Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Gifted, Female & Brown

According to a new study*, black students have an increased likelihood of being identified as gifted provided that they attend schools with higher proportions of black teachers. The same dynamic seems to function for Latino students, when they attend a school with more Latino teachers.

By the time I entered kindergarten at age four, my mother made sure I could write and read my name, address and phone number. She did it for safety's sake, but also because she knew I could do it. It set the groundwork for the high academic expectations she would have of me for the rest of my life. I didn't speak English very well, but I could say my name and where I lived. When my teacher asked me to draw the letter C to indicate my name, I remember writing my entire name instead. I can't recall what I was thinking at the time, but knowing me, I was probably confused as to why writing one letter would be acceptable in place of the nine that made up my first name. 

Academically, school was easy for me. In third grade the school had a meeting with my mom and tried to convince her to allow me to be bumped to fourth grade. I was already the youngest kid in my class so my mother felt that it would be socially detrimental, and refused. I was in a private school at the time and it did not offer gifted and talented programming. My mother transferred me to a public magnet school to give me more of a challenge. I attended a school in the heart of a Puerto Rican community in Chicago where the majority of my teachers were of color. At the time, I had no idea what a blessing that was.

Living in such a diverse area, it seemed the norm to me to have teachers who looked like me. They slipped into Spanish in the middle of presenting US geography, and taught me about Jose De Diego and Pedro Albizu Campos. It was perfectly acceptable to dance merengue and salsa for the annual talent show and Feliz Navidad was the most popular song at the band's annual Christmas concert. It was a Latina teacher who pulled me aside in sixth grade and asked me if I was planning to go to college. I told her that it was my dream, but I had no college savings and that Chicago Public high schools did not have the greatest reputation for preparing girls like me to go on to competitive universities. She told me that I was smart enough for scholarships, and told me about a program that would help me get into a college prep high school that would ensure I was prepared to apply to any college I wanted. 

I was nervous and excited to tell my parents. I knew they would want me to participate, and I wanted to as well, but I didn't know if I could make it. It required me to take high school level math and language arts classes every Saturday morning and throughout the summer for two years. It took place in a wealthy part of Chicago that I had only experienced through the view of a car window. I would have to take public transportation there and back. I would compete academically with the smartest kids in the city. I had just turned eleven. This was a decision that would impact the rest of my life. What if I got in but couldn't succeed in the program? I had never failed at anything, but I had also never been challenged the way this program would challenge me. I had a photographic memory that had helped me thus far, but would that be enough?

But, my teacher Mrs. Vargas, a Mexican American woman who was caring, energetic, smart and funny believed I would be perfect for the program. She had no doubt that I would not only get in, but that I would be successful and get into the high school of my choice, thus setting me on the path to college. She told me that I would go to college if I believed it and put in the work. I wasn't a stranger to hard work. The idea of getting a head start for high school excited me. 

I still remember going to my interview. It was the first time I had ever been interviewed. The Friday before I told Mrs. Vargas about it. She hugged me and told me that I was going to do great, and that they were going to love me as much as she did. I believed her. I felt the warmth and sincerity in her voice and it carried me through that interview. I remember feeling a mix of nerves and calm as I sat in front of the program administrators and answered questions about my background, my goals and my dedication to giving up my Saturdays and summers. I don't recall what I said, but whatever it was worked because a few weeks later I was accepted into the program. I was the first Latina from my school to be accepted and I'm proud to say that I wasn't the last. 

It was a tough program. I had to read books like The Jungle by Upton Sinclair that used a vocabulary I wasn't used to. The math classes just about killed me. The other kids in the program were super smart and all came from the same humble beginnings as I did. We'd cluster together on the bus ride home, relieved to be out of class for the day, talking about the next week's classes with excitement and dread.

When the summer program started we took classes from 8am to 4pm Monday through Friday. There were a few non-academic reprieves like dance, fencing and basketball electives, but for the most part, the days were heavy with English literature, intensive essay writing, pre-algebra, and learning how to fill out FAFSA forms and high school applications. At the end of the summer they took us on an overnight camping trip where we chomped on wintergreen Lifesavers in the middle of a dark field, saw more stars than we knew were possible, and played a mean game of survivor using a compass and common sense.

The program delivered on its promise and I was accepted to a college prep high school with a scholarship that made it possible. I was not intimidated by what awaited me academically because I had already taken so many high school level courses. I was able to get into AP classes earlier than some classmates and I was proud of that. 

The difference was that my high school had four teachers of color. I sought them out like a bee to honey and with the exception of the Latino Spanish teacher, they were all very receptive to being my allies in an environment that was incredibly different than what I had known. However, they weren't my primary teachers. They were contracted for a year or two and taught electives. I took their classes and loved them, but the core of my teachers were white. They were used to teaching privileged kids who looked like them. I was an anomaly and I felt like one. It was a whole different ball game being seen as the brown scholarship girl vs. a promising student.

I was told by the head of the language department that I couldn't enroll in Spanish classes because of my last name. He said I was just looking for an easy A. Yet, my non-Latino classmates with last names like Smith and Jones were not banned from English classes. With the exception of my advisor, who was sweet and had taught at an inner-city school before, I don't recall a single teacher taking any special interest in me. I'm not saying that I expected special treatment, but it makes a difference when you feel valued as a student vs. feeling like your success is not vital to anyone.

I never had problems with any of my white teachers, but the support I had from teachers of color was definitely missed. I felt the void of having allies who believed in me. Many times I felt as though my high school teachers were expecting me to fail, or wondered if I got in the school because of affirmative action rather than the same standards as the other students. It made me feel that I did not deserve to be there, even though I had worked hard for years to get there. As a result, I became quiet and shy, afraid to speak up for myself. I often wanted to be invisible, but as one of ten students of color, there was no way that I didn't stick out in my classes.

High school was one of the roughest times of my childhood. I excelled academically, but my self esteem plummeted. I felt alone and regretted the hours I had put in getting into a private college prep school. For the first two and a half years I saw every day as a self-inflicted hell that I couldn't escape. My alternative was to attend a local public school, of which I was terrified. Nerds like me didn't generally do so well in the high schools in my neighborhood. 

Luckily for me I became adaptable and resilient. I found a small group of friends who were quirky and creative and they helped make my time there more appealing. I never felt a connection to the teachers like I had in previous years, but it turned out to be a good lesson to learn before I embarked on a college career where the likelihood of a professor who looked and sounded like me was close to nil.

I will forever be grateful that Mrs. Vargas saw the potential in me. Before high school I had wonderful teachers who saw past my color, socio-economic circumstance and neighborhood and made me look to the future. I recently visited a middle school with my daughter. During the tour, a black male student was having some sort of tantrum and had to be escorted down the hall. I saw the white counselor stiffen at seeing him come down the hall, while the white teacher who was escorting him looked slightly afraid to be that close to him. I get that volatile kids are scary, and that disruptive kids come in all colors. Yet, I couldn't help wonder how much of their fearful, disgusted vibes he was picking up on, and how it was affecting his behavior. I recalled how I had shrunken and become a meek version of myself when I felt de-valued and imagined that he had felt the same many times. It was heart-breaking to say the least. I wanted to wrap my arms around him and tell him that his success mattered and was possible.

It saddens me that my daughter has yet to have a teacher like Mrs. Vargas. However, I have met some wonderful teachers of color in the area, and I'm hopeful that even in the middle of the Heartland she will have that experience one day, and it will be as life-changing and affirming as it was for me. Those teachers are few and far between, but they are here and they are some of the most passionate and committed people I know. Their students are lucky to have them, and as a parent, I hope I can support them as much as they support their students.

*The study’s research was presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in Chicago. The data of the study was conducted within more than 2,000 schools in the academic years of 2003-4 and 2011-12.

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