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The speaker was a mildly porcine blonde classmate with thick glasses, braces, and a mediocre GPA. Tenth grade. Talking to his friend, about me, in front of me. At that point, I played it cool. The little comments always brought this twist in my stomach and tightness in my throat, but I don’t think that I looked as sick as I felt. “Yeah, I know.” I shrugged. I might have agreed on some level that it was easier for me and unfair to my peer. Racism is like this strange contagion – a brain disease that leads to delusional thinking and inaccurate self-assessment.

If there are two things that I have been particularly good at in my life, they are school and team sports. But especially school. Being very good at school is not the same thing as being very smart, although of course the latter is a help in achieving the former. Children who are very good at school can intuit what their teachers want and deliver the goods reliably, with a positive attitude. I figured out how to be an exceptionally good student in middle school and there was no looking back. The positive feedback from my teachers made an otherwise miserable social experience tolerable.

At the point when my classmate said that I would have an easy time getting into college I had a 4.0 GPA (back when they didn’t do the weird stuff where you get extra points for AP classes), was a three season athlete, was close to fluent in French, and was president of my sophomore class. So yes, I would have an easier time getting into college, because I was a much better candidate. None of these things came easy – I worked my ass off and took school incredibly seriously for a 15-year-old. I did not attend their beer parties, or any parties, because I was not invited. The same guy later complained loudly that he wasn’t “diverse”, and it wasn’t fair. He was talking loudly in my vicinity, and while not talking to me, I can only assume that I was the intended audience.

My mother taught me that there is no room for error. Not one centimeter. As young as I can remember she would review my homework with me and the mantra we followed was “Check – Double Check”. Early on I took tests quickly and sometimes made careless errors – the solution proffered was to finish the test and then do the entire test again. Check – Double Check. Not everyone can walk that path of perfectionism, and I sometimes wish that I didn’t have to. But the assumption that I was somehow inferior made me so angry, and the anger drove the compulsive studying, the endless note card reviews, the extra reading, the drive for flawlessness. I could sit in a library for ten hours getting up once to go to the bathroom. I could study all night and take a test in the morning. I could study ten hours a day for a month straight if I needed to. And frankly, I do not think my racist classmate would have been willing to do any of those things. Some people talk about working twice as hard for half as much – we were working twice as hard, and all we truly wanted was to be safe and seen. My mother told me that if someone talked down to me, I could drop my test in front of them by accident-on purpose so they could see how well I did and leave me the hell alone. She had used this strategy in medical school to good effect.

I got a bad grade once in fifth grade – a ‘C’ in math. The math teacher (who my mom refers to as “Mr. Mc-What’s-his-name” to this day) told my mother “A ‘C’ is not a bad grade.” She stared him straight in the eye and said, “For whom?” And let the silence ride until it got uncomfortable. She clarified to him and me that the expectation was excellence, and God help anyone who tried to tell her otherwise. By her philosophy, anything less would be letting myself down. Because if I did not do well in school, I would never know my own greatness. I would be trapped in a life less than I deserved, and how many generations before me had suffered that fate? Maybe this is a little intense for a ten-year-old, but at forty I realize that so much of the professional freedom I have stems from my academic achievements and I feel grateful for those historic demands.

At a recent NAACP vigil in my town, a high school student spoke of his teachers refusing to promote him to the advanced classes with his white peers. My eyes pricked as he expressed his frustration at being academically stymied because he was not fully seen by his teachers. I felt his agony with my whole self. In all my years of making straight A’s at my private school, I never got one of the academic awards the teachers give their prize student in a special ceremony at the end of the year. Awards in every subject, for each grade, to the student who has shown special interest and ability. My last year at that school before transferring to the statewide magnet math and science school had gone brilliantly. I was sure that I would receive the award for English, where I had been passionate and engaged. I had done multiple extra projects because of how enthralled I was by Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. As the teacher described the student who would get the award – her engagement, her intellect, her commitment to excellence, I sat taller in my seat, preparing to rise because I knew that it was me. Then he called the name of a white friend, and she stood and walked to the front of the auditorium to receive her award. Although I’m a little embarrassed to admit it, I wept in my mother’s arms that evening, exhausted by the weight of my own invisibility and the shame of wanting so badly to be seen.


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