For a first-generation immigrant student like I was, the American public school system was the sole path to upward mobility.
Through my early years of school, my teachers were mostly supportive, or at least not discouraging. But in high school, a “selectively kind” teacher showed me what Jane Crow education looks like.
In 1993, as a seventh-grader and a new arrival to the United States, I fell in love with reading thanks to the novel "Where the Red Fern Grows,” assigned in my English class. Even though I was taking English as a Second Language simultaneously and didn’t fully grasp the narrative elements of the story, that was the moment that sparked my lifelong passion for reading.
By tenth grade, I was confident enough in my English skills to dare moving from regular, grade-level classes to pre-Advanced Placement. When I signed up, I was nervous and excited. But my excitement proved to be short-lived.
Rising Above the Low Expectations of Others
My teacher (let’s call her Ms. S) was a nice, church-going lady probably in her 50s. The curriculum for pre-AP English included Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. This genre of epic poems was new for all of us in class regardless of our native English skills. Ms. S worked wonders in explaining the richness of the ancient text and was a woman of marvelous didactic abilities.
However, she was also selectively kind.
Ms. S assigned writing prompts to discuss literature and also handed out multiple-choice based quizzes in class. While I aced my quizzes, I kept receiving low scores on my written assignments.
I compared some of my assignments to those of my classmates (at least the ones willing to share their graded work) and felt my writing was worthy of higher grades. On tests, she would go “red-pen happy” on my essays. The grading period lasted six weeks and I finally received a B in the class.
I recall staying after class to inquire how I can improve my grade. Ms. S sat in her chair while I stood next to her desk. She lowered her glasses while looking at my test and calmly said, “This class is not for everyone, you can still switch to regular English more suited for foreigners.”
I stood there in shock. I was a straight-A, honor roll student enrolled in other pre-AP classes. Her conclusion that I did not belong in her class felt wholly unjustified.
I decided to stick with the class against her advice. As a teenager, I had the tenacity and resilience to prove myself or at least that is what I told myself while I dreaded the class. My grades never improved in her class. Ms. S made it her goal to ensure I question my English writing abilities as I proceed to the next grade.
I struggled in AP English the next year and the year after. It was a different kind of struggle—an internal, psychological struggle that I did not belong in AP English. I received As in AP-English in my junior and senior years but developed an imposter syndrome.
I felt the grades did not reflect my lack of comprehension of every piece of literature we covered from The Divine Comedy to Beowulf. English became my least favorite subject and I wasn’t surprised to score a measly 3 out of 5 on the College Board’s Advanced Placement Exam for English my junior year. I didn’t even bother taking the AP English exam my senior year.
Losing My ‘Imposter Syndrome’
The imposter syndrome surrounding my ability to comprehend English literature lessened when I took freshman English at a community college with Dr. Gray. My new teacher praised the clarity and conciseness of my written arguments. In her letter of recommendation, Dr. Gray wrote that my “papers were well crafted and smoothly written” and I see “research as an exercise in scholarship wherein I find the key elements which will open up the work of literature.”
The irony that a woman of faith made me lose faith in my ability to learn English and to have it restored years later by a self-proclaimed agnostic, feminist of the 1960s never ceases to amaze me. I often wonder if my hesitancy to write again would have become my Achilles heel when I decided to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry—without skillful writing, research is nothing more than a repository of data. I still shy away from bylines and often opt in for ghostwriting projects—while trauma can be momentary, healing is a lifelong journey.
As a mother of school-aged children, I carry the fear of the trauma teachers can inflict on students when they choose to subscribe to their personal notions of superiority of race, religion, gender, nationality, and all that exists to divide us in this highly polarized society.