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On How I Got to Stanford and What that Means for Education

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. But 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.

My mom has some really fabulous, I knew Heather was a weirdo from an early age stories. I am going to tell you my top three. The first involves me as a toddler. When we were little we lived at my grandma’s house, despite my mom’s best efforts to get out in her own right. 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. All through school anytime she offered to help with my school projects I would tell her to go away because I didn’t want to have to relinquish creative control.  My mom is really into crafts. So 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 my mother’s, who besides being working class and kind of messed up at the time, was a member of MENSA.

The second story takes us a few years later. They made the mistake of taking me to Disneyland. My mom wasn’t happy about it because she knew what would happen and I spent most of the time hanging out with her and refusing to go on rides and talking about my observations. At one point, my mom turns to me and says: “Heather,  look there is Mickey Mouse, don’t you want to go say hi?” and 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. So I was already the kind of kid who looked around and saw things for what they really were and called it out and asked real questions and refused to be lied to. This is a related but also short story. My grandma thought it was a good idea to take me to the circus. My mom had warned her, I was 6 at this point so she knew what was going to go down. We got there, walked past the tiger cage and I immediately had a complete nervous breakdown. We lasted 15 minutes because I was enraged about that tiger being in such a small cage. I kept asking my mom; “why are the tigers in such small cages, they shouldn’t be in cages, they should be free. They are big!” Epic tantrum ensued. So I also already had an incredibly strong sense of justice and was prepared to stop a whole family outing in order to get my answers about what is happening. To this day it’s a bad idea to take me to a zoo or Marine World.

The third story happened when I was about 7. My mom had a visitation agreement with my dad. I am not going to mince words, my dad died last year from a drug OD. He was a heavy meth addict and highly abusive to my mother 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. Did I mention that I started reading entirely of my own accord at 3?

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. Academically I always did fine but most of my teachers thought I was a real pain in the butt. 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. Defiant, angry, lacking in all respect for authority. As an 8th grader I told my science teacher that if I were trying to take over her class I would have already done it, when she pulled me out of class to yell at me. 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. So if you looked at me, 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, and my mom made sure I read. This is one of the things that saved me. At 11 I was reading 1984 and having discussions about it with my mom, who as I have already mentioned is painfully brilliant. 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. By junior high I was reading about 3 novels a week, in addition to doing my school work and getting in trouble in some of my classes. I hated school but I loved learning with a maddening ferocity.

Our schools aren’t currently designed for kids like me, especially not in the poor areas. If my mom had 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 see it now on my interviews. I’ve been told that I am “too brilliant” to be a teacher. That’s ignoring the fact that I became a teacher precisely because I remembered the thing that saved me at the end of the day. It wasn’t a good school, that wasn’t an option. 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.

We are so obsessed in education with maintaining order and the polite, easy kids that we forget about the kids like me, and that might be why so few charters working in the poor areas get their kids to the top tier. 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. Because I did eventually “calm down” and “play the game” enough to stay out of trouble, but that was because of that conversation. I saw this in STEP too. Folks who shall remain nameless told me I shouldn’t be a teacher because of the way my brain works. They worried a lot about my ability to reach all kids despite my excellent track record with the SPED kids; they forgot that I had been translating my whole life. There were a few people who saw what I was and took me under their wing, fighting for me every step of the way. And for that, I am as always eternally grateful. 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.

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