I cannot find my high school id card, but let me describe it to you. I was 13 and my hair had been relaxed for precisely 11 months. It hung straight down to my shoulder blades, prone to waltzing in the wind. I am smiling, and I cannot remember why because I had just gotten my braces and my teeth had dime-sized spaces between them from the palate expander affixed to the roof of my mouth. Each night before bed I would open wide and my father would come at me with a crank that looked like a crochet needle and twist.
In the photo, the top of my black peasant blouse is visible, as are the long sleeves and if you saw it, which you never will, you’d ask “But, Megan, why are you wearing a long-sleeved black shirt in September in New York City?” And I’d answer, “If you saw the white corduroy pants and black loafers I was wearing, you wouldn’t bother asking at all.” I was fucking awkward is my point. Everyone was. Some more visibly than others.
March 2008. In an abandoned classroom in Brooklyn Technical High School, a lone figure sits at a desk in the front of the room arraigned in tweed on tweed and wire-frames. His hands rest interlocked on the desk. The only evidence that he is living, breathing are the dust mites that disappear up and into his nostrils. My mother, father and I mimic the stillness. TD and her mother enter.
Him: “We at [redacted] University take particular pride in our diversity. From our faculty to our students, we like to think that we are representative of all peoples.”
Her mother: “But…what about the normal people?”
Him: “Well there are many other schools for normal people.”
My father spasms in silent laughter. My mother says not a word. I am 17.
In my high school, one of the 7 specialized high schools in New York City (never you mind which one), they posted our term grades on the wall in the vestibule, and it broke me a little I think. 14 years later and I am still trying to reconfigure the broken pieces.
I got a 90 on my first American history exam and I cried. How would I get into the Ivy League with a 90? 90 is not good enough. And it had to be the Ivy League. It didn’t matter which one. As old as America. Ain’t I American? I’d swing into my American Dream on calcified ivy vines and land somewhere this side of assimilation. My race would be irrelevant within the ivy-colored halls. I’d have made it–and so my complexion would be a matter of lighting instead of a construct that I didn’t ask for. Every decision I made from 13 to 20 was predicated with the intent to mitigate my Blackness.
I won’t leave you in suspense, I never did make it into the Ivy League and the pain is only ghostly now. Not “wife in the attic” ghostly, rather a shiver down my spine even when I am perfectly warm.
In high school, I was on top, for a little while. I’d doodle my term grade and trace the numbers over and over until my pen broke through the paper, and then, I’d start all over again. I continued to cry when to my great dissatisfaction and bewilderment, I fell short of perfection. My math teacher accused me of doing it for attention. Boy, do I wish.
The thing is, I never thought that I was pretty or charismatic. I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t dance. I was, however, smart. I imbibed on smart until I was drunk with it. Lips stained with it. Smart became encoded in my identity. These truths I find to be self-evident: I was Black, I was a girl and I was smart. I never bragged about it. Compliments, any compliment really, makes me want to collapse into myself. The tears were for me, not for you.
April 2005. Eighth Grade. Mrs. F calls me and B to the front of the class. She reads our high school acceptance letters in front of the class and my cry of joy bounces off of the window panes and smacks me in the face. I am smart. I am special.
I didn’t apply to any CUNY schools as a high school senior because I believed that I was too good for CUNY (forgive me my ignorance). I know better now what I couldn’t have known then because I wasn’t meant to know then what I know now. I now know that my high school looks very different in 2019 from my high school in 2009. My cafeteria was a sea of othered bodies that actually didn’t feel so othered because all of the others were also othered. Brown faces, Black faces, my faces. 10 years later –20 Black and Brown faces in the class of 2023, others again.
I thought that admittance to an Elite University TM would help me to transcend my Blackness. I bet that Henry Louis Gates thought that by attending Yale and then Cambridge, the grandson of slaves attending schools built by slaves, that he too had transcended Blackness. Is it possible to forget that you’re Black? When Office Crowley led him away in handcuffs for entering his own home, he remembered. I too thought it would make me exceptional. Barack Obama was exceptional–Columbia, Harvard, President of the United States and still they called him a nigger. Being exceptional will only take you so far when you’re other. Especially when the system you’re so desperate to be a part of was never really intended for you.
This essay began as an attempt to make sense of the College Admissions Scandal as well as the diversity problem in New York City’s Specialized High Schools. These two are not unrelated. At the intersection of these controversies is a pathological belief in the American Dream. When I started Hunter College in 2012, after departing Elite University TM, shame had taken permanent residence in my belly. This was not my American Dream. Or rather, this was not the American Dream I had been taught to aspire to.
I’ve spent the last seven years dismantling the American Dream and recreating it in my image. I haven’t given up on the concept of educational institutions, perhaps only the application. I am still Black and reminded of it more often than you’d think in the armpit of the liberal commie beast that is higher education. I revel in it–I have a bacchanal in my beautiful Blackness and you can’t tell me it’s not beautiful.
My story doesn’t have a happy ending, because I haven’t come to the end yet. I have reconfigured some of the broken pieces. Others will take more time. And I still have metal in my mouth. A permanent retainer. I run my tongue against the metal in my mouth for comfort and to remember what I should not forget.