You may think I have what it takes, Dean Markley, but I promise you I don’t.
As a black man, my academic career has been riddled with racism. I could entertain you for hours with stories of off-color jokes from classmates, parents often reminding me of how “articulate” I was, and teachers doing all they could to convince me not to take harder classes. I can still remember the fake smile and coffee-stained teeth of my high school principal after she successfully talked me out of taking a class because it “did have a lot of reading, you know”.
Once I graduated high school and enrolled at a mostly-white liberal arts college, I expected more of the same (I was right, for the most part). When it came time to schedule my classes for freshman fall, I went into my guidance counselor’s office prepared to spend an hour convincing him that I could, in fact, handle taking Calc II, despite its difficulty. However, instead of giving me a half smile, half wince and politely suggesting another class, he just took a long sip of coffee, made a few clicks on his keyboard, and said: “Alright! Sounds good!”
“Sounds GOOD?” I thought to myself. Something was off here.
“It’s a pretty serious course,” he continued. “But I think you can do it.”
Hmmm. That’s an interesting take, sir. My counselor continued to happily tap away at his computer until he turned away from the screen, smiled at me, and held out his hand. “And you, my friend, are all set to register for classes.” he said. I was stunned. I cautiously shook his hand and headed for the door. “I’ve heard a lot of bad things about Calc II” I thought to myself. “But if he thinks I can do it, I might as well give it a shot.”
I failed that class.
It was a semester-long shit storm capped off by a final exam during which I spent most of my time wondering if the 15% I was about to get would scale all the way up to a slightly more respectable 30 or 40. What’s worse is that I’m a Political Science major, which means that I could have graduated without ever having to deal with derivatives. In situations like this, we must ask the question: “What did my guidance counselor know, and when did he know it?”
From the very beginning, he knew that I had scored a 2 on the AP Calc exam my senior year of high school.
He knew that I was only planning on taking Calc that semester in order to get my math requirements out of the way as quickly as possible.
He knew that I would tank that class. And yet, he didn’t hesitate to throw me to the wolves. There were no fake smiles. No coffee-stained teeth.
No, “Well, maybe we should start with a more remedial class and see how that goes”.
No, “You’re a smart young man, Heman, but I’d hate to see you overextend yourself.”
No condescending pat on the back before quickly removing Calc II from my schedule.
Instead, he sacrificed my grade in order to have his “Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side” moment. Guilty.
I blame my guidance counselor. The blood of this failure is on his hands. Everything would have gone just fine if he had just stuck to the script. All he had to do was fulfill his role as the stuffy middle-aged white guy who saw me as nothing more than a scrappy kid from the hood who was in way over his head, just another example to be used in future arguments against affirmative action. But of course, out of all of the white male deans at this university of salmon colored shorts, I get stuck with the one who “believes in me” and “thinks I have what it takes.” Please.
I don’t know what other outrageously hard classes he’ll give me the green light for. Maybe something to do with astronomy, or physics. Some nights, I think about storming into his office and telling him that I’d like to drop Political Science and be a math major. You know, just to see how far he’s willing to go with this. Maybe I’ll do it, maybe I won’t. I do know one thing, though: even in those rare moments when you actually could have used a bit of racism, it still finds a way to screw you over. Figures.