From a young age, I’ve been a smarty-pants. A family reunion is never complete without my dad bragging about how, at age 3, I figured out how to use our computer to get to his favorite chess website. I credit my big brain to my dad’s focus on nurturing my intelligence.
Sadly, the intelligence that was supposed to carry me through academics actually exposed me to discrimination. For a while, I thought it wasn’t my place to flaunt my intelligence, due to what my teachers seemed to think a black girl in a classroom should and shouldn’t be.
My first experience with discrimination happened in 4th grade. I was a quiet, shy 9-year-old who mostly kept to herself. One day, our homeroom teacher gave us a quiz on 5th grade vocabulary. These were words we shouldn’t have known, but I recognized some. Each night, my dad sat me on his lap and I’d read the newspaper with him, pointing out words that looked difficult. He encouraged me to sound things out, giving me definitions I could understand clearly, and then asking me to repeat them back. Some of those words were on the test.
As the kids around me scratched their heads and toyed with their colorful erasers, I stood up proudly from my desk and walked to the front, handing the teacher my paper and waiting to hear her praise me.
“Done already?” she said. But instead of delight, her voice was laced with skepticism. I nodded happily, peering at my paper to give my sloppily written answers a final once-over. I knew I’d aced it.
When I went back to my seat, I noticed she looked confused. Could she read my handwriting? When she finally said it was time for everyone to hand in their quizzes, I noted that many students hadn’t finished.
As I was on my way out the door to lunch, she called my name.
I assumed she wanted to tell me how well I did on my quiz, so with a bright, semi-toothless smile, I bounded over to her in my light-up Skechers and stood by her desk dutifully. She rummaged through the papers, not looking up. She held out my test and said, blunt as the front end of a hammer, “There’s no way you could have gotten all these right.”
Not only was I surprised, I was confused. I took my test back, stared at it, and realized she was waiting for some kind of a response, maybe a defense. Was she expecting me to admit I had cheated? Why wasn’t she praising me for getting my vocabulary right like she had reassured the other, lighter-skinned girls that not finishing was OK?
Would she have accused me if I was one of them; if my skin was whiter and my hair less kinky? Why was it so hard to believe that someone like me was capable of being smarter than the rest?
Unfortunately, all I did was nod and begin to cry—which she took as an admission of guilt. She called me a cheater. Then, she took my test, drew a big fat ZERO on it, and told me she was calling my parents.
“I’m very disappointed,” was one of the last things that left her thin-pressed lips as I trudged out of the room, hiding my face in my hands from embarrassment. I was crushed! My dad had instilled in me that being smart was rewarding. People liked you if you were smart. But apparently, they didn’t like you if you were too smart, or at the very least, smarter than they expected you to be.
It seems like some white teachers in schools where the majority of students are of color, expect us to be the dumb black kids that won’t perform well, and as such, don’t foster the growth of our young minds. My 4th grade teacher doubted my knowledge and even seemed angry that I had exceeded her expectations. I concluded she didn’t like that the mixed-race, black and Hispanic girl was smarter than the white kids in my class. Maybe it scared her.
She called my parents. My mom spoke to her for a while, and after hanging up, I could hear her and my dad talking in the kitchen. I knew what it was about. I awaited the lecture and the scolding. But it never came. Instead, when my dad called me out to the living room, it was like any other night. He had the newspaper rolled out, was sitting in his chair, and called me over. I climbed into his lap.
“Your teacher told me about the test you took today,” he said. He rested one of his big hands on my back, and he smiled. “I’m proud of you.”
He hadn’t believed a word my teacher had said. He knew I had a gifted mind, no matter what she said, and that I hadn’t cheated. I was a smart girl who just so happened to be black, and because of that, people’s standards were significantly lower for me. He had gone through it himself. But my dad, an unapologetic, intelligent black man, raised me to believe that I was every bit as worthy as any other kid.
Every Bit as Worthy
Since then, teachers intentionally skip over me despite there being no other hands up in the room. It feels like my middle-aged white teachers are annoyed by my oddly big vocabulary.
I did have one amazing teacher, Ms. Garcia, for junior year English. Although we did go at it over differences in opinion sometimes, she was still enthusiastic about my ideas. When I had a question that challenged her thinking, she wouldn’t get defensive or angry. “It’s a teaching experience for me, too,” she’d say. “I’m learning just as much from you as you’re learning from me.” When she saw me struggling, she’d gently encourage me to do my best. She’d remind me that I was a smart, talented girl.
Still, I mostly butt heads with my other English teachers, and I probably always will. Except for Ms. Garcia, they have pretty much told me the same thing: I need to know my place. And not just me, but all black kids who dare to think for ourselves. Our voices are shut down, because how could we know more than someone more privileged? Our place is to listen, to accept what we’re told, even when it’s negative. When we speak up, we are called rowdy, ghetto. When we don’t, we’re too complacent, not active enough, not applying ourselves. And when we shine, our success is rarely attributed to our own efforts and determination.
But in spite of what some teachers imply, I do know my place. It’s not above anyone, and it’s definitely not underneath them. It’s my own, and my dad’s nurturing hand makes sure I always know that.