When I arrived at Eastern Michigan University as a 21-year-old freshman four years ago, I had no laptop, no books, one suitcase and $100 to my name. I knew it would be hard, like so many other things in my life. But I wasn't afraid. I knew I belonged in college. This was the path my life was supposed to take. I just didn't know how far I had strayed until a teacher from my high school, Urender Hudson, pulled into the drive-through window at the McDonald's where I was working. She looked at me, shaking her head in a vaguely disappointed way. “You're not supposed to be here,” she told me. “God said you should be in college.” I had been living on my own since the age of 16. I was the youngest of five born to a single mom with an eighth-grade education who couldn't support me. I still managed to stay out of serious trouble and graduate high school. I needed to be a man, work full-time and pay my bills. But there was Ms. Hudson, pulling into my drive-through every day, telling me I needed to apply for college, telling me she would help me with applications and pay my application fee. I'm a spiritual person, so I started to see Ms. Hudson's efforts and my dwindling hours as a “sign” that I was destined for something bigger than a food service job. I thought about another high school teacher, Joslyn Shannon, who told me she didn't want me to fall through the cracks, who gave me warm meals, computer lessons and my first job. I thought about all the lessons I learned from my family instability, which offered me a front row seat to the education inequities I am now fighting to eradicate.
The Other 20 Percent
In my 12 years of public schooling, I lived in some 20 neighborhoods and attended 11 schools in metropolitan Detroit. About 80 percent of my time was spent in some of the toughest eastside schools, and the rest was in schools in the diverse historic area of Palmer Park. Just like the angels sent to mentor me, that 20 percent saved me. Without it, I would not be a college graduate. I would not have realized my academic potential. I would be a statistic, lost to the streets that claimed so many members of my family. That 20 percent taught me that schools can be safe and students can be smart. It showed me what could happen when teachers spotted your academic potential, went the extra mile, assigned homework and expected you to complete it. The 80 percent of my schooling taught me what happens when you cram 40 students into one classroom and expect them to share one set of 20 textbooks. It taught me how low expectations can be when you are a kid from a troubled family and a violent neighborhood, even if you're one of the “smart kids.” They are so low that teachers don't really expect you to know the material, they are just grateful when you show up for class and behave. So low that you don't get extra help when you tell a teacher you don't understand algebra—you get a worksheet filled with easier math problems and told to turn it in for extra credit. That 80 percent showed me how demoralizing it is to walk through metal detectors, ducking and dodging the daily fights, feeling like I was being trained to survive in prison, not thrive in college. I'm not saying my Detroit teachers didn't care about me, because some of them did. But they were focused on positivity, behavior and obedience. They wanted me to stay out of prison and get a job. They didn't prepare me to succeed in college, which is why I ended up taking a remedial math and remedial writing class my first year at Eastern Michigan University. It wasn't always easy, working two or three jobs every summer to cover tuition and finding the faith to persevere. But here I am, at 25, a brand new college graduate with a bachelor's degree in psychology and working as an intern at Students for Education Reform, an organization I discovered in my junior year. Until these inequities disappear, until those who are considered last in society become first, I will continue to be their voice, their motivation and the role model they need to persevere. I need to do for others what the angels in my life did for me.
Brandon Terrell recently graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a degree in psychology. He is interning at the Michigan office of Students for Education Reform and hopes to pursue a career in psychotherapy. An earlier version of this post appeared in Detroit Free Press as How Inequality Looks From the Inside.