Stream of Consciousness with a Dash of References
Growing up, my educational background seemed odd to my classmates. They couldn’t understand how I knew things they didn’t, and why --with my skin being so dark-- I could speak fluent Spanish. My high school was in the heart of Kansas City, Kansas’s inner-city. I was a foreigner; one who constantly needed to prove one’s self culturally and academically. These challenges have shaped the way I view myself as a student and as a person.
Before attending high school in KC, I had moved from Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, where I attended private school. There were many private schools in Puerto Rico, but SESO (Sociedad educacional del suroeste/Southwestern Educational Society) was one of the top schools on the island. At this school, we were required to provide our own textbooks as well as the not-so-flattering school uniform. The atmosphere there was very competitive, especially since many of our parents were shoveling out over $400 a month so we could attend. This school instilled in me the importance of academia, working hard and the principle of meritocracy. These skills did not necessarily translate well for me socially once I entered high school.
I attended Washington High School from 2001 to 2005. Those four years helped me see disparity in wealth in my own personal life very clearly for the first time. While there was no shortage of these experiences while I was young, I lacked the critical thinking to really understand and question them. Washington High School was built in 1934; the corner stone is still visible even after the hundreds of thousands of dollars of useless renovations. During my time there, I never rode the bus. This due largely to the fact that transportation had been cut for students who lived less than three miles from the school and I lived almost 2.5 miles away. I remember getting the letter that the school districts budget had been cut by $20 million dollars while the neighboring affluent county, Johnson County, were voting whether or not to add more soccer fields. How could they vote on, I thought, such a trivial topic when there were students less than thirty minutes away who either had to walk to school or ask for rides because their families didn’t own a car. This transportation issue also affected my chance to go to national competition in Georgia for Forensics. The school could not afford to send me and I was the first female to qualify for national competition in almost ten years.
The affluent, middle class suburban Johnson County had a higher concentration of whites than Wyandotte County (Kansas City, KS) did. The neighborhoods there were safer, schools were newer and teachers stayed longer. My school did a field trip to one of these schools so we could see their programs. I was stunned to see students working with animals in the classroom, every student had their own laptop supplied by the school, and there was even a metal shop class. The most advanced thing our school had to offer was a Robotics Club, which was extracurricular and was not established until my senior year. These schools were much better off. “A half-Century after the Supreme Court found that segregated schools are “inherently unequal,” there is growing evidence that the Court Was correct” (Orfield and Lee, 2004, p. 165). The minority schools were lacking resources while the suburban schools were experiencing a comfortable surplus. It was another case of the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Aside from transportation issues, there was also the problems with our supplies. Our books said George H.W. Bush was president; they were faded and ripped. I felt like I had stepped into a classroom from the past. Our school was called a “minority school.” There were more minorities in attendance than white students. I had come from a homogenous location to one more culturally diverse. This “diversity” caused problems for me and forced me to develop a sense of cultural identity.
Being a black Puerto Rican, or negriqueña, I was out of place where you were either black, Latino, Asian, white, or mixed (meaning black and white). The concept of my biraciality was upsetting the social order so I was forced to choose. I, like any other teenager in America, just wanted to fit in. I stopped speaking Spanish at school. I feel ashamed for it now, but I didn’t know what else to do to gain acceptance. Still, my speech pattern was too “white.” “Among black Americans, the term “acting white” is used in reference to blacks who use language or ways of speaking[...] or engage in activities considered to white cultural norms” (Bergin and cooks, 2002; McArdle and Young, 1970; Neal-Barnett, 2001; Perry, 2002; Tatum, 1997 as cited in Tyson, Castellino, and Darity, 2005, p. 281). I enunciated, refrained from using double negatives and rarely cursed (The sheer fact that I wrote cursed instead of “cussed” would still cause eye rolls from my former classmates). I was taught to speak that way. “In school, the knowledge and ways of seeing the world of dominant white (male) elites in U.S. society are validated by being included in the school curriculum, and students study the lives of presidents and generals but not of working class, blacks, or women” (Anyon, 2011). This value holds true even in Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States. SESO had worked on our pronunciation in English so that we might be more marketable and easily understood once we left the island. We were taught American History, not Puerto Rican history. We held onto our Spanish, but decided to drop the accent when we spoke in English.
Still this concept of cultural identity was new to me. It wasn’t something that I had been explicitly taught, however, it was something I had to decide for myself. After my freshman year, I grew angry. I got tired of being forced to choose one or the other. I hated flat ironing my hair and not speaking Spanish. I began to wear my natural hair and was ridiculed. I would go off (yell) in Spanish and told to speak English because “this [was] America.” I didn’t understand how I could be criticized for my “white” speech when there were black girls with blond hair extensions and blue or green contacts. The whole thing didn’t make sense to me. After reading A Raisin in the Sun, I began to channel my anger through poetry.
Spoken word became a great outlet for my frustration with racial issues. This style was also seen as “black enough” for my peers. Through my honesty and creative expression I gained respect. Respect, however, is not the same thing as acceptance. I unsuccessfully tried to be a “cultural straddler” (Carter, 2006, p. 297). Instead of trying to adapt my unique skill set and cultural values to various situations, I kept the facade of “black American” teenager when I was a black Puerto Rican” teenager who was had no choice but to live in America. In Carter’s Straddling Boundaries, student’s he interviewed spoke directly about their refusal to act white. I was unaware that this behavior was not only shunned, but resisted. It didn’t help that I hung around the goth kids -- a majority of whom were white -- for most of my freshman year.
Race was a topic that we discussed amongst ourselves; the teachers never brought it up. I’m not sure why the teachers were so reluctant to speak about it. Maybe it was because our school environment reflected that of society: whites in charge and minorities forced to listen and obey. By the teachers not bringing up the issue, I think they felt that they were “normalizing” us, that we were all the same and therefore inherently equal. We weren’t the same though.
Coming from a competitive school society to one a bit more laid back, I didn’t understand that working as hard as I was not considered “cool.” I competed in Forensics and qualified for national competition my junior year. I was on the soccer team and dance squad, and in every single play the school did as well as choir. I was extremely involved and got mostly As with an occasional B. My GPA my last year of high school was 4.25 because I took the only AP classes available, English and Government. My excellence in academia made me appear unapproachable, even snobbish to some.
I believe that my closest friends and I were one of the most diverse groups. My friend Tang was Hmong, Bryan was Chippewa, Brittany was black, Deron was a black anti-semitic jew, and I was black and Latina. Tang and I shared a strong drive for good grades and made it our goal to be at the top of the class. We wanted us to be valedictorian and salutatorian. Unfortunately, we were salutatorian (me) and third place. Bryan and I knew we wanted to be on stage. We always auditioned for things together, in and out of school. Since high school we have both done professional theatre. Brittany and I loved singing. She didn’t excel in school, but she was very musically gifted, a talent that is sometimes not valued by academics. Deron and I found in each other shared political views (aside from the anti-semitic aspect) and wanted educational reform for Kansas City. He was the first person I met to speak about “the Man” and how the system was designed to oppress us, minorities. I agreed wholeheartedly. We were not expected to succeed and those of us who did were seen as exceptions to the rule. Society doesn’t have much hope for minority students in the inner-city to succeed academically, that’s why it’s always a surprise when we do. Society sees the inner-city as a place to provide sub-par education so the people living there work the jobs the rest of the country isn’t willing to do and limits their educational and career opportunities. Schools in the inner-city “reproduce unequal labor positions that the economic system had created” (Anyon, 2011).
I did have a chance to leave Washington High School and test into another. It would have been similar to SESO. You had to be invited to take the test; the invitation was based on your standardized test scores and GPA. I took the test and received an acceptance letter six weeks later. I didn’t show my mom. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted that kind of experience again. While going to that school, Sumner Academy, would have been beneficial to have on my college applications, I felt that my anger and passion were needed at Washington. Deron and I developed social action plans for the school: part-time job assistance, college application workshops, and essay workshops. They were all met with exclamations of “great idea” or “very thoughtful,” but no teacher would step forward to help us implement them and we needed all the help we could get.
Teachers didn’t last long at Washington. I saw teachers turn beet red, neck veins bulging as they yelled at the class. Many left for better jobs in the suburban schools. Leaving us students little time to get to know them. All of my teachers were white, except for three. I had two black female teachers (Sophomore Language Arts and Computer Science) and one black male teacher (AP Government). My closest relationship with a teacher was with Ms. Roseanne Garbrandt. I never had a teacher show so much interest in me. At SESO, I was average, but here I was exceptional. She was the theatre teacher and assigned me Shakespearean monologues my sophomore year and put me in the Experimental Theatre class. She pushed me, when the other teachers were willing to let me finish my work early and be done with me. The other teachers expected me to do great at what they gave me, however, they didn’t expect more out me and she did.
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