Of Course I’m Smart Enough

At first, I felt like an imposter at my elite high school because there are so few Black students. But I overcame it.

by Enoch Naklen

“OK class, we’re about to transition to community meeting! On my count. One!” announced my 4th grade teacher.  

One was the signal to push out your seat from the desk. 

“Good job we’re moving with urgency! I like it Morgan State!” 

Morgan State was the name of this class; almost every class at Excellence Boys Charter School was named after an HBCU.  

“Two!” and “Three!” were signals for the class to rise, and then tuck in our chairs to create a single file line down to the auditorium where we would begin our community meeting. 

Going down the staircase, there was no shortage of students with coarse, 4c hair in the forms of high tops, locs, or taper faded curly afros. The sight made me feel better about my hair.  It didn’t resemble the Disney stars I watched at night, but it looked normal amongst my peers.  

At community meeting, we had many community-building activities that included random dance spotlights, and reciting songs that acknowledged Kwanzaa values. We also had a spirit scepter that was designed in the black, red, yellow and green colors of Black excellence and given weekly to a scholar who pays it forward within the school community. (I won it once.)  

From kindergarten through 8th grade, I was part of this culture. The school lived in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, and had a demographic of mostly African American and Hispanic students. 

So there was a general comfort in being a person of color. I always received top marks amongst my peers as well, landing in the top three of best test performers each year. The school environment did a good job of affirming  intelligence and capabilities. 

While my friends came from middle-income families, my family was less fortunate. In 8th grade, when we began to apply for high schools, they were content to attend Midwood High School, a very large, diverse school in southern Brooklyn where about a quarter of the students are Black, and the rest are divided among Asians, Whites, and Hispanics.  It’s a perfectly good school, but I set my sights on attending one of New York City’s more competitive specialized high schools. Doing so seemed like a surer way to a better life for my family and me. 

Already at a Disadvantage 

Brooklyn Latin was my top choice, with Brooklyn Tech as a close second. Brooklyn Latin stood out because of its participation in the International Baccalaureate Program, which had a new (to me) and diverse outlook on liberal arts education compared to traditional AP courses. Brooklyn Latin was also advertised as a close-knit community with a low student-to-teacher ratio. 

To get in, I had to take and score above Brooklyn Latin’s cut off on the Specialized High School Administration Test (SHSAT), the admissions test for New York City’s specialized high schools. 

The test was being given in mid-October but I didn’t find out about the test until June. I knew lots of kids studied for years so I was already at a disadvantage, but I was confident in my academic abilities and resigned myself to studying hard in the time I had. 

Unlike any other test that I had taken, it put me in competition with applicants from all five boroughs of New York City. I was also aware of the racial controversy that existed surrounding the SHSAT. In 2018, then Mayor Bill De Blasio suggested a plan to eliminate the SHSAT in favor of a class rank system to promote diversity in these schools. In 2019, the plan was denied by the city. This news added an extra level of anxiety. 

What’s the probability of me actually getting in? I thought. As smart as I knew I was, for the first time feelings of self doubt regarding my ability to achieve began to creep in. 

The statistical probability, as it turns out, was slim. After some research, I found out that out of the 28,333 applicants for the 2018 graduating year, only about 18% of testers got in. But what really had an impact on me was that only 3.6% of African American testers received offers to specialized high schools. In comparison, 26.2% of the White test takers got offers, along with 29.7% of Asian test takers. 

Doubting My Intelligence – For the First Time 

I was intimidated by the low possibility of Black kids like me being admitted. Not only was the test itself extremely difficult, but the numbers showed that I would have to beat out thousands of kids to secure my spot. I didn’t think I could do it, and despite being at the top of my middle school class, I continued to doubt my intelligence. 

Yeah I could usually outperform  the kids at school. But all of those kids look like me and we don’t get into these types of schools anyway. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing imposter syndrome, “the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills,” according to this article I read by Derek Lartaud of KQED. 

I became so down on myself that I was ready to give up on the prospect of getting in before I even took the test. My saving grace came in the form of DREAM, an organization funded by the New York City Department of Education that helps 7th graders prepare for the SHSAT. I was accepted into the program and gained access to Kaplan tutoring by special teachers. I attended every session, and put my best foot forward to prepare. 

Test Day Peers Increase My Anxiety 

On test day, I arrived early, so I got to see students trickle into the auditorium where we would wait for our designated testing room. 

The majority of them were either White or Asian, with maybe five Black or biracial students. Although I expected to be in the minority, I still felt uneasy. I began to sweat, and was increasingly restless in my chair. 

I didn’t know there was so much diversity in Brooklyn, I thought sarcastically. 

The test was three hours long, with 114 questions, so there wasn’t much time for me to second- guess my responses. However, being around so many strangers who, by statistical comparison, had a better chance than me of getting in, made me doubt myself. I double-checked answers that I already knew were correct, and sometimes I accidentally filled in the wrong bubble on the answer sheet. (I’ve since learned that this challenge is called stereotype threat, and it can depress the scores of students from marginalized groups.) I finished with barely any time to spare, and I was not confident that I had scored high enough to beat out the tens of thousands of other applicants. 

My Test Results 

Even when the result stared me back in the face, it was hard to accept that my recognition was a product of my own determination.

On the day the test results were given out, I thought No way I got in. The fear of rejection filled my soul as I walked up to my teacher.  

“You got into Midwood.”  

My heart dropped. I knew I wouldn’t get- 

“And Brooklyn Latin.” He smiled. “Congratulations.” 

I wanted to be ecstatic. I felt like I should have been. After all, this was what I had wanted and studied so hard for. But the excitement I thought I’d feel wasn’t there. Instead, all I could think about were reasons for me to turn down the offer from Brooklyn Latin and go to Midwood: I could start off the year with my best friends. The coursework might be easier than that of a specialized high school. Maybe I’m not smart enough. 

I packed up my things and headed home. 

What’s Imposter Syndrome? 

It was around this time that I first heard the term imposter syndrome; it was during a job readiness program. Our class watched Dena Simmons’s TedTalk “How students of color confront impostor syndrome” in which she talked about her experience feeling like a misfit at a predominately white boarding school in Connecticut. “As a Black woman from a tough part of the Bronx,” she said the drastic culture shock was a lot for her to adjust to. Although she was just as smart as the next person, others in the school frequently reminded Simmons that she came from a different world than most of the other students. 

One experience in particular stuck with me. One of her teachers embarrassed her in front of her classmates, mocking her pronunciation of certain words. “Asssking” the teacher said derisively. “It’s not ‘axing’ like you’re running around with an ax. That’s silly.”  

I became more aware of my own pronunciation after that. Would there be a time I got called out and embarrassed as well? 

Although I scored above the cutoff on SHSAT, I had a constant feeling of uncertainty and anxiety. Similar to Simmons, I would be placed in a world at Brooklyn Latin where most of my peers were of a different culture than me and perhaps felt superior to me. As is common with imposter syndrome, I neglected to acknowledge the hard work that I put in. Even when the result stared me back in the face, it was hard to accept that my recognition was a product of my own determination. 

Ultimately, I chose Brooklyn Latin over Midwood. I knew there was the comfort of knowing that I would succeed around the people I already knew, and that came with going to Midwood. But I knew Brooklyn Latin would be a chance for me to discover what I might not be as good at, and what I might be able to excel at with the help of more rigorous coursework. 

Meeting the Challenges 

My first semester, I struggled with the heavy course load and new norms at Brooklyn Latin.  

The school prides itself on its classical Greek culture that encompasses all new nomenclature and standards. For example, instead of referring to school areas in English like “bathroom” or “hallway,” every discipulus (Latin for student) had to learn the Latin counterpart; “latrina” and “atria.” 

I was assigned both Spanish and Latin language classes, an honors geometry class, and an honors conceptual physics class! I ended my initial term with my first B and C grades and did not live up to the expectations I set for myself. Although these courses were hard for everyone, because I am African American, I felt like the courses were more rigorous for me, even though that’s not true. But I committed to Brooklyn Latin to be challenged, and I was determined to rise above the effects of imposter syndrome.  

I don’t think that getting over imposter syndrome means convincing yourself that you’ll succeed. It means being OK reaching beyond negative stereotypes that are ingrained in you by others, even if that means facing challenges or your definition of it. In my case, I stuck it out and strived to become better by putting in the work. As of today, I have an A- average at Brooklyn Latin, developing better skills as a student in the process. I time manage better so I get a good night’s sleep and I systematically prepare for tests portion by portion. No more cramming at the last minute for me. I’m not an imposter. I deserve to be here. Now I believe in myself enough to strive for the highest achievement, even at the risk of failure. 

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