When I was seventeen and a half I worked full-time at Taco Bell and sometimes after my shift, I’d drive over to this small college town where I would cruise by the beautiful private campus and watch the students walk to class. Billy Squier’s song, ‘Nobody Knows’ would play in the background as I drove by the kids and admired the hard work it took to get there. Sometimes, I would even cry because I wanted that too.
I was very fortunate to have a car, my family was poor and kids like me didn’t normally get a car at my age nor such a nice one. The money for my cool $5,000 ride came from my father by way of The Social Security Administration. My biological dad, an illiterate, pimp, and biker gang thug had fraudulently collected my social security since I was born and when my mom turned him in when I was 17, Social Security reimbursed me with a big fat check.
I wanted to go to college but I learned not to mention it to my people, they were anti-academics. My grandmother who had an eighth grade education indoctrinated me with ideas like “only know-it-alls and snobs go to college” and my very (at the time) Evangelical family, convinced me, I needed to find a good man and start a family when I came of age. And there was this other problem that kept me out of college, I was dumb. I knew this to be true because I was held back in the third grade and I was told I wasn’t smart enough to move forward. But, the system shamed me way before then. It started when I got my first report card.
I tried to do well in school. I really wanted to learn but it was hard to concentrate. Maybe it was because of things like having to wake myself up in the first grade when everyone else was crashed out from the night before, or being hungry because there was nothing to eat for breakfast and no one to fix it. See, my first nine years of life were a chaotic mess. It was before my mom started going to church and turned her life around. It was endless parties, men and rental houses.
As a young student in the public school system, I was expected to have a full work day from 8 to 3, and then take home more work. There were times the schools expected me to work longer hours than most adults worked in a day. It didn’t matter that I was being passed back and forth between my parents and put in new schools and new homes every year or less. It didn’t matter that I was being sexually assaulted at my dad’s house while my step-mom was at a motel having sex with truckers thanks to their at-home business model via the CB radio, or that I was being sexually assaulted while at my mother’s house by her friends during parties that lasted until 3 AM on school nights.
The system expected me to compete with kids who were taught to brush their teeth and hair, who learned self-discipline at a young age and knew they had value in their family and community. Kids who got tucked into warm, safe beds every night, with books like, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing read to them.
Now, had my school lessons been on joint rolling, how to steal a flat of flowers from the local TG&Y parking lot or the do’s and don’ts on mooning people while cruising the main drag, it was the late seventies after all, I would have been an A+ student.
The only constant in my life was the report cards that came every quarter reminding me that I was a failure. My report cards were full of F’s or U’s, and those damn standardized tests just solidified the school’s label of me. I would get so anxious when that test was placed in front of me because I knew no matter what, I was going to fail. And there was always those kids who came from a good home, who had a big warm breakfast that morning and fresh clean clothes who would parade their excellent scores around the next week making me feel even dumber.
After I arrived at my 16th school, two weeks into my junior year, I crumbled. I melted down. I couldn’t do the new school thing anymore. I couldn’t try to find friends all over again or face more tests or report cards screaming failure in my face. The system won, they beat me.
I really didn’t want to be a drop out like my parents. I felt ashamed. I begged my mom to homeschool me but she wouldn’t and now I realize, she couldn’t. She only had a tenth grade education. She had me at fifteen and quit school.
I took and failed the GED several times and finally, while stationed with my ex-husband in Germany, I miraculously passed the GED at age 21. Over the years, as I became more self-aware and grew out of my familial conditioning, I realized, I wasn’t dumb at all. I just had learning disabilities from being two months too early, a terrible home life and no one to advocate for me. And I was competing, yes, competing that’s the true model, in an environment where I had a huge disadvantage.
It was a TikTok video that inspired me to write this essay today. The video was made by an educator who was explaining to a former A+ student not to beat herself up for failing and quitting college this year because the pandemic had put all the students at a disadvantage. My response, which got hundreds of likes within a few hours, was ‘now everyone is getting a glimpse of what it has been like for the disadvantaged kids all this time.’ And I hope with all my heart, this wakes the education industry up so that things can change.
Now, with this pandemic and the last minute forced online learning, educators have a taste, just a taste of what it’s like on a normal day for disadvantaged kids trying to stay afloat in the public school system. They are ill prepared, frustrated, anxious, and alone and they don’t have a chance to thrive like the students who have a team of people cheering them on. Disadvantaged students are and have been a team of one. That’s why they quit.
Those report cards do more harm than good. They label and brand the disadvantaged kids for life. And then add SAT and ACT’s to the mix which makes or breaks a person’s chances of getting an education when their mind has finally fully developed and that determines their quality of life for the rest of their existence. We, as a society, we put a wall around their entire future.
Later, I went onto a community college that thankfully didn’t require an SAT/ACT score to get in and later transferred to a university. I got two years in but didn’t graduate due to the costs of it all and needing to put my own children through school. I have one child who plans on being a Gender studies professor, graduating high school this year, and a fifteen-year-old determined to be an arbitrator or human rights lawyer. Yes, I am proud mom and of course, their biggest advocate.
My not finishing a degree bothered me for a while but when I realized I wanted a degree just to prove to the system and myself I wasn’t dumb, I decided it wasn’t the degree I needed but a new perspective on my situation. The best part, the new perspective was free.
I am mostly self-educated. I am a sponge and read every day. I research anything and everything that interests me, (as of late it’s new economic theories) which helps for writing better characters and plots. Sometimes, I think that if had I been raised in a good home and really given the chance to feel safe, secure and learn properly, I would have become a professor of something or some type of intellectual. A few years ago, I took a knowledge based test in Humanities, curious to see how I’d do, and I tested at the Master’s level, which made me smile. I finally beat that big F.