Am I Really Smart?

One bad report card made me question my abilities

by Rainier Harris

My dad came in and set the stack of mail on the steel black kitchen chair. At the bottom of the pile, I spotted a white envelope with the emblem of my school: a rectangular shield with two lions emblazoned on it. Beneath it there was a Latin phrase, plora qui volet, which translates to “for those who wish to accomplish more.”

The lions seemed to be roaring at me. My dreaded 5th grade report card was inside, and with it, I would find out whether or not I had been accepted into accelerated English and math for the following year.

When I tore the envelope open my worst fear came true. I was placed in “on-level” classes. “On-level” means we would learn the same material as the accelerated classes, but we would work at a slower pace.

My mother looked up from the plantains and rice she was preparing for dinner. She could tell by my face what the letter said. The television was humming quietly in the adjacent living room, but suddenly it felt as if it was blaring. My older brother and sister, father, and mother seemed to let out a collective exasperated sigh in the kitchen alongside me.

I walked indignantly up the stairs. I didn’t want to hear my family telling me what I already knew: I should have worked harder. I leaned against my desk and creased the chalky paper in my hand.

I was furious with myself for ignoring my parents’ advice and letting myself be lazy about school. High schools would see I was not placed in advanced classes. I felt as if my future was over: “A bad high school leads to a bad college leads to a bad graduate school leads to a bad life,” I thought.

Being placed on-level affirmed my fear that I was not one of the top students in my class. It also reaffirmed the stereotype of black students held by some of my peers at my mostly white private school: that we were lazy and academically inferior.

You Got an A?

Since kindergarten, I was the only black kid in my class. For years, I got surprised looks when I was the only kid in the room who knew what the word “circumnavigate” meant in history or when I could identify the symbolism in a certain passage in English class.

One day in my 5th grade history class, we got our grades back after the most difficult test of the year. When the teacher handed back our tests, many of my classmates got Cs and Bs. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw I had received an A. I didn’t want to gloat, so I concealed the paper and slipped it into my bag.

A white friend came up to my desk. “What’d you get?” he asked.

“I did fine,” I said.

“Come on, what grade did you get?” He stood beside me, repeatedly asking the same question directly into my left ear. He wouldn’t stop probing, so I finally told him that I’d gotten an A.

My friend looked as if he’d seen a ghost. “No, you didn’t,” he said.

“OK, suit yourself,” I replied, and began packing up my things to go home.

He gave me a long, strange look. “I did not know you could get an A on that test,” he said indignantly.

I ignored him and continued gathering my books, pens and pencils. But I was infuriated: Why was it surprising to him that I had aced the test?

Pressure to Succeed

My parents immigrated to America from Jamaica. They worked hard to ensure that our family wouldn’t perpetuate negative stereotypes about blacks, particularly the notion that we are not as intelligent as whites. Before coming to the U.S., my mother studied at a medical school in Russia. After arriving in New York, she worked as a medical office manager in Manhattan.

My dad came from an engineering background and is exceptional at math. In the U.S., he decided to work as a personal driver since driving is a passion of his, and it was difficult to utilize his math skills in the job market. Since my parents did not have the opportunity to use their full potential, I feel extra pressure to take mine to its maximum capacity.

My parents imbued my siblings and me with the sense that we could do anything and everything. They believed education was the pathway to achievement, so they drilled a passion for knowledge into each of their children. Even on vacation, we made an extra effort to visit museums. Any book we asked for, we received.

My parents sent us to private school, and from the time I was in kindergarten, my mom told me I would get into one of the most prestigious high schools in America. While I felt my family’s support, I also felt pressure to succeed before I could even spell the word.

YC-Art Dept.

Getting into advanced classes was the first step toward fulfilling my parents’ expectation of going to a good high school. My older brother and sister both graduated from the same grammar school with excellent grades and got into two of the most respected high schools in the city. They had set the bar high for me.

“Are you Richard and Roxanne’s brother?” I got used to hearing this from my new teachers each year. I felt proud sharing their last name, but I often wished for a clean slate. I wanted the opportunity to learn without my teachers having any preconceptions of how I would be in class.

When my classmates asked who my brother and sister were, I gave them the usual spiel: They both consistently made the honor roll and were track stars. They both went on to Yale. My sister is currently a sophomore and my brother earned his bachelor’s, a law degree, and an MBA there. I was proud of my family, but I got tired of hearing how smart and accomplished Richard and Roxanne were.

So when I didn’t get into advanced classes, I felt as if I had tainted my siblings’ reputation. I had always felt that I lagged behind them academically. Even worse, I was barring myself from excelling. I knew I was capable of making it into the accelerated classes, but at the time it seemed more important to make friends and socialize instead of doing my work.

Just Buckle Down

After I went up to my room with my report card, I heard my mom call my name. I walked lightly down the stairs, envisioning her disappointed face. She had stopped cooking and was sitting down on the white couch in the living room. I sat next to her and leaned against the arm of the couch, waiting to hear how I should have followed her advice.

“Mom, I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine,” she said. “Just buckle down and do your work. I am not worried about you.”

I was surprised. I figured she would at least have given me some punishment, even minor, like being grounded and having my phone taken away, for my bad report card. But there was no sense of panic in her voice. I had always believed that if she was not worried, I had no reason to worry either. I felt reassured about my academic ability and realized that I’d placed myself in this predicament. It was my job to pull myself out of it through hard work.

When we returned to school the following fall, many of my classmates appeared surprised I hadn’t gotten into accelerated classes. I was taken aback. Even they thought highly enough of me to believe I would be in the top tier. This helped encourage me to work my hardest to get into accelerated classes the next year, which I did.

Other people’s perceptions of us often influence how we see ourselves. This is especially complicated when you’re part of a group that’s been negatively stereotyped and discriminated against, and you feel like you have something to prove.

I worked hard in middle school and got into Regis, a competitive high school. I credit my family, friends, and teachers for reaffirming my abilities and showing me the positive aspects of myself. Unfortunately, not everyone has such a strong support system. Without one, it can be easy to slide deeper into self-doubt.

Society expects me to be unintelligent because I’m Black. My high-achieving family expects me to be smart and successful because I am related to them, but then I’m considered by some to be “not Black enough.” That makes me feel conflicted and struggling to find a middle ground.

I wish people would see me not as “another Black teenager” or “Richard and Roxanne’s younger brother.” I wish they would see me as simply Rainier, an individual with specific interests, strengths, and weaknesses just like anyone else.

Society expects me to be unintelligent because I'm Black. My high-achieving family expects me to be smart and successful because I am related to them. That makes me feel conflicted.
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