How Desegregation Forced Me to Stand Out
At the end of the year, my fifth-grade teacher wrote, “Latoya can be an excellent student with encouragement. Tends to be easily led.” This was most certainly an assessment made through the lens of a teacher who lacked cultural competency. While the term has become a buzzword in education in recent years, it certainly wasn’t a priority in 1989. The focus was bussing students from their homogenous, lower-income neighborhoods to schools in suburban communities, a practice introduced twenty years before to address segregation. The bus stop wait and the long bus ride were communion time for my Black peers and me. However, since placing students on tracks was also a thing, students were grouped based on their testing and achievement levels. I loved learning, and excelling in academics was easy for me. This meant that for some classes, I was taken away from my friends and my sense of social safety into classrooms where I was the only one or one of two, maybe three, black students. I hated it. I was already used to sticking out in my family and as a Black person in general with my fair skin, green eyes, and sandy blonde hair. I wanted darker hair, darker eyes, darker skin, like my daddy, like my peers who rode on the bus with me. In those classes, the two or three Black students never got to sit next to each other. It was almost as if they sprinkled our Blackness around the room for aesthetics, spaced us for even distribution, like chocolate chips in cookies.
This wasn’t my first experience being the only brown face in the class; I knew what it was like to stick out. I dreaded it. I had already learned in third grade that my Blackness made me different when we were asked about our favorite breakfast food. Everyone looked confused when I said grits. When asked by the teacher to explain what they were, I couldn’t because I didn’t know; I just knew they were delicious. I definitely didn’t understand why no one had heard of them. In fourth grade, my spoken language was corrected in a room full of white faces. It was you all, not ya’ll; isn’t not ain’t, ask, not ax. I’ll never forget when we learned figures of speech; I drew “cooking up a storm” Even though I did my best to explain it, no one else had ever heard of it. My teacher smiled and said it was “so unique,” but it didn’t feel like a compliment because all I saw was the bewilderment of my peers.
Fifth grade meant a new school and a new opportunity to stay with my community. I had a plan to purposely fail my placement test so I could stay with my friends. The teacher checked my answers and pulled me into the hall. She told me that she knew I wasn’t doing my best, and I needed to go back and do it correctly. I told her I wanted to be with my friends. She told me I wouldn’t always be able to be with my friends. I was so afraid I would get in trouble; I went back and did as I was told. I would just have to learn to code-switch. I didn’t know then that’s what it was; I just knew that I couldn’t be my authentic self when I was in those classes.
The more I excelled academically, the more opportunities came my way. In 6th grade, I earned a scholarship awarded to twelve Black children with a B plus or above average and who were considered economically disadvantaged. If I participated in the program after school and in the summer, upon graduating high school, I could attend any four-year college or university in the United States for free. Yes, for free. And I did. That teacher was both right and wrong. First, she thought she was encouraging me; no, she scared me shitless. She was incorrect in her assumptions of my reasons for wanting to be with friends. It wasn’t because I wanted to be like them; it was because I was like them. We understood one another, we were connected, in it together, and that made me feel safe. She was right about my friends not being able to come with me on my journey. It was a painful realization that repeated itself through different phases of my life. That’s the way it is though, right? There is good, there is bad, and sometimes there is both. Eventually, I learned to embrace the idea of standing out and ultimately to enjoy it.