This story originally appeared on Jose Vilson’s blog, TheJoseVilson.com.
n high school, my family used to get assorted flavors of high-sugar cereals. Frosted Flakes, Froot Loops, and Corn Pops frequented the top of my fridge, and every morning, my brother and I would have a huge bowl of them just because. We’d pour so much milk into our bowls that we bought a gallon of milk every week (I later learned this wasn’t considered normal). When we found the magical crunch of chocolate cocoa puffs, we dug in. We’d have a bowl for breakfast, and a bowl on Friday and Saturday nights, just to hold us over during our midnight video game marathons.
One morning, as I started eating my puffs, I started to reflect on my experience in high school with serious doubt after an incident that made me keenly aware of my skin color and social caste in the school. The teacher at the time, revered by all, made it obvious that he didn’t think I belonged in the honors class. The looks on the other students in the class (all white) signaled to me that perhaps complaining about the incident would be like barking up the wrong tree. Some laughed uncomfortably while others stood silent, hoping it would go away.
Once I snapped out, I noticed a little chocolate puff floating in this big bowl of milk, bobbing up and down as it sailed around the inner rim. My first real understanding of W.E.B. DuBois’ double consciousness.
Currently, a group of concerned advocacy groups including the NAACP, Latino Justice PRLDEF, and the Center for Law and Justice at Medgar Evers College, filed a complaint against Stuyvesant High School’s (and New York City Department of Education’s) use of a specialized high school exam as the sole determinant for entry into their school. I’m inclined to disagree with Mike Bloomberg’s contention that having a test is the same as basing a student’s entry on merit. As with any standardized test, institutions should take into account the sheer volume of preparation some parents undertake in order to make sure their student succeeds on those, and lots of that can be predicted economically.
In spaces where one measure coincidentally attracted only a couple of groups towards a place of prestige, we need to make sure all kids get a fair look.
More importantly, once schools like Stuyvesant address the diversity in their admissions process, then they’ll have to address what happens once the few who make it do get in there. Other such schools that require multiple measures, like interviews, grades, and teacher recommendation letters, at least give a shot to those who freeze up for those two hours of the special admissions test. Despite whatever impressions my friends and family had about my experience in high school, make no mistake: it was hard. Academically, I handled school rather well my first two years there, then proceeded to dip my junior and senior years as my teachers demanded more. Socially, I joined as many non-athletic clubs as I could and volunteered at my middle school just to keep me grounded.
But, the more “H”s and “AP”s I saw next to my class schedules, the less I saw less of “me”s.
In order to adopt, I had to assimilate to some of the traditions and linguistics my friends had. My r’s became flatter, my s’ sharper, my t’s enunciated. Frankly, without my friends who moved up with me to this school, I might have completely lost touch with the very community I represented. Thus, people like me, unbeknownst to us develop two identities, one that can shift their faces amongst the hoods and the baggy jeans, and the other with shaven face and proper collar.
What becomes of these unique intelligent ones once they go into predominantly White classrooms?
I do get it, too. My high school prepared me for the rigors of Syracuse University, where Dave Chappelle once joked “When I looked down [from the plane], all I saw was White … and then there was the snow.” At this stage of the game, going to a truly academically rigorous school often means going to a place with very little cultural diversity, a sad state indeed. Few schools have a good, balanced student body and high academic standards that consistently challenge students … with a staff that knows how to handle it appropriately. Even then, sometimes the groups just stick in their racial and cultural groups with a few tokens on either side.
As I stared at the bowl with the floating puff, I noticed that the bowl of milk had also gotten a chocolate flavor as a result of the puffs that once floated there. Once we dedicate ourselves to adding more puffs, we leave an indelible mark on each other. We might work well in isolation, but we work much better when we complement each other as a whole.
Jose, who switched to Special K and Honey Nut Cheerios a long time ago …