When you grow up poor you face an entire social structure that has the same force as gravity. It is there to drag you down until you reach the center of the earth and know your place.
I get asked a lot how I managed to escape gravity, and the honest answer is that I am still doing everything I can to process and figure that out. Gravity’s pull is still strong and it seems like my position is always going to be precarious.
The fact of the matter is that it requires a very special kind of intelligence to come from where I came from and to go where I did. I’d like to rewind and tell you the story of me as a little girl.
I was a weirdo from an early age.
When we were little we lived at my grandma’s house. That house had a staircase. Every day, my mom, just 19 and 20 at the time, would wake up bleary eyed and find me sitting with my hands at the table waiting patiently for my oatmeal. She couldn’t figure out how I managed to make it down the stairs, so one day she woke up early and waited until I woke up.
I was still in a crib at the time. She watched as I stacked the pillows in my crib, hopped the “fence” of my crib through a force of engineering and physical strength and climbed down the stairs and up the big chairs in the kitchen where I would wait in silence until she came down the stairs.
What I am saying here is that I was fiercely independent, already had a tendency to see obstacles as mere engineering problems, and was already used to being successful at carrying out my missions enough to trust my own intelligence better than I trusted than the adults around, which was smart because they were on meth.
My parent units one made the mistake of taking me to Disneyland.
At one point, they turn to me and say:
“Look there is Mickey Mouse, don’t you want to go say hi?”
I just looked at her like she was an idiot and said, “that’s not Mickey Mouse, that’s just some guy in a suit.”
I was four.
I also don’t trust Santa. Santa still hasn’t paid what he owes me.
They tried to take me to the circus one. We lasted 15 minutes because I was enraged about a tiger being kept in such a small cage.
I kept asking them; “why are the tigers in such small cages, they shouldn’t be in cages, they should be free. They are big!”
I actually ran up to the tiger cage, after having pulled hard enough to get my leash out of their hands and tried to break the code to free the tiger. I swear the tiger sat down and patiently waited before someone pulled me away from the tiger.
To this day it’s a bad idea to take me to a zoo or Marine World.
My mom had a visitation agreement with my sister’s dad. This man died while I was in grad school from a drug OD. I spent most of my life being told he was my dad too, which was utter bullshit.
He was a heavy meth addict and highly abusive to the woman who raised me and to us. Anyway, my mom dropped us off and about a half an hour later got a phone call from me.
“Hi Mommy, I am coming home, you need to come get me. Everyone is asleep here and there are bottles everywhere. It’s yucky. No, Amber is not coming. That’s ok, I will wait for you. No, now. K. I see you soon. “
When she got there I was sitting on the curb, with my little bag reading a chapter book. So by the time I was 7, I could look around and know that what surrounded me was messed up and that I needed to get out. I had the presence of mind to find a way out and I had enough intelligence to figure out what was going on. That’s an impressive level of meta-cognition for an adult, much less a seven year old.
So what is my point in all this?
The problem is that our schools weren’t designed for kids like me. If you think with all of that that I just sailed through school, you’d be wrong. I spent a lot of my time in school, even as an adult pissing the authorities off. If I didn’t have that tendency, I wouldn’t have made it there in the first place.
Some of them actively hated me, trying, even in elementary school, to embarrass me and find things I couldn’t do. By the time I got to junior high I was a nightmare in the classroom.
I was defiant, angry, and lacking in all respect for authority.
One teacher hated me so much that she pulled me out of class and screamed, “you are trying to take over my class.”
To which, I responded, “if I were trying I would have done it already.”
I was starting to drink and smoke, having grown up in a house where both were plentifully available. I was absent all the time either because of my headaches, my home life, or because I simply decided I didn’t have it in me that day to attend. I started having sex at an early and dangerous age.
If you looked at my case record at thirteen, you were looking at an incredibly high risk kid that you would have predicted would have multiple kids by now and would be stripping.
I was frequently bored in school, but curious enough that I still read when I was home. I’ve literally stolen books to have things to read.
This is one of the things that saved me.
I would read my science books cover to cover, using that in class to torture the aforementioned teacher. She didn’t expect anyone to read the textbook. One time in class she tried to tell me a theory and a law were the same thing only for me to get up and flip to the page that proved her wrong. I hated her because she assumed we were stupid. She hated me because I assumed she was stupid. That’s a kind of confidence that they will try to kill you for.
Our schools aren’t currently designed for kids like me, especially not in the poor areas.
If we had money, I probably would have been in a magnet gifted program, but that wasn’t an option for us. With zero tolerance policies and the general attitudes towards poor kids that I keep encountering, my intelligence was seen as more of a nuisance than something that should be praised.
When I was a freshman, my college counselor told me there was no reason for people “like me” to go to college. I had the highest test scores in the school by a huge margin. I watched, as time and time again, kids who were brilliant got treated in the same way, and I saw it as a teacher too. Too often my brightest poor kids were the ones who spent the most time in the office.
I think often about what saved me. It wasn’t a testing regime, I rebelled every time they tried to implement those and still messed up the averages. It wasn’t technology, I had little interest in something I didn’t have access to at home and didn’t seem any more interesting to me than Orwell, Camus, Hurston, or my science books.
At the end of the day, it was the few teachers I had who recognized my intelligence and differentiated to me, or at least emotionally supported me. It was those teachers who fought for me in the parent teacher conferences, and sent the message that I wasn’t made for this life. It was the teachers who spent the weeks before college applications were due and used their free time to talk out my essays and encouraged me to be painfully honest. It was the teachers, I saw, some of whom never formally taught me, that continued to throw books at me and have conversations with me at lunch. It was the last school I went to, that wanted nothing more than to set me free and loose. I went to Stanford and for the first time in my life, I wasn’t bored and most of my professors (except the few classist and sexist ones) loved what I brought to the table, because it was exactly what Stanford wants from its students. It was exactly what was required to reach that level.
I wouldn’t have lasted a day in a place where I had to follow strict and arbitrary rules or get counseled out. Not that I couldn’t and shouldn’t have been tamed, but a much more effective way to do that was to have an honest conversation, like some of my teachers did, about how my continued good behavior would get me out.
I did eventually “calm down” and “play the game” enough to stay out of trouble, but that was because of that conversation.
But most of all, I grateful for the consciousness that I was born with and the people along the way that not only encouraged it but threw more wood into the fire. I hope to return the favor. And maybe if I am really lucky and work really hard, I will light some fires too. Because some of my kids come in with that already stomped out. But the wood is there. Be the match.
And don’t give up on your smartasses. Some of us need to be there to notice when the cage is too small.