I am a child of the sixties and seventies with my social consciousness starting to take cognizance by the late 70’s. My experiences with my surroundings were colored and shielded by the lenses created by my parents which were in direct opposition to each other. My world was monochromatic and the effect of our relationships were nuanced by our social, educational, and gender stature.
The fallout from the U.S. Supreme Courts 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision had not really trickled down to many of the schools in Texas so they remained virtually segregated. Rather they were equal or not, I had no sound basis for comparison. My reality was not affected by the debate of equal access or separate but equal. My reality was affected by the fact that I was growing up in the 5th Ward section of Houston, Texas and even more real; I was growing up in the “projects.” I realized years later that teachers, and others not from this reality, saw me as damaged goods with not much of a prosperous future.
I remember very vividly being paddled for talking too much and for expressing my opinions out loud. Well isn’t that what school is about? Taking and shaping minds to make the mind amenable to ideas and opinions? To create free thinkers who are excited about expressing their ideas and synthesizing information and making it their own? Well then why was I being punished for doing what is the thesis of education? How daunting for a child for being punished into being quiet and submissive. I was also seen as different and “wrong” for being a lefty and had to endure after hour classes aimed at training me to use my right hand. I was an aberration, damaged goods for being born with a left hand—right brain birth defect.
I remember some years later when in junior high school, a male administrator telling me that he could not stand me, nor the sound of my voice. He said he always heard me before he would see me. His statement to me, his tone, and his male stature was so daunting and damaging that I still feel pain upon recall. I remember crying and going home after school and detailing the entire incident to my mother. I wanted her, no, I demanded her to go to school the next day and defend me…defend my honor and make him feel as hurt as I felt. I wanted, needed, demanded a hero or shero but I found neither. How do you and where do you “empty” and/or process that kind of hurt? All hurts leave some level of scabbing, and eventually scarring.
Now this same, once exuberant, but still bright young lady enters high school and finds it far from easy to express her opinions. My middle brother, who is five years older than I, was an exceptional student…brilliant, articulate, talented, engaged…the list goes on. I found myself always walking in his shadow, finding it more than difficult to find my own path and make my own inroads. I recall this one day in Mr. Prince’s (my 9th grade math teacher) class. He sent four students to the black board to work on this difficult algebra problem. He went out of the room for a minute while we worked step by step to an answer. He came back into the room and had each one of us explain our steps and our answer.
Let me make note that I was the only female in the group and the only one to get each step and answer correct. I must also note that I always asked questions in class and at times challenged him with his methods for teaching. When he realized that I was the last man standing with a correct answer he said that I had cheated and that it was not possible for me to come to the correct answer. He wrote me up and sent me, “embarrassed”, to the principal’s office. This one incident affected our post incident relationship, my grades, and how we subsequently valued each other.
My experience(s) with the school system, may, on the surface look different and feel different from what black girls experience today. The tools and mechanics may have morphed into more sophisticated systems but the scars left on our psyches are very similar. I grew up in a time when I did not understand the pain of racial disparities and racism handed out in the name of education. I did grow up in a time where corporal punishment was handed out willfully and subjectively without thought to the psychological and physical pain that it caused. I grew up in a time when females, and children in general, were to be seen more than they were to be heard. I grew up in a time when child psychology was newly birthed and had made no inroads into the public-school system. I grew up in a time when more emphasis was placed on rote learning than the synthesis of information. I grew up in a time when children from the other side of the tracks had less worth than children of parents who where teachers, counselors, and other white-collar workers, and the discourse was prevalent in how we were treated by some of the teachers and administrators put in place to mold, shape, and prepare us for our place in the world.
My father told me that each one of his children would have an equal chance of making it and succeeding in life. What he failed to tell me was that so many disproportionate obstacles would be placed in front of me that my brothers and male cohorts would not have to face. He did not tell me that how I maneuvered these obstacles would affect the outcome and quality of my life. I struggled to find my reserve and to uncover the once bright, enthusiastic, and inquisitive child as I entered college. And neither was I prepared for the new enemy before me……. racism, and a new fight to find my voice and my identity in a predominately white environment. But that is another story!