[Quick note: Ran into someone in the store the other day who said “I’ve been following you on Tumblr and Twitter. Keep it up!” I’m still surprised by anyone paying attention to anything I have to say/write or feeling I should continue to say it. (I will. Like D’Angelo sings, I will never betray my heart.) Encouragement is lovely. So thank you.]
Graduation season is here. Congratulations to all the soon-to be graduates of preschool through doctoral programs. I celebrate you making it through. You did it. Just marinate in that. YOU DID IT!
It gives me a little reminiscence about four years ago – to the day – when I became an official master of arts. It gives me a little reminiscence about seven years ago when I pushed my way through the last lap to my bachelor’s degree.
It also takes me back to this time last year – June 1 to be exact – when I read a snide remark (from someone I knew personally) about people celebrating high school graduation. I wish I had taken a screenshot of the post, but I recall it was something to the tune of asking why people were celebrating graduating high school so strongly. It’s hard to summarize the frustration and other emotions I know I felt at the moment of processing those words.
People have obstacles along their educational path at every level. My brilliant 4-year old niece was repeatedly taunted by a non-black child of color who told her “Yeah, go tell the teacher. She’s Black, too. That’s what you Black people do.” Another child picked on her for having curly hair and told her she needed a perm. She’s been the tallest kid in her class all year, and she’s strong and energetic. She is sensitive and emotionally intense, and that intensity often manifests and/or has to be channeled through physical activity. In a moment of frustration, that intensity could easily turn to hitting for a child so young. (It easily turns to hitting, bullets, and bombs for people who have decades on her. It easily becomes aggressive or overly so for people who are afforded more power in society than a young Black girl who doesn’t come from economic advantage.) We try to get her not to react that way, though. One reason? School-to-prison pipeline:
children represent 18% of preschool enrollment, but 48% of children receiving more than one out-of-school
suspension; in comparison, white students represent 43% of preschool enrollment but 26% of preschool
children receiving more than one out of school suspension.
PRE-SCHOOL. The disparities are already there before they get to kindergarten. Remember I mentioned my niece is the biggest kid in her class. People are surprised to find out she’s only four. Some think she’s already five or six. She’s already perceived to be older which can translate to less innocent, more threatening. When the teacher tells my sister a kid has been picking on her daughter or my niece gives her recollection of what happened, I mentally struggle with what is right. We don’t want to her to get into trouble, but we also don’t want the lesson to be she should acquiesce to abuse and attacks on her psyche. Throughout the year my sister has talked with the teacher – who is a good and concerned teacher – and talked with Payton about alternatives to hitting. Still I worry if she learns even a little from us to just “bear the burden” and not make a fuss – a message she will already get too much in larger society. These early messages will influence her educational experience and development.
My co-worker’s elementary-aged nephew got expelled from school recently for threatening another student. A little (white) girl was hitting him and this little (Black) boy said “I’ll hit you” in an effort to get her to stop. So he was expelled for threatening. Previously he was suspended for sexual harassment. What actions earned this punishment? His pants were falling and he was adjusting his waist/belt.
Once you get past pre- and elementary school, so many issues can factor into whether or not a kid
crosses that stage and picks up a diploma from the high school principal. Health, socioeconomic status, disabilities, learning differences, teacher/administration training (many educators don’t know how to deal with students’ differences and needs that influence their classroom experience/performance), trauma, social conditioning, and identity(ies) can be some of the determinants of who becomes a high school graduate. Some people might be surprised how many parents and families (kids, too) are having – MUST have – conversations about and plan with these things in mind even at the earliest stages of their education. It’s not only a question of basics like student-teacher ratio and curriculum but also many concerns that, simplified, are “Will they treat my child right?”
Maybe I’m sensitive about this because I know/have known/am close to people for whom life “ain’t been no crystal stair” (to borrow from Langston Hughes) when it came to getting high school checked off their to-do list. Even if they went through schooling expecting “I’m going to go to high school. I’m going to do my four years of homework and tests and pep rallies and so on. Then I’m going to get that diploma and move on,” sometimes life as lived contradicts life expected. Sometimes you have to revise your dreams or reroute the path to them. I take issue with discounting or mocking that.
Going back to my diplomas, I never questioned that in May 2001 I would cross that stage in my red robe and be deemed a high school graduate. I was a gifted, honors, and AP student, multi-instrumentalist, and had always been told I was intelligent. I got in trouble repeatedly in a few classes in high school – classes that were probably my best subject at that – and I still have no idea what I was supposed to have learned in chemistry junior year, but I had an academic record that afforded some privilege. [Side note: Sometimes honors/accelerated students are the worst behaved. Sophomore year Civics/Free Enterprise was just ridiculous. The CLASS had a reputation. But no disciplinary action.] Why should I doubt a given? I didn’t. I graduated May 2001.
I knew all along I would go to college after I graduated. I expected to go and put in a good four years, make good grades, graduate in May 2005, then go be a full and official adult. That stuck feeling I KNOW happens to some people in the first 18 or so years of life, hit me around 20-21. I went into college ahead with credits for math and English due to AP testing and ACT scores. I started first quarter with a 4.0 and held a GPA over 3.5 through the first half of my junior year. Then I took an elective in my major that I thought would be good for me. It didn’t resonate with me, and I was beginning to explore more consciously who I was, who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do with my life. I failed to withdraw from the class before the drop date. I failed the class. I FAILED a class – for the first time.
This did something to my sense of who I was, my notion of my intelligence. I remember sitting in my brand new campus apartment1 and having it settle over me that I failed. A kid who sat in the junior high gifted language arts class and held back tears over a 93% B (94 was the cutoff for A) on a progress report FAILED a whole class six years later. This failure and the ones to follow – that 3.5 slid down to a 2.9 from 2004 to 2008 – stayed on my back for the next 4+ years (aka all my senior years). It wasn’t until 2007 that I started to see myself a little more clearly.
One thing that helped is when I met with my new advisor to switch to sociology, he looked at all the A’s through F’s (and W’s) on my transcript and said, “You’re obviously very smart.” I could have cried at this validation that through whatever issues and failures I was still intelligent. He didn’t say I was lazy or didn’t work hard enough. He told me I was smart and promised to work with me to get me to graduation. And he did. He advised and advocated for me. He tried to get the dean of the college to waive the arts appreciation requirement2 for me since I had a few credits in visual art and beaucoup music credits. He saw me and worked in his capacity to help me get to the finish. I needed that.
That academic year I took English 430: African American Literature for my cultural studies requirements for my latest and last major. At that point physically going to classes that weren’t music ensembles or Social Theory (I’unno why Social Theory was an exception) aroused anxiety like I had never known. Focusing on the material and doing the work took mental and emotional energy I could not have expected as a kid whose homework was often done before the bus stopped in front of my house. This exacerbated the problem of going to class. The teacher emailed me; I was one absence away from failing English 430. I responded I wouldn’t miss anymore. I hoped I was telling the truth. We had to write a final research paper. When I met with my teacher to learn my grade on the paper and in the class, it was all positive. She loved my paper, thought I should submit it to a lit journal and a writing contest, and said I should consider being an English major. Mind you, I was on my seventh year of undergrad and was scratching and clawing to get out, but I contemplated an English degree or at least an English minor. In the end I decided it wasn’t doable, but if I was drowning at the time, this class and this teacher helped buoy me.3
After all that, it still wasn’t a smooth path to graduation. I failed some more. My last quarter I ended up having to find and take an online Western Literature course from the university 30 minutes down the interstate to finish my cultural studies requirement. Then I and my registrar’s office had to pull teeth with them to release my grade so it would officially be on my transcript and I could graduate. But I got that grade and the ones for my other three classes that term. 4.0 GPA. This was the first time I made the President’s list in some years. I was still nervous on August 14, 2008. I thought my name might not be in the program or I’d get in line and walk up to the stairs and stand there embarrassed never hearing them call “Joi. De – anne. Chadwick.” They’d tell me I missed something, wasn’t good enough, had to wait some more. This fear was put to rest as I shook Dapper Dan’s hand and took my diploma cover. I was among the 303 graduates of the Summer Class of 2008.
You’d think that ended the academic anxiety, etc. Mais non, my friends. I got into grad school at my alma mater in I/O Psych. I found myself not highly invested or engaged in the program though I tried. I thought it was a problem with ME and not just that it wasn’t a good fit. So I stopped going to class and failed again. Desperation not to live in rut of underachieving4 and perhaps kismet led me to spend a great deal of time at my laptop looking up other grad schools and programs. I was convinced I HAD to go to grad school to prove myself and because people would say “What’s your degree? Oh, sociology. So you have to go to grad school then.” And…I mean… also:
Our models project that, holding all else
equal, an African American male needs
some college credit to have a similar probability
of employment as a white male high
school dropout. Similar trends exist among
American female with a bachelor’s is only
3 percentage points less likely to be employed
than a similarly educated white
Among professional degree holders, the
racial gap between races is virtually erased.
(Source: Young Invincibles 2014 report “Closing the Race Gap: Alleviating Young African-American Unemployment Through Education”)
So I found a grad program that sounded good for me. I talked with an admissions counselor, did the stuff, and became a graduate student again. Between separating from much of my life prior to that, having the space to get back on my feet without fear of eviction5, getting a job, and being accepted by another university (I’ve applied to and been accepted by TWO schools now!), I began to feel like I was pouring back into myself – but a new, improved and improving formula. I got A- in both my classes the first semester. Minus grades on a transcript were a thing of legend to me before then. But I saw those and realized they gave you 3.7 points instead of 4. I resolved not to lose those 3/10 of a point again. I had a few scares when I thought I was going to get another A- or… a B. I thought, graduation might be pushed a semester as it got down to the wire with my practicum work and thesis in Spring 2011. As it was, I earned regular, non-debited A’s for the rest of my grad curriculum. On May 6, 2011, after six semesters, I officially had a master’s degree with a final cumulative GPA of 3.94.
The road isn’t always straightforward and predictable. It can be more complicated just to make it through early childhood and primary school. Everyone who gets to high school doesn’t get that diploma. If they do, maybe they don’t do it by 18. Maybe they go back and get a GED. Everyone doesn’t go to college. Everyone who goes doesn’t finish college, and if they do, maybe it takes them longer. It doesn’t make people less intelligent, of lesser morality, or of a lower work ethic for these situations to be part of their stories. And if/when you reach these milestones, however you got there, you don’t deserve for it to be diminished or for people to scoff at you finishing something. Especially when it seems like students (and teachers) are just trying to survive an education system that hasn’t yet reached it’s goal of doing its best to help them “become.”
Beyond that, a point I made last year is:
I mean, what do we have against celebrating even thoroughly expected things? I say take EVERY opportunity to celebrate life.
— Ungrateful (@okjoi)
This celebration irks you? What of joy? Fun? Do these things make you itch or give you cramps? Does someone being excited about getting a high school diploma bring on nosebleeds and eczema flare ups for you? Where does it hurt you?
Often joy is stolen or simply not afforded to people in some way or another. So WHY NOT accept and foster true, positive, restorative, often metamorphic joy as it comes – for the little things and the big things, for the things we figured and the things we weren’t sure would come? Take pleasure and celebrate the beautiful, the creative (the educational journey is/should be beautiful and creative) – even when you anticipated it, even if it doesn’t seem that big. You see, often this is where people find resilience and will to persevere in the face of great obstacles and setbacks.
Maybe graduating high school is just a small moment to you. Even so, celebrating it ain’t a bad idea. As Janelle Monae sings: