Let me take you back to a place we’ve been before in a previous essay. I was a little Black girl from South Central Los Angeles. I came from what would be considered a middle-class family on the surface, but when you looked closer, you’d see that a deep level of economic insecurity existed for me. My parents, believing that I needed to get the very best education, sent me to top-tier independent schools in order to give me more opportunities to learn, to be challenged, and ultimately to go to a good college or university.
By the 4th grade, I was attending Village School in Pacific Palisades, just above Santa Monica off the Pacific Coast Highway. I was the first and only — and yes, I do mean the only — Black child at the school before my brother joined me for just one school year. The year was 1994.
Even at 9 years old, I got the message loud and clear both from my parents and from my aunt: I was expected to perform better, be smarter, more successful, sharper at twice the rate than the rich white students I went to school with. If I wanted to compete alongside these students, who had all the privilege and all the advantages in the fucking world, I had no choice but to best them on every level.
Fast forward to 6th grade. As the “seniors” of our elementary school, each student was also given the option of running for student body president. Never one to back down from a challenge, I threw my hat in the ring. There was only one problem: the student council meetings were at 8:15 in the morning before school even started. Most students lived close by, either in Pacific Palisades proper or in neighboring towns like Santa Monica or Brentwood. Obviously, this wasn’t the case for me. At the time, my family lived in Culver City, which meant my parents had to battle traffic 10 freeway damn near every morning. That made it hard to get to school on time, let alone early.
I remember the day I asked Ms. Winn, the head of school if she thought I should run for student body president. She tilted her head and looked at me quizzically.
“President? Well, could you make it to school on time? The meetings are pretty early.”
I hesitated, then assured her that I would do everything I could to make it to the council meetings on time if elected by my classmates. Then, she said something that cut my 11-year-old heart deep:
“Well, I hope you and your parents can figure that out because we can’t have a president that’s going to be late to all her meetings.”
Already doubt was cast in my mind. If I am late, will I be good enough to be president? I already felt insecure since I had just started attending Village in 4th grade while the majority of my classmates had attended since damn kindergarten. And now, the head of school, instead of encouraging me to run, was telling me that I wasn’t president material because some days my parents pulled up to the school ten minutes late.
I had barely hit puberty, and the goalposts were already being moved for me.
6th grade at Village also marked the admission process to private secondary schools for 7th-12 grades. My parents had their hearts set on one particular school for me: Marlborough School, a private all-girls institution that was arguably one of the best and most elite private school in the city. That year, my teacher Mrs. Frost met with parents to discuss secondary school options that would be the best fit for their child.
Math classes rarely came easily to me. I excelled in reading, history, art, writing. But math was a behemoth. I wasn’t the only student who struggled with it of course, but the white kids had access to private tutors. So if anyone else in my class was struggling, it was unbeknownst to me.
This became a point of contention for Mrs. Frost when it came to my secondary school aspirations. My mother and father sat face to face with Mrs. Frost and told her, clear-eyed and full of confidence, that they wanted me to go to Marlborough for junior high and high school.
What happened next should enrage you as it does me to this day, but perhaps it won’t: Mrs. Frost told my parents, unapologetically, that I was remedial math and would, “never get into a school like Marlborough.” She suggested that they look at a lower-tier independent school and maybe not shoot so high.
Here is what enraged me the most: the gossip among the parents, my mom later told me, was that one boy, Thomas*, didn’t get into any secondary schools. His mother was so distraught that she had to “pull strings” to get him into the same school Mrs. Frost suggested my parents send me to instead of Marlborough: Windward School.
Meanwhile, I got into Marlborough just fine. Mrs. Frost never apologized to my parents, nor did she ever congratulate me for achieving the very thing she essentially said I was too stupid to achieve.
Even at Marlborough, I dealt with teachers who talked to me like I was stupid, who tried to paint me as a bad student, and with college counselors who refused to go to bat for me when I was waitlisted at my first choice school (for the record, it was Sarah Lawrence College. I ultimately went to George Washington University).
So when I heard about the college admissions scandal nicknamed “Operation Varsity Blues,” a rage that I thought had long gone bubbled up inside of me, just below the surface. I thought about the rich white students at both Village and Marlborough. I thought about my Black peers at Marlborough who were talented and smart enough to get into Yale on their own, but whom white girls whispered had only gotten in “because they were Black.” I thought about how those same white girls accused me of “playing the race card” when I called them on their racist bullshit.
I thought about Ms. Winn telling me that I wasn’t president material.
I thought about Mrs. Frost telling my parents I was too remedial in math for a school like Marlborough while telling the white parents she’d do whatever she could to help get Becky and Brad into Harvard-Westlake or wherever the hell they wanted to go.
I thought about Mr. Frank, my 8th-grade Algebra teacher, complaining that I had fallen asleep after taking a test in an accusatory tone in his progress report instead of perhaps asking if everything was okay at home, or asking if I am getting enough sleep. (Everything was not okay at home all the time, which meant I wasn’t actually getting enough sleep. If he asked, he’d know.)
But most of all, I thought about the charge I had gotten from the authority figures in my life: be twice as good. I thought about the hard truth: that “twice as good” is a dangerous lie.
Seriously, what is Twice As Good in the face of deep pockets and even deeper family legacies? How the fuck will Twice As Good get me anywhere when Becky and Brad’s parents can write checks — LOTS of them — and move to the front of the line?
The system is rigged. It has been rigged for over 400 years. I faced white teachers throughout my elementary and secondary school career who likely thought they were doing me a favor by discouraging from aiming high while telling white students they can go wherever they want. In what world is that fair?
This system in which we are told that we have to be better than white students who can buy their way into the room has been a detriment to my well-being. The gaslighting, the impostor syndrome, the feeling like nothing I ever do will be good enough for these assholes, the comparisons. Truth is, I’m still in therapy as a result of it all.
Somehow, I know I’m not alone.
*Name has been changed.