Diary of a Mad Black Educator

SheynaBy Sheyna Mikeal, Team Coordinator at WHEELS

9.12.12

If one more person gives me this look when I tell them I teach, I might just scream. Eyebrows touch, nose scrunches up, and mouth is all twisted at the corners. A look of confusion, of condescension. A smile would be nice, because teaching is a wonderful profession, just misunderstood.

Yes I went to Johns Hopkins University, a top school for biomedical engineering and medicine. Yes I graduated with honors in both of my majors. Yes I received my masters from there too. And yes—believe it or not—I decided education was the path for me.

Why? Because despite my educational successes, I look back and believe I was cheated from a quality education.

Let’s go back to 1996. I was in the 3rd grade standing no taller than 3 feet 6 inches. I loved school. Learning was fun and I would do anything to do well.

My teacher was out sick for weeks. We had a substitute, so you know what that means: playtime. She gave us busy work to do, with most of the children choosing not to do it. I completed each assignment.

One day I came into class ready for whatever worksheet would be handed to me. I looked at it and it was the SAME worksheet that I had completed the week before! I was furious. At 8, I went home and told my aunt “I want to be transferred because I am not being challenged enough.” Like my mother before me who used to skip school to advocate for the Black Panther movement on the radio, I was a pretty outspoken child. This was the birth of my inner angry black educator.

My fight for a quality education has continued from there. I graduated as valedictorian from a Baltimore City Public School. I was confident and, I must say, a little cocky going into my freshman year of college.

Imagine how I felt when I got to Johns Hopkins and was already failing two courses by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. The day before I am supposed to enjoy the best meal of the year, my stomach turns into mush as two bold Fs stare me in the face from the so perfectly folded piece of paper. I envisioned the person sighing while folding the letter because I was just another low-income, public school student who didn’t make the cut.

I talked to my friends who were doing well in the classes that I was failing and learned that they went into those classes with solid background knowledge and skills that I didn’t have. I was bamboozled!

My high school told me that I was college ready. I took AP courses, honors courses, and I was valedictorian for goodness sake! Why am I failing!?! My courses had the right titles and I had the right grades, but I definitely wasn’t challenged by the rigorous coursework that would really prepare me to succeed in college. I remember that in 11th grade I completed an entire semester’s worth of work in one week. That shouldn’t be possible.

Rigor. Hmm, sound familiar? This is why Blue Engine exists. We put 4-5 qualified, hardworking adults in the classroom to allow for students of all levels to be challenged with rigorous work.

My education failed me when I needed it the most, but my determination and support system helped me overcome that obstacle. Not every student has the drive and support to continue in the face of adversity and that is why only 8% of students from low-income backgrounds are actually getting bachelor’s degrees.

Blue Engine prepares students for college with academic skills, but we also help students change their mindsets. Our students learn to welcome challenge (with a little whining) and face it head on. Some students even expect the challenge and feel disrespected if we give them something too easy.

This is what I missed in school. I confused working hard with being challenged. I can only imagine what I could have done if I had the supports my students have when I was in high school.

Shoot, I could be the chancellor of New York City Public Schools by now.

Okay, maybe not. But seriously, to really think about all the possibilities of intellectual growth that I could have had, I can’t help but to feel cheated and, well, mad.

Memories of my educational experiences are a constant reminder to stay focused and keep my head down so that my students don’t have to go through what I went through. Feeling cheated makes anyone mad, but feeling cheated out of something as valuable as an education, that is grounds for immediate action.

The action plan I chose was Blue Engine.

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