The Race at the Top vs. Students Who Are Not

By Marilyn Rhames / February 15, 2012 on Education Week

I was at the height of my senior year. Elected vice president of my class and voted “Most Likely to Succeed” for the yearbook. Accepted into every college to which I had applied, and in a close race for the coveted title of Valedictorian. I was on top of the world—unstoppable. But LaMont Jackson, who was in my division, was not impressed.

“You ain’t that smart,” he told me, out of the blue. “You’re smart in this school full of blacks, but wait until you go to college with all those white kids. Their high schools are way better, and you’re going to see just how dumb you really are.”

With scathing indignation, I told him not to project his self-esteem issues onto me. He had an inferiority complex and I felt sorry for him, I said. But truth be told, LaMont had actually exposed me. He had unleashed my deepest, darkest fear about my brassy bright future. How would I fare in the white world of higher education?

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, spending food stamps at the grocery store. Every year my birthday gift was the cake. And the only time I went to a museum or to the zoo was during school field trips. My mother loved her eight children, but she never read books to us or volunteered at our school. She spent most of her time cooking, cleaning, and managing the home. She bought a set of World Book encyclopedias for us and took us to church twice a week to study the Bible. She relied on the school to provide the academics, and she took care of everything else. She did a wonderful job with what she had, but I wondered how my white professors would perceive her, and me.

I recently read a moving piece by a budding journalist named Natasha Santos, and all my memories of LaMont came rushing back. With a couple of years of college under her belt, Santos grapples with whether her violent, impoverished neighborhood exists because of racism or because of the lack of personal responsibility. She wonders if being black will stop her from achieving success.

Little kids struggle with this, too. One year, I took my third grade class on a trip to Navy Pier. We waited about 20 minutes for our bus to arrive to take us back to school, but when it came my student Malik (not real name) was visibly upset. “Why were all the buses that picked up the white kids clean and shiny, but the bus that came to get us is all dirty?” he asked. Our yellow school bus was the only one out of dozens that was covered with dirty snow and salt. I didn’t know how to answer him.

LaMont’s words followed me to Dominican University, a beautiful, Catholic, liberal arts college surrounded by mini-mansions in suburban River Forest, Illinois. My parents dropped me off with a single suitcase and a small black trunk. We watched white students unload their possessions from U-Haul trucks. I made friends soon enough, but we lived as strangers beyond the school walls. Over Spring Break they literally went on vacation while I racked up more hours at my part-time job.

Academically, I was always playing catch-up in math and science classes. My professors assumed I came in knowing many things that I had never even heard of, despite the fact that I had taken honors physics and biology in high school. I thought my science teachers had been rigorous but I had no one to compare them to. I often felt bewildered and discouraged in my college-level science courses. I was embarrassed at first, and then I got angry. I entered college thinking I would eventually become a doctor, but I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. (I later learned this is a national trend among all races.)

LaMont was right: I was not as “smart” as I thought I was. Many of the white kids at my college had more opportunities to learn than I had. They had better schools, better teachers. They had tutors. They traveled to tourist destinations. The expectation that they would go to college began at birth.

LaMont was wrong: He thought the inequity would make me give up. He thought the unfair game of education meant black girls like me were destined to lose. Instead, it made me all the more determined to find a path to success, to chart my own course. I was not a member of the race at the top, but I clung to the belief that there was room at the top for me.

I wish LaMont could read this blog. I wish he was here. In the summer after we graduated from high school, LaMont was gunned down in a drive by shooting. It hurt me deeply, but it didn’t even make the local news. I dedicate this post to him, to Santos, and to the millions of minority students in America who are fighting to believe they can succeed.

Marilyn Anderson Rhames is a science teacher at a charter school in Chicago and holds masters degrees in education and journalism. A former reporter for People and Time, she also won various awards while at Newsday and The Journal News in New York. An educator for eight years, Marilyn is currently a Teaching Policy Fellow with Teach Plus and the founder of a start-up nonprofit called Teachers Who Pray. This blog offers her perspectives on health and wellness in the classroom, charter schools, and the need for education reform.

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2 thoughts on “The Race at the Top vs. Students Who Are Not

  1. What a tribute to LaMont; thank you, Marilyn. As a third grade English Language Learners teacher, I see similarities every day, even though I don’t live or work in an urban environment. You might enjoy my children’s book about Connor, who knows he will be a Major League Baseball star—if he can just get through sixth grade. But Connor’s dad says make straight A’s or no baseball. Connor’s got problemsL can he live up to his dad’s high standards? Would his hero Jackie Robinson approve of the choices Connor makes?

    When Connor’s dad talks about growing up in the desegregated South, he draws on stories my mom told me about life during the Civil Rights movement. In Double Switched, I honor my mom’s childhood heroes: Cheryl and Eloise, two brave girls who integrated her junior high school in Montgomery, Alabama.

    Inspired by his heroes, Connor sets out to address an inequality staring him in the face—his younger sister Nisha’s experience with softball. For Nisha, everything is less-than: poorly maintained fields require endless fundraising to fix up, poorly attended games give her no opportunity to shine. Connor, Nisha and friends put on a Boys Against Girls exhibition game to bring awareness and needed funds to level the playing field.

    My blog at http://www.ClaswsAntics.com was created to show parents what really goes on in an elementary school classroom, and to help first-year teachers who might feel overwhelmed by the reality of 30 students who all deserve one-on-one attention all the time.

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