“You’ve been here before!” is a sentence I heard more times than I could count, as a child. I didn’t know what it meant at first, but with time it made sense. I just knew things others my age, and often older, didn’t know. The questions I’d ask often puzzled and frustrated adults. Strangers and relatives alike were amused by my correct use of “emaciated” by the age of seven. But to me, it was a necessary word for someone who aspired to be a veterinarian. I programmed TVs for relatives, trained dogs, and read Black history encyclopedias for fun. Happiness was synonymous with engagement.
My love for learning resulted in me being slightly advanced but easily bored. At home, I could satisfy my curiosity with a book or by asking my mom or grandparents a million questions. However, in school things were very different.
In the classroom, the goal was maintaining order and discipline. For Black and brown kids, it’s important not to get used to creative liberty and freedom because the world will likely strip it away later. We had strict schedules, limited bathroom breaks, and we were expected to conform.
It didn’t help that I was intelligent and inquisitive. It was ok to be “smart” — one who succeeds within the customs. But there wasn’t space for kids like me. Inquisitive children are a threat to order. It did, however, matter that my questions made class discussions drift off topic. “Why do we have to stand in line in alphabetical order,” I’d ask my teachers. The response being dirty glances and annoyance. “Because I said so,” my teacher would respond. Because they decided my intentions were malicious, they wasted no time treating me like the statistic I was expected to be.
In Texas in the late nineties, corporal punishment was common — especially in low-income schools. Nearly every morning for an academic year, I was called into the principal’s office for talking too much. I can still remember the paddle, which felt huge to my young brain. I can’t remember the color, but I remember it had holes to grip the skin upon impact. The principal delivered the swats without emotion and often without words. There was an understanding that I’d caused myself and him the inconvenience. For me, it was one of many reminders that I was a problem to be solved. Almost daily, I received anywhere from four to ten swats. By the end of the school year, I was numb to it all.
To the education system, I was another Black youth on the path to nowhere. In reality, I was just an under-stimulated child. My kindergarten experiences set the tone for my educational journey. My engagement in class discussions was often overwhelming. I knew the material and challenged the class norms with my questions. That infuriated some teachers and resulted in further punishment.
By second grade, I’d spend hours of class time standing at the front of the class and “placing my nose in a circle” on a chalkboard. One day, in particular, I stood with my nose in the circle and heard the class being told to ignore me as though I weren’t there. I felt ostracized and problematic. Other times I would frequently spend 15 to 20 minutes holding books in the “chair” position, as punishment. The goal was to embarrass me to the point of breaking and remind me that “different” wasn’t allowed. In some ways, they succeeded.
Elementary school was filled with paddles, time-out, and behavior plans. I internalized the message that I was incapable of success due to my background. Low bars set from teachers and harassment from other students due to my awkwardness taught me I wasn’t unique to teachers, but didn’t fit in with other students. I didn’t have the structure that the gifted kids had so I didn’t make it into the program.
I didn’t want to be a classroom distraction anymore. Instead, I retreated and started to withdraw from classroom engagement.
The desire to disappear magnified as I was bullied through nearly every day of fifth through eighth grade. In history class during 7th grade, I was afraid to speak because two girls publicly called me “N.H.” for no hair every day (since mine was short) and corrected anyone who called me by my real name. I developed social anxiety. Each morning, I’d be sick in the bathroom with diarrhea because school scared me.
In high school, I attempted to get over my internalized pain by chasing guys. I’d stopped trying, and my grades were lower than they’d ever been. Each morning before school, I was frozen with panic attacks and had to prepare myself to enter the building mentally.
I’m not the first child to be socialized by the education system that they aren’t unique. Now, at twenty-five, I read stories of children being disadvantaged by the same forces. I wish I could say my life improved because the school saw my value and decided to turn around, but it didn’t. Instead, I got into a fight while trying to confront my ex-boyfriend, who was spreading rumors about me and ended up expelled from school.
But getting expelled was the best thing that could have happened to me. The judge looked at my record and grades and reassured me for the first time in forever that I was an intelligent child. He required me to attend a community course for young girls and told me to do better. And I did.
I finished out my senior year in an affluent school district where they treated me like a person. I had control over my schedule, and despite hesitancy, they advised me to go to college. I had permission to be myself again, and I excelled.
One counselor’s faith, one conditional college acceptance, six dean’s list letters, and one cum laude graduation later, I’m nervous again. I worry because at two years old, I see many of the signs of curiosity that I was punished for in my son. He immerses himself in things that interest him and to the wrong person, it will be interpreted as ignoring authority. He likes running and screaming and singing. And I won’t ever be comfortable with him being robbed of a quality education like I was.
I feel tears gather as I watch him run in a circle singing Moana loudly and proudly. I don’t want that quality to leave him. And I’m already fighting for him to keep it. As he gets older, I plan to reinforce the importance of individuality and creativity. I’m already searching for schools with teachers that can accommodate differences, particularly those who aren’t afraid to use a creative approach to teaching and won’t allow their biases to color how they see him. And if I can’t find a place where he can be himself, I’m willing to go the homeschool route.
My son is lucky to have a mom who has seen first-hand the way the education system treats those who aren’t considered worthy of the resources for a good education. Those messages stuck to me and I battle imposter syndrome often despite a paper trail of success. If I can help it, my son will never be exposed to the collective mistreatment youth of color experience in the education system. He will never know the feeling of literally being beaten for being eager to learn. My experiences have made me an advocate for educating others on the importance of diversity and potential causes of achievement gaps. And if it goes well, many other kids won’t either.