faced the three boys and spoke softly.

“What if he is?”

They stared at her. Then one pointed to the water. “F – -!”

She shrugged disarmingly and repeated, “What if he is?”

They looked at each other, then back at her. “Well, nothing, I guess.”

She held her ground for a long moment, then turned to me. “Let’s swim.”

For the next hour, we bodysurfed with the swimmer. We left the ocean together, streaming water, warm in the salty sun. He invited us to join his friends, and we feasted on iced tea, veggies, hummus, chips, guacamole. The pack of three glanced at us periodically, but didn’t approach. We never asked if the swimmer and his two friends were gay for the same reason they didn’t ask us: it didn’t matter.

What. If. He. Is.

Four simple words. Mightier than the sword.


Amy Kaufman Burk is an author and blogger. Her first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, was written in reaction to seeing gay teens bullied in high school, and follows a family’s journey after the daughter comes out. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, includes a strong friendship between two men, one gay and one straight, as well as a lesbian couple (raising a son and daughter) who become role model parents to the main character. Amy’s blog has several posts written in ally support of LGBTQ+. 

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable and Tightwire have both been on Amazon’s Top Rated List for LGBT Literary Fiction.

Amy’s Author Page On Amazon

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Filed under #KindnessInAction, bullying, GLSEN, high school, LGBT

Amy vs. Chapter 37

“You think beating J.D. to death was okay?”

“What’s the big deal? He’s only a fa—”

“Don’t say that word!” 

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable

Chapter 37

I talked in paragraphs at fourteen months, and I haven’t shut up since. Most people don’t realize, because I usually keep my words inside my head, ready to be tapped. As I created my first novel, I wrote with confidence, trusting my collection of sounds, phrases, suffixes, sentences — until Chapter 37, when I found myself locked in battle with one word.

I chose the title Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable from my high school and its motto. Over the strong objections of my parents, I transferred from a college prep academy to the local public school. Mom and Dad were appalled when I insisted on trading a stellar academic curriculum, a gorgeous campus with state of the art science labs and tennis courts, for a school that struggled to afford textbooks. To this day, I’m grateful to my parents for trusting me at fourteen — sitting before them in ratty jeans, dark blonde hair slightly tangled, fumbling to explain that my horizon needed to stretch.

Hollywood High opened my world — over 40 native languages uniting to form an extremely diverse community. I volunteered to tutor in math and English, and suddenly being a hyper-nerd was viewed by my peers as valuable. Who knew.

But one aspect of Hollywood High haunted me: the violence targeting gay students.

I wrote about high school in reaction to the bullying I witnessed. As I created the fictional story, factual images flooded back full throttle. I remembered the pack of athletes chanting “F – -”, surrounding a boy, shouting until he cried.  I could picture the group of popular teens snickering as two guys walked by in heels. I could see the girl who casually took my arm and told me, smiling sweetly, that she heard a gay student had been beaten to death by football players. Actually she didn’t say “gay student”; she used the same word the pack of athletes chanted.

Decades later, several drafts into writing Hollywood High, Chapter 37 was putting up a fight. I had launched a key character on a homophobic rant, and I decided he needed to speak the same word that the athletes and the gossip-girl had used. No problem — except my hands wouldn’t cooperate. I sat poised, fingers hovering over the keys, unable to type. But like I said, no problem, because I had zillions of words floating around my head. I swapped out the offensive word and tried another, and another. But at that specific moment in the story, at that point in the character’s development, no other word made sense. Again, no problem…except I couldn’t do it.

I gave myself a firm talk: snap out of it — nobody said writing was easy — homophobia is brutal and my language has to match the severity. I hit the “F” key. I steeled myself, and hit the “A”…and I couldn’t complete the word. Every time I tried to type the “G”, I was transported to tenth grade. I felt the same queasy dread, cold-sweat panic, deer-in-headlights paralysis. Caught in a time warp, I could hear that word shouted, see the boy fighting for composure, feel my own composure break when he lost.

I wish I could go back, because now I’d know what to do. I’d shoulder my way through the crowd, and stand with that boy. I’d establish a gay-straight alliance, and send the athletes, popular kids and gossip-girl invitations to join. I’d approach the school’s outstanding drama department, and offer to sponsor a play to educate people, try to plant the seeds of empathy. If they couldn’t find a play, I’d write one. I’d coordinate with other organizations at school to stand against bullying, and I’d reach out to other schools as well. I’d ask my friends on the school newspaper if they’d write a piece. I’d bring as many people together as I could. And as I filled my head with wishes, I felt my writing process unlock. My character needed to say that hateful word (actually twice), but I didn’t need to replay the worst of high school. Now, each time my character tried to speak, I’d bring in another character to interrupt him. I needed the “F” and the “A”, but I didn’t need the “G”.

This time, I stopped that word in its tracks.


Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable deals with homophobic bullying in high school, and follows a girl’s journey after she comes out to her family. The story tracks a group of diverse high school friends as they confront homophobia in themselves and others, and find paths to becoming LGBTQ+ allies. Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable has been on Amazon’s Top Rated List for LGBT Literary Fiction. Click on the link below to find Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable on Amazon.

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Filed under bullying, GLSEN No Name Calling Week, high school, LGBT

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, Chapter 1

Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable

By Amy Kaufman Burk


Caroline Black worked her way to the front row. She chose the center seat, and clasped her hands on the battered wood. Trying to contain her nerves, she studied the scarred surface. Daisy and Nick Forever. Jack Daniels for President. Daisy and Todd Forever. Algebra Sucks. Daisy and Larry Forever. Several hearts with initials. A large hand, loosely fisted, exceptional detail, middle finger extended. Caroline swallowed dryly, appalled that so many kids had carved up school property, but more appalled by her own admiration: the fuck-you artist is talented with a knife.

“Is this desk taken?”

Caroline looked up and shook her head. The girl smiled shyly, and slid into the next seat.

“I’m Kayla Davidson. I’m new.”

“I’m Caroline Black. I’m new, too.”

They shook hands.

“I’m from Massachusetts,” Kayla offered.

“I’m from Laurel Academy,” Caroline answered.

Kayla raised an eyebrow. “Is that a sovereign nation?”

The bell blared, and thirty kids scrambled for their seats. Ten quiet seconds, then conversations resumed: summer jobs, hairstyles, outfits, girls hugging, boys giving each other high fives, a few couples kissing passionately. A tall, skinny, blond boy jogged to the front.

“Teacher’s late. Shut up and listen. Behind the gym, after school. Mexican, cheap. Hawaiian, top quality.”

Caroline and Kayla exchanged looks of utter incomprehension. The room filled with hisses, boos, and scattered applause. The boy bowed.

“Most of you know me from ninth grade, and I expect your vote for class president. But I see two mysterious ladies. I’m Kurt Christianson.” He lifted Caroline’s hand to his lips, then reached for Kayla.

“No, thank you,” she murmured, withdrawing her clenched fist. “But a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Ah,” Kurt leaped back, “a shy damsel!” The class burst into laughter, which immediately hushed as the teacher walked in.

“Hello, Sir,” Kurt bowed again. “I was just leading the class in the Pledge of Allegiance.”

“How patriotic.” The man pointed to Kurt’s empty seat. “I’m Mr. Cohen. Welcome to Hollywood High School. This is Honors Sophomore English. Anybody think they’re in the wrong class?” Two boys and a girl raised their hands, and Mr. Cohen motioned them to the front. “The rest of you, fill out these information cards for the administration.” He handed a stack to Kayla. “Take one and pass it on.”

“I need a pencil,” called a boy from the third row.

“Here,” a girl with brown braids handed him a shiny new pencil, perfectly sharpened.

“Thanks,” he smiled.

“Grow up,” she shot him a withering look, and turned her back.

“What’s the date?” asked a girl from the left. Caroline glanced over. In spite of the ninety-degree heat, the girl wore a thick black turtleneck and tight black jeans, along with black lipstick, black eye shadow and long black hair.

“September 4,” a boy with light brown dreadlocks down his back.

“I mean the year,” the girl cracked her gum.

“What are you, stupid?” Dreadlocks smirked.

“No, moron, I’m a poetry aficionado. I’m organizing Poetry Night. I’ll recite Sylvia Plath, and you can recite the calendar.” She blew an impressive bubble, which exploded in her face.

“Both of you, lose the gum and the attitude.” Mr. Cohen spoke evenly.

“1973, and nice shot.” Kurt grinned as the girl fired her gum into the trash can. “Want to see a movie on Saturday?” She flipped him the bird, and the class laughed.

I can’t believe…in front of a teacher! Caroline’s green eyes darted from student to student, gauging the classroom. Her hair hung loose down her back, catching the light, turning from wheat to gold to blonde. She moved her head slightly, scanning each person, a two-second emotional x-ray. Edgystaccatoangrylive wire…she landed on Kayla…scared like me…and Mr. Cohen…calm, in absolute control. Caroline’s anxiety dropped a few notches.

“What’s your name?” Mr. Cohen zeroed in on Kurt to begin roll call.

“Kurt Christianson.”

“And you?” nodding at Brown Braids.

“Sharon Greenberg.”

“You?” he glanced at Dreadlocks.

“Kevin Sherwood. People call me Dreads.”

“Dreads it is.” Mr. Cohen checked off his name, and looked at the girl in black.


The class broke into laughter. “Her name’s Andrea Krause.” “She only wore blue in ninth grade.” “She changes her name every summer.” “Last year she was Picasso.”

“Settle down.” Mr. Cohen didn’t yell, but the room was instantly under his control. “How is it you all know this girl’s name?” He pointed at Pencil Boy.

“We’ve all been in school together since kindergarten. Except for the two girls in front. And for the roster, I’m Mort Holloway.”

“Glad to meet you, Mort.” Mr. Cohen turned to Poetry Girl. “How’d you pick the name Elvia?”

The kids snickered, and she glowered.

Mr. Cohen looked over the group. “It’s her name. Her choice. Everyone will call her Elvia.” He addressed the girl. “You don’t have to answer my question.”

“It’s okay,” she shrugged. “Elvia is a combination of Sylvia and Emily, for Plath and Dickinson. And my blue period is over, so Picasso doesn’t work anymore.”

Dreads raised his hand. “I have an announcement. Presto placed seventh in the state surfing competition.”

“Presto…” Mr. Cohen scanned his class list.

“Egbert Petrovich.” A short, muscular boy with a spectacular tan spoke up.

“You prefer Presto,” Mr. Cohen made a note.

“Wouldn’t you prefer Presto if you were named Egbert?”

Mr. Cohen laughed. “Point taken. Congratulations, Presto. Take a bow.”

The boy jumped up and raised his fists, as though acknowledging a crowd at the beach. The kids laughed.

“Really mature,” Sharon muttered, tossing her braids.

Mr. Cohen finished roll call and collected the information cards. “Last chance to speak up. Anyone else think they’re in the wrong class?” He paused, then wrote on the board: The nondescript man turned out to be a lion in the classroom. “Let’s start with everyone’s favorite: grammar.” He paused, and the kids waited. “Ladies and gentlemen, get it out of your systems. Let’s hear some objections.” The room filled with hisses and boos, while Caroline and Kayla exchanged a mortified glance. “Excellent,” said Mr. Cohen, to an immediate silence. “Now, who can find the adjective?”

“I think I’m in the wrong class,” Kayla whispered to Caroline.

“I think I’m in the wrong galaxy.”


*Click on the link to buy Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, to read reviews, to  check out the next few chapters.



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Filed under first chapter, high school, hollywood high school, novel

Aprile Millo, Opera And Hollywood High School

Aprile Millo is known as “The Golden Voiced Diva”. She’s an operatic soprano, a huge success, a household name for opera buffs. Aprile is a grand beauty, dressed in gowns of the most elevated haute couture, at home onstage with the Metropolitan Opera.

But my view of Aprile goes back to the days long before she became famous, when we both attended Hollywood High School. We graduated, grew into ourselves, grew up. Aprile Millo became synonymous with The Golden Voiced Diva, and I wrote a novel. In Chapter 13, I described the first time I heard her sing.

In spite of the red carpet image that “Hollywood” conjures up, our high school dealt with gangs, violence, prostitution, poverty. The Hollywood High auditorium — our “opera house” — always smelled strongly of dust and faintly of mold. The acoustics were dismal.

The day began unremarkably. I handed my teacher the required “pass” to attend the Fall Music Concert, and hurried to the other end of campus. I crossed the quad with its crumbling asphalt, covered with litter. I was pleased to miss English, which was interesting only when the students challenged the teacher, who was determined to bore us all into an irreversible coma. I expected nothing of this assembly beyond a break from the routine.

I took my seat next to a friend, and looked around, mildly frightened. I was born into a film industry family, and had been raised on Audience Etiquette. Apparently, these kids missed the memo. Gangs yelled and cursed threateningly. Paper airplanes and spitballs zoomed in every direction. Conversations never stopped for performances. Proctors intervened only if fights broke out.

Then a girl I’d never met walked onstage. Aprile had long, untamed red hair. She wore blue jeans. I don’t remember the song, but it was classical. I do remember thinking that the musical director had made a terrible mistake — forcing a girl to perform a classical piece that this out-for-blood-audience would surely despise. Students at Hollywood High were beaten up for much less.

Aprile began to sing, and I caught my breath. Her voice was like nothing I had ever heard. Silky and tough, honey and grit — powerful enough to cut through the roar, gentle enough to take each of us by the hand. She held her body nearly immobile, her eyes locking onto the loudest groups. I followed her eyes. I remember with absolute clarity the looks of astonishment on one person after another, as they began to listen. Gangs quieted. Conversations tapered into silence. Paper airplanes glided to a smooth landing. When she finished, the auditorium was still. Then Aprile smiled – disarming, endearing, coltish. The applause literally shook the room.

When I wrote my first novel, I remembered those five minutes when Aprile Millo transformed a room full of howling hormones into a rapt audience. To this day, I’ve never seen anything like it. I tried to capture it in my novel, but at the same time, I know that Aprile’s voice is not meant to be “captured”.

Except for hearing Aprile sing, I had no contact with her during our high school years. But she gave me a gift that morning, years before she became The Golden Voiced Diva. I’ll carry her song with me always.

Thanks to Aprile Millo for giving me permission to write this piece. Check out her website, read her posts, follow her career.

Amy Kaufman Burk is a therapist-turned-author in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Amy’s first novel, Hollywood High: Achieve The Honorable, follows Caroline Black through tenth grade, in a school with over forty languages spoken among the students. The story deals with homophobic bullying, racial and economic diversity, the power of friendship — and was written in gratitude to Hollywood High School with its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Amy’s second novel, Tightwire, follows a fictional psychotherapy from three perspectives — the rookie therapist scrambling to build a treatment — the patient struggling to heal — the supervisor guiding the young therapist through the complex emotional terrain of her first case. This novel was written to fight the stigma of mental issues, and with deep respect for the human capacity to heal.

Click here to purchase one of Amy’s novels, to read reviews, to check out the first few chapters.


Filed under Aprile Millo, high school, music, opera