Educational Failure, Blackness, and Constantly Having to Save Yourself

Flickr: Sheena876

Photo Credit: Flickr/ Sheena876

Higher education is not perfect. Nor am I. But, I am worth saving.

There are no magical higher education institutions that have somehow managed to break free of the hold of White Supremacy in the United States. Even historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) struggle with their fair share of White hetero-patriarchal ideals (like respectability, homophobia, misogynoir, and cissexism). These realities have come to dominate my existence as a first year PhD student. They constantly remind me of how many times in my life I have had to save myself from the crumbling educational structures around me.

A few weeks ago, I got a pretty depressing grade on an assignment. It was well below the class average, and frankly, I was disappointed in myself. I went into a tailspin about it initially, concerned about my grade in the course. But, after consulting with several of my friends, linking up with a few folks who previously acted as teaching assistants for the class, and redoubling my efforts on studying, I felt a little more confident that everything would work out. It wasn’t the first time this happened.

There are quite a few things about my experience with higher education that people just don’t know. In fact, my experience with education from grade school to graduate school has been bumpy to say the least.

I was kicked out of Catholic school in sixth grade due to a combination of being an outspoken, extremely tall, authority-challenging Black girl in Oakland, California and a healthy dose of institutional racism. I like to joke that I was the only straight “A” student to ever get kicked out of school. After years of my “uncontrollable behavior,” school administrators were successful in putting me on a performance plan. They tried little to see my eleven-year-old issues as indicative of all children that age. They were convinced I was a lost cause. Suffice it to say, they won.

And, I distinctly remember them throwing a party for my friend who was leaving school. There was no party for me.

Following Catholic school, I went to a public junior high school in East Oakland. There were those who questioned my intelligence and doubted that I was actually doing the work I turned in. But, for one of the first time, there were also several teachers who genuinely wanted to see me thrive and were integral in getting me to accelerated and AP courses in high school. I was shuffled along to the tough courses which I passed with ease. I frequently received straight A’s.

It was in high school that I began to struggle with a lack of educational resources and support. I traveled for an hour each way on the bus from East Oakland to North Oakland to attend Oakland Technical High School’s engineering magnet program. But, the math (beyond Algebra and Geometry) and science courses (between basic science and Chemistry) there were particularly insufficient in preparing me for higher learning. I remember teaching myself matrix algebra because my Trigonometry teacher only spoke to us to say “Hello” and hand out worksheets at the start of class. He rarely graded any work. I never took a test. Still, I managed to come out of the course with an “A.” But, none of this is news. Black girls frequently face barriers to educational attainment in the United States.

Similarly, my Chemistry class had no dedicated book. My teacher usually spent most of the class arguing with students – most of whom ignored him for an hour until the bell rang. Again, I received an “A,” but what I know of Chemistry is spotty at best. My Calculus teacher, a Black man who reveled in the numbers of students who went on to college from his class, almost made me give up on the subject altogether. He once told me that I wasn’t going to amount to anything anyway so I may as well just leave his class since I was wasting his time. He later blackballed me when I applied to become a tutor for underclassmen in Algebra and Geometry – two subjects of which I had a keen mastery.

At this point, my mom remarried. The man she married wanted nothing to do with me. So, I moved to another school in a city 20 miles away. It was a better school in a better school district but, by then, the damage was done. In the end, I was able to get through high school with a 3.7 GPA without any indication that I was completely lacking in core mathematical and scientific training. Aside from a random “D” in government and economics in my final semester of high school, my student record read like the body of work of a promising scholar.

Once I got to USC, it was clear to me that I was not only behind my peers in math and science, I was completely under-prepared for the rigor of math and science in an engineering program. I started out at least a year behind my peers, secretly taking introductory courses in math and science to catch-up to everyone else. I remember struggling with basic formulas, theorems, and concepts others had seen in high school. I hid my unfamiliarity with these subjects by pretending I knew more than I did. I spent hours and hours pouring over text books until I understood the concepts my peers had a mastery of. I struggled through tests and homework. There were lots of tears.

I never worked in study groups because I was never asked. Instead, I befriended every professor and TA and utilized office hours every week. I remember feeling this intense isolation. In discussion periods, other students showed no interest in getting to know me. And, when we had to complete group projects, they usually assumed I had little to contribute. Time and again, I had to prove myself to my predominantly White and Asian male peers. It was exhausting.

My first year of undergrad, I barely scraped by with a  2.03 GPA. Oddly enough, with the issues I was facing with parents and the hell I had gone through to get there, I was pleased. But, it was years before I started consistently seeing “A” grades on my report card.

During my junior year, I found out I would need to have emergency open heart surgery. As I dealt with that news, I also dealt with a computer science professor who thought my story was “convenient.” Instead of letting me take an incomplete in the course (a course which I was carrying a solid “B” in), he refused to give me any extensions on assignments, denied any flexibility on lectures, and forced me to continue the course as outlined in the syllabus. My medical condition, depression, and insane numbers of doctor’s appointments were insignificant. I ended up with a “D+” in the class. It’s the second (and last) “D” I’ve ever gotten in my life.

I was able to turn my grades around after recovering from open heart surgery. With no parents or social network to speak of (apart from the incredibly supportive relationship I had developed with my now husband), I returned the following semester to get a 3.8 GPA landing me on the Dean’s List for the first time in my college experience. I finished undergrad with an Industrial Engineering degree with a minor in Sociology, a graduate certificate in SAP (programming), and a 2.98 GPA after five years of tireless struggle. I was and am incredibly proud of myself. I went through that experience on my own. I achieved it on my own terms. And, I repeatedly saved myself from a system designed to see me fail.

Honestly, I chuckle to myself every time people treat me as though I am some silver spoon fed elitist who has always had “the good life.” It’s downright laughable to me that folks assume that all academics come from privileged backgrounds and stroll through academia without a single obstacle or barrier to entry. The intersections of race, gender, and class were always foremost in my educational experience. Their preeminence has served as the lens through which I view education. While the content has come relatively easy, I have struggled with access, exclusion, invisibility, and marginalization in educational attainment for as long as I can remember.

That grade I got a few weeks ago reminded me of this sore spot in my history. It forced my underlying feelings of inadequacy and illegitimacy to bubble up to the surface. I immediately felt like a seventeen-year-old struggling to catch up to my peers again. I felt like the high schooler with drive but without the access to the curricula I wanted so badly to understand. I felt like an eleven-year-old getting kicked out of elementary school. One bad grade sent me spiraling through an unending chamber of self-doubt. Until I saved myself again.

I know I am not unique. I know that this is the story of many Black scholars today.

The fact is: Blackness in the United States requires self-saving. I would argue that self-saving is now a constitutive element of Blackness. We will always have to save ourselves. There aren’t enough programs, processes, people, and systems to combat systemic racism and exclusion within educational institutions we face every single day. And, White folks just aren’t in the Black people saving business (as evidenced by the social narratives we see everyday).

While I’m confident this won’t be the last time I have to save myself, I’m unsure of what this truly means for us in the aggregate. I guess I and folks like me are living proof that these structural issues can be superseded, but who are we losing in the process? Is this an issue of policy? How do we combat educational disparity and access issues for poorer students who are predominantly of color?

Honestly, I don’t know. It pains me. But, I genuinely don’t know.

What I do know is that we have become incredibly adept at saving ourselves. Instinctively, it’s is second nature for us. I am taking solace in that for now. I just don’t believe the educational cavalry is coming anytime soon. Not unless we change our expectations of who and what the cavalry is.

Photo: Flickr/Sheena876

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.

4 Responses

  1. Indigo says:

    Jenn Jackson, so often I read your blog and I’m astonished and delighted to see so much of myself in your words. Recognition of my experiences as an African American woman is so rare within the context of the dominant culture–it surprises me sometimes how grateful I am to see my experiences intersect with others, and described so honestly and intelligently and plainly. I’m so glad you found your way to this blog. I hope you feel you’ve found your calling.

    I remember very well being an angry young student in a third grade class at an underperforming, lower middle income public elementary. The substitute teacher who replaced an ill instructor spent the remainder of the school year tormenting the students in her care. She routinely threatened to phone the social workers of the students on public assistance for the smallest of infractions. She “lectured” the class in hour-long, lights-out diatribes on the shortcomings of our ignorant, working class parents, insisting that we were being half-raised by a bunch of illiterate, ignorant drunks, and we thought we could come to her classroom and act common? Well, we had another thing coming. She reminded us that she would never send her own two darling girls attending private schools to interact with heathen such as us in a place such as this.

    This tiny African American woman made a display of favoring the girls in the class who were lighter and wore long “pretty” hair. After about a month of these goings on, this little brown girl with the pressed pig-tails was so livid she could no longer see straight. One morning after she threatened the class bully to the point of streaming tears much to the shock and shame of the entire class, I looked around at all my classmates, all of of them with their heads down, shoulders slumped–the shame in the class was almost palpable, and I felt myself rise up in my chair. I wouldn’t have guessed that I had the courage, but I stood up and told that little ignorant woman everything I’d been thinking. I spoke so fast I was breathless. And when I was done, she turned to me and asked–and who are you? My answer was, I am none of the things that you say I am. You know nothing about me. And you owe everyone in this class an apology.

    That act of bravery made me a target for the rest of the school year (as well as an official bad-ass in the eyes of the class bully who later came over to my desk and shook my hand. I will always remember that very dignified response from that little boy everyone thought of as as a “thug”.) I complained to my mother in great hyperbole–as was my tendency. So when my mother asked how things were going at school, I said matter-of-factly that the teacher was trying to kill me–which was to my eight or nine year old mind very literally the truth.

    I can only guess that none of us ever actually spoke out loud about what was happening to us at school because we were so ashamed. This woman belittled us to the point of tears on nearly a daily basis. By the time my mother figured out what was actually happening in the classroom, I was embroiled in full-scale battle with this adult woman. She encouraged her favorite girls in the classroom to bully me, and looked the other way when my hair was pulled–chuckled if someone slammed my head against a desk–rearranged the seat assignments so that one of her “darlings” was always seated behind me so I could not escape harassment.

    She was in charge of the Tom-Thumb wedding the school was hosting, and when I brought in a beautiful sequined gown from my older sister’s prom that my mother had carefully laundered and wrapped in a tissue-lined box, I opened it to show the class to oohs and ahhs, and she immediately took my dress and gave it to “one of the pretty girls” in class to the horror of the visiting teacher from next door. When I went home and tried to explain to my mother why I wouldn’t be wearing my own dress in the play, I finally broke down into tears with a detailed explanation of just what my year had been. The next morning my mother was at the principal’s office.

    This teacher testified in front of the principal, me, and my mother that I was a liar and “a spoiled brat” who was obviously raised to “think too much of herself.” I can only say to my mother, thank God for that. Thinking too much of myself has saved my life on more than one occasion. Though my mother had me removed from that teacher’s class, despite complaints to the school administration and the board, my mother was never successful at having her removed from the her post.

    One other anecdote. The very next year, I returned to school a different, broken kid. I had always been a straight A student and aspired to the role of teacher’s pet. But this woman’s words introduced me to another part of myself–the part that could exist outside of the praise and acceptance of the adults around me. I didn’t give a [bloop] about being teacher’s pet. If the homework was on a subject that interested me–English or word puzzles–I did the work. If it was something I didn’t like, I threw it in the trash on my way out the door. Despite a smack on the hiney with a yard stick every day for not having my math homework (yes, there was still corporal punishment in the schools at this time) I went about my year, a rebel without a cause.

    And then, Iowa Basics Skills test time rolled around. I found myself called into the principal’s office to discuss test scores with a stranger. Terrified to be in the principal’s office (since I was still essentially a good girl at the core of things) my heart beat wildly as I wondered what this strange man could want with me. When he opened his mouth and stared at me to ask, how did you cheat on this test?, I was completely confused. I didn’t cheat, I explained. I would never cheat on a test. Did someone give you the answers? Did a teacher give you the answer sheet? Did you look on the paper of another child? Did you practice the test before hand? Question after question after question until he settled on the idea that I must have had some other student’s help. For what I remember very accurately was almost an hour, he asked the same questions in different ways before I finally blew my top. And just like the previous incident, thinking too much of myself saved the day. I felt my face grow hot as this man completely refused to believe I had earned the scores I received, until I finally began to ask my own questions. You asked me who helped me cheat–did anyone else score as high as me in my class? No one, it turned out, had scored as high as me in the entire K-8 school–“young lady” he said smugly, as if this fact was some form of admission of guilt.

    Well then who would have helped me cheat?

    He blinked indignantly as I heard the principal chuckle. Then this sentence I will never forget:,

    Listen, there’s no way you could have gotten this score on your own. My own children didn’t score this high on the test there’s no way YOU did.

    I sat quietly and digested that for a moment, as I began to understand that it wasn’t the impossibility of a child scoring this high on the test that bothered him. It was the idea of this particular child–little old me. Even though my scores spoke for themselves. Even though I was obviously bright, I was still a flying elephant as far as he was concerned, an impossibility that he would not entertain even in the face of visual evidence. How they did all of this without my mother present I can not even begin to guess, but I began to defend myself since no one else was there to do it.

    Why don’t you let me take the test again. Watch me, I don’t care. If I knew the answers once, I’ll know them again. I remember being given a portion of the test, working on it quietly as he watched. And then the scoring. I asked how I did with a little nervous excitement. Honestly, I always loved taking tests–it was the most fun part of school.

    He looked at me with the sourest expression you could imagine, and told me that my score actually went up. I beamed. My principal beamed. And then principal stood up to say, “Well, I believe this meeting is over.”

    Honestly, this is how I remember this going down. So much of this seems so wrong now. Why, why would anyone subject a child to that? Where was my mother? For those who have never had the misfortune of attending one of our nation’s many fine separate but equal post-racial “urban schools, I say that despite the many wonderful teachers who work hard to make a difference (and there are many whom I will always love) these negative experiences are typical of the indignities poor children of color face from time to time in an to attempt to get an education: from the soft bigotry of low expectations, to outright abuse.

    My elementary school had a full assembly for me. The entire student body was gathered on the asphalt playground as I stood beside the principal who recounted my scores, which were off the charts in everything but math (you’ll recall that I threw that homework away.) Even the eighth graders came over to greet me and say congrats and were genuinely proud of me, which I was oddly surprised by. I felt like a superhero on the playground that day. My teacher that year was summoned to ask why a child so bright was underperforming (and failing math). My mother was counseled by the principal to find another school for me that could better help me meet my potential, which I always thought was incredibly sad for the other 700 or so students I would be leaving behind, and I was offered a spot at the city’s gifted magnet school which we did not accept as it was over an hour’s bus ride away from my home.

    But I did move on to another school and took these memories on to everything that was to come next in my life. Through all of the little microaggressions I’ve encountered in higher education or the workplace: having work taken from my hands when it was assumed I could not do the job I was hired for; having an employer ask if I had fried chicken in my purse whenever I seemed to know something he did not; being invited to “booty dance” to urban music in the office of a colleague, I remember the lesson I learned in a tiny, deranged woman’s classroom–I am not who you think I am, and no amount of your protesting can make it so.

    Love your blog and thank you for sharing.


  2. Jenn M. Jackson says:

    Hi Indigo, thank you soooo much for sharing your story here. Also, thank you for reading the blog regularly. I appreciate that you connected to the piece on a personal level. It warms my heart to know that it spoke to your life experiences in that way. Thank you again!

  3. Dusty Ayres says:

    The education system (in Toronto) fucked me up as a black man more than it did you (and all because I have a disability.) I ended up ‘dropped’ out of school at the age of 14 and forced into a private school which was a complete rip-off, having to pay for it through whatever voucher the government of Ontario provided. When it stopped being provided in 1985, I didn’t mind, because it was a crap school anyway.

    Because of my disability, the system didn’t want me back in, so I spent most of the rest of my teen years in programs designed to help people with special needs (only the first one; the second and third ones were for mental patients.) I ended up on basic welfare at age 18, and then on ODSP in my mid-to late 20’s (I’ve been on it ever since.) I went back to school in my late 20’s and completed a semester, but I didn’t do anything else, and left it a while ago. I went back into the program rigmarole, left it, went to a college course in 2001-2002, but was not successful in that. Today I’ve not bothered with anything else. My working status has also been desultory, with only one job in 1989 from June to December, and another in 2008 for a month and a half washing dishes. I’ve just contracted diabetes, and I don’t know if it’s worth my getting a job, or anything, anymore.

    I’m glad that you’ve beaten everything thrown at you, but I don’t want to have anything more to do with the education system or how it sends black boys to the school-to-prison-pipeline (or in my case, the school-to-welfare pipeline.) I’m tired of all of this shit, and I have nothing of any fight left in me. One regret I have is that I couldn’t leave school and find a job sooner, and then be able to do what I might be good at afterwards-AFAIK, the education system can take a hike.

  4. Lexxs says:

    My experience was a little different. High IQ runs in my family. My mother spoke five languages fluently in addition to knowing Morse code, sign language and Latin. She spent 14 years in university earning advanced degrees and qualifications. My children went to the best secular private school in town. My youngest son was top of his class and valedictorian. My daughter was top of her class for every year she was there except one where she shared the honor with another student. After all of that they have experienced difficulty finding good employment. My eldest son who is a very handsome, photogenic, well mannered young man who is 6′-4″ tall can not find a job. I am personally ready to move into a pre retirement mode but know that I have to go a few more laps to make sure that they can get to where they need to go. I am considering moving from our peaceful semi rural location back into a city just to help them get better set up for their futures and to find quality potential spouses. The battle doesn’t end when school ends for Black people. The battle never ends.