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.
The writing had always been on the wall, or at least in the comments section of my report cards. My kindergarten teacher noted that although I was perhaps her most gifted student, I was too serious and diligent at that age, and didn’t play enough. “Sassy” was written on most of my subsequent report cards. My grades were consistently exceptional, as was my classroom participation, but I was “sassy,” the post-civil-rights equivalent of “uppity.” The mixed feedback was confounding: Speak more, speak up, speak less …
When I was accepted to Bronx, all the adults in my life were elated—we’d made it—but I was devastated to leave my best friends and my first boyfriend, who stayed at our zoned school or went on to other specialized programs.
Geography and culture were the biggest initial obstacles to blending in there. My overprotective black and Puerto Rican parents were already freaking out about sending me to another borough every day; the last thing they were going to do was let me sleep over at my cool white friends’ houses in Manhattan. I had to turn down every invitation I received the first semester of school, and eventually they stopped coming.
I also remember two instances when white male teachers screamed at me in physically threatening ways that reduced me to tears. Once it was because I spoke too loudly in class. (I guess black voices carry.) The other time, I repeated a joke that an Asian friend had told, something “sassy” but unserious about being too emotional to handle class. When I began to leave—I thought obviously in jest—I was again screamed at, within an inch of my face, and forced to leave, shaking, as my stunned classmates—including my Asian friend—watched.
Perhaps I should feel lucky that I wasn’t suspended, changing the trajectory of my academic life, which happens all too often to students of color, black children in particular. I remember being more scared and confused than incensed, as I didn’t have the language or perspective to understand where this antagonism was coming from. I couldn’t see the intruder I was to this space. I couldn’t see that I was the inconvenient interruption of race in the school day, and that I was going to continually pay for that. A sense of my seemingly inherent unlikability started to congeal.
My disorientation was compounded by the fact that I didn’t have black female teachers to ask for support. My mother, who grew up in a neighborhood where most of the women looked like her, could never understand my low self-esteem, which, she told me, was the most unwarranted case she had ever seen.
I did have one black teacher in high school, a man, and my friends would tease me because they saw me as his pet. While it’s true that he would encourage me to speak up more than other students, I remember thinking he felt as much relief that I was in his classroom as I did. He, too, was the other in that space. I wasn’t his pet; I was his lifeline.
I also felt invisible, untouchable, to all the boys I liked because they, like me, wanted to fit in at that age—and dating a black girl was sure to make them stick out. But my issues went beyond race and sex. Bronx Science was simply not the best high school for me. Anyone paying attention would have recommended I go to Townsend Harris, a magnet school that focuses on the humanities, where students are selected through a more holistic screening process instead of a soulless test. My parents would have been happy for me to stay in Queens, at a quality school, but they didn’t operate in circles privy to the full range of options and applications available to all students—they just knew the big-name brands.
Detached and unmotivated, I stopped trying. And I felt vindicated in that decision once I realized that my parents couldn’t afford private SAT tutors or Princeton Review, things that gave some of my classmates a clear edge. What exactly was the point in competing in this rigged game, and how was this competition? All this bending to fit in at this place had defeated the purpose of me being there. I continued to flounder in undergrad, where my anxiety was so severe that at times I couldn’t leave my dorm to go to class. It took more than a decade for me to regain my confidence and academic footing.
Things were different for my brother, who went to Louis Armstrong Middle School, a magnet school that focused on the arts and prioritized diversity in its student body. He then attended our zoned high school, Forest Hills, which was more racially diverse than our actual neighborhood, drawing kids from all over Queens.
Unusually, this school with a not-negligible black population had no metal detectors to pass through every morning and no jarring stop-and-frisks (inside the school walls anyway). The building was modern, and he had access to current textbooks. While he can recall having only one black teacher (one-third of New York City schools have no black or Latinx teachers), he constantly saw himself reflected in the classrooms and hallways, which may be why he’s never seen mostly white environments as the norm, and why he doesn’t exhibit the social anxiety (around white or black people) that I do.
As for “the 12,” I hope they get a chance to get to know themselves outside of being “the black ones,” lost and desperate to prove themselves. But these few who beat the odds to get in still don’t have the numbers on their side.
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