I understand what they were trying to do. When my teacher nominated me to be sent to a different classroom for part of each day, a class with older and more advanced learners, it was her way of keeping me interested in the learning process. Our school system was 90 percent black and, according to standardized tests, most of us were performing below grade level.
At nine years old, my reading aptitude test scores were at the college level. My mother was so happy that she took out an ad in the local paper congratulating me for my grade-school accomplishment. She was proud. I was bored.
For weeks after the test results came in, my teacher would create separate spelling tests and reading lists just for me to try to keep me engaged and challenged. I understand that was probably an extra burden on her. If I was a third grade teacher and one of my students was reading Romeo & Juliet during silent reading time, I might suggest she needed to join a class at a higher grade level for part of the day, too. Unfortunately, even a good idea can take a negative turn.
In the beginning, I was excited about leaving my classroom for an hour a day. I thought it made me special or, at the very least, proved that I was smart. (Truthfully, most of my classmates were as smart as I was—I was just really good at memorization and taking tests.) It also helped that adults I loved and trusted had always told me I was smart. We were a school full of black children, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear our white teachers refer to us as “they,” “them,” “those kids,” or whisper to one another about our many shortcomings. I remember a time in class when a teacher told a black boy he’d never learn to read well if he insisted on speaking like a “thug.” Then she smiled toward me and said, “Don’t you want to sound smart like Ashley?”
I was taken aback. Not only did I hate being compared to the other kids (it didn’t exactly make me popular with them), but I also hadn’t realized I spoke differently from my classmates. From that day forward, they never let me forget it. Who could blame them?
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I wanted out of my new school, but getting out was harder than I thought.
By the time I got to fourth grade, I was no longer being sent to a different classroom for part of the day. No, my teachers felt that I was so brilliant I needed to be bused to an entirely different school two full days every week. The new school could not have been more different. The facilities were nicer, the test scores were higher, and my little brown face was one of a handful—maybe less.
At my “home” school, 75 percent of students received a free or reduced-rate lunch. We would laugh about our poverty, calling it “Government Lunch” and swapping dishes. The lunch ladies swiftly checked off our names on their list without a second glance and kept the line moving. At the new school, I explained that I didn’t pay for lunch and the cafeteria worker had to talk to three different people to figure out what the procedure was for such a thing. When I finally got my tray and sat with the rest of the kids from my class, I joked, “I guess you guys never had a poor kid here before.” They stared at each other, then at me, then back at each other. The silence nearly swallowed me up.
The days I spent at my “home” school varied greatly. Some days I was picked on mercilessly (usually because a teacher pointed me out as what everyone else should try to become). Other days, I felt so deeply understood by my peers, the thought of going back to the other school where they didn’t know anything about my culture was unbearable. And it wasn’t just about differences in the music we liked. I loved Matchbox 20 too! It was deeper than that. It was spending all night coloring a project with stubby crayons and nearly dry markers, just to have another kid bring in pages of pictures his dad printed out for him on a color printer. It was feigning sick the day of the Halloween party because I knew the other kids would show up in purchased costumes, something I’d never been able to do in my entire life. It was the mean lunch lady and the damn red binder she hauled out every time I said, “Free lunch.” At my “other” school , I was always the other. Always the black one. Always the poor one. The challenge in this new learning arena wasn’t academic but social. We could talk about Egypt all day long, but when I asked if Cleopatra was black, my new teacher pretended she didn’t hear me.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that I wanted out of my new school, but getting out was harder than I thought. All of my teachers were convinced that I was just intimidated by the work, not weary of the environment. So I played into their narrative and did something I’d never done before: I flunked. I bombed every test and failed to turn in every homework assignment until they sent me back to my home school full-time. Suddenly, my grades improved. Everything improved. I was happier, I was learning, and I was free to be where I wanted to be. I worked with my teachers to come up with a curriculum that challenged me, and I made it easy for them. My worst fear was that I would get bused again to a “better” school.
Right before I started middle school, an elite private school in town called my mother to see if I’d be interested in taking a test to see if I qualified for a full scholarship. I knew about this school. All grades, all facilities, and all white. After the call, my mother asked me what I thought. “It could be a great opportunity, Ash. Everybody graduates, and almost 100 percent of them go to college.”
I thought about the teachers at my original school who worked so hard to keep my brain challenged, my friends who were as smart (or smarter) than I was, and the lunch ladies who never made me feel like I was less worthy of food than anybody else. I thought about the time I’d spent at the other school, and how it felt like every moment there had been time stolen from me. In separating me from my classmates, I was being separated from my culture. And why? Because I could read big words? I could read big words anywhere, including right beside people who looked and lived just like me.
I looked at my mom, smiled and said, “I’m happy where I am.”