A few weeks back, when New York City announced the minuscule number of black students admitted to its elite specialized high schools, the report generated the usual dialogues around how the system is broken and what, if anything, can be done to fix it. There is no doubt that the numbers are abysmal: Only 12 black students scored high enough on the citywide test to win a seat at my alma mater, Bronx Science, and just seven to Stuyvesant. While I’m concerned for the black students continually locked out of these spaces, I’m equally concerned for those about to enter them. Remembering my academic career as a black kid in mostly nonblack settings, I’m exhausted for them.
Although New York City’s public schools are 26 percent black, the 12 black students admitted to Bronx Science probably won’t find their new 2 percent black high school all that jarring. Half the kids who get into specialized schools come from about 20 (mostly nonblack) middle schools, out of the city’s approximately 600. They’ll probably already be used to being “the one” or the “one of two” in the classroom, like I was. Familiarity with extreme-minority status doesn’t mean comfort, though—far from it.
More than anything, I wanted to fit in, to be like the other kids, except when singularity was deserved, in the form of academic recognition. Neither wish was granted. I was a top performer in my mostly white and Asian elementary school in Queens, coming in first or second on standardized tests most years. Yet at my sixth-grade graduation, I wasn’t acknowledged. I watched my nonblack competitors walk away with about a dozen awards each. Meanwhile, I spent the ceremony crying, confused, and enraged in pink polyester tulle. My favorite teacher tried to calm me down by explaining that I just didn’t have the same “leadership skills” as my peers.