Growing up, I was required to do well in school. My parents did not have a ton of rules, but I was expected to do chores at home, to be respectful, and to do my best in school. My parents, like many who welcomed babies during the 1980s, placed a lot of value on education. At the time, a bachelor’s degree took candidates very far on the job market, and as loving parents, they wanted their offspring to have the best chance at success in life. Being highly employable is one way to do that.
Along with an emphasis on education, my parents raised me with etiquette. I was taught to say, “Yes, ma’am,” and “Yes, sir,” to adults. I was encouraged to pronounce words properly and to spell with accuracy. Around fourth or fifth grade, it became apparent that I had a talent for writing; after this, my parents helped me to hone my writing talents for more effective communication, research, and reporting skills.
At home, life was pretty even-keeled. Our family had its share of problems, but none of those were ever put on me. Both my mother and my father encouraged me to do my best, and even exceed it. At school, my teachers and counselors echoed the sentiments of my parents, almost to the point of being annoying. Especially because their less-than-secret boasting of my achievements and abilities made it hard for me to keep those details a secret at school. Most of my peers wondered why I was so interested in books and not so much in basketball. Others just saw fit to poke fun at my glasses and clear diction because most versions of “black girl” in their minds did not include what I was.
It was not so bad in elementary school, as many of the class and gender lines that separated us as students had not quite descended upon us by that time. Through middle school and high school, the ridicule became more biting and repetitive (and admittedly confusing to me at the time). In fourth grade, all of the boys made fun of me for being smart. They stated it made me ugly.
By the time I was a freshman in high school, it seemed like mostly black boys who called me ugly for being smart. I did not get a pass with most black girls, either, because most of them perceived my studying and speaking properly as an attempt at one-upmanship to them. Or, that I wanted to be white. This trend continued through my undergraduate experience in college.