Imagine being in a classroom where everyone else is in on a secret, except you. What you hear is silence, but their stares say it all: You’re different, you don’t belong.
Growing up I have learned that we are defined not by our experiences but by who we become because of them. Being excluded and ignored has motivated me to be inclusive and open to everyone I meet.
This was the scene I faced every day after transferring to a new junior high outside of my school district. As a young black woman, I never thought I would have to live each day disproving others’ stereotypes about my race. I never imagined that within a year I would want to quit school.
The three years I spent in junior high would break down my confidence but inspire me to become the strong young woman I am today.
From my first day at Brooklyn Junior High, I was seen as the new girl, the new black girl. As I walked into English class, my teacher looked me up and down. The welcoming expression on her face became guarded.
“Are you sure you’re in the right class?” she asked. “This is an honors class.”
I realized why she and other teachers were puzzled. I was the only black person in my honors classes.
The other students doubted me, as well. They called me a “wannabe” and a “weirdo” because I was eager to learn and did more than the teachers asked of me.
“Stop trying to be white,” my classmates told me, as if “white” was synonymous with being successful, something I wasn’t allowed to be because of the color of my skin. I was trapped; my world became empty and silent.
I come from a family of dreamers and fighters, and my passion for education derives from them. When I was 3, my parents gave everything they had to bring my siblings and me to the United States from Liberia. My mom and dad never had access to a college education. That motivates me to seize every opportunity that comes my way.
“Don’t go to school to be liked by others,” my mother would say as I cried in her arms, describing my classmates’ cruelty. “Go to school for your education.”
Those were harsh words for a 14-year-old who only wanted friends. But they turned out to be valuable words of wisdom.
I realized I had two options: to be bound by what others say I can do or to create my own reality. Spending time alone awoke my love of writing and poetry. I learned to channel my sadness and loneliness into creativity and helping others. I volunteered at the public library and tutored elementary school children. Putting a smile on others’ faces began to put a smile on mine.
Growing up I have learned that we are defined not by our experiences but by who we become because of them. Being excluded and ignored has motivated me to be inclusive and open to everyone I meet. I pay more attention now to the girl or guy sitting alone in the school cafeteria. I ask that person to sit by me. Because of my experiences, I have learned to think twice before I judge anyone for how smart they seem to be or what they look like.
I am a strong woman today because I am willing to stand out and be different. I’ve learned that being an active participant in class is not something to be afraid of, but the best way to learn; I want to serve as an example for others who are afraid to embrace their intelligence and desire for education. I have come to appreciate the skin I’m in and the different cultures in our society.
As I continue to work toward college, I want to enlighten others, particularly those who feel alienated and worthless. I want them to see that, like me, they can make their way through darkness, and create a world of light that shines for them and inspires others.