She sat near the front of the classroom desperately trying to pay attention to what the teacher was saying. Her attention was constantly diverted by the different sounds and the massive space. Everything was so different here. You could see from one end of the building to the next. She had no idea that the school was intentionally designed with the open space as a new approach to learning. This school was a part of the cutting edge of education. The open classroom concept was structured to help students learn at their own pace with the help of the teacher. Only students that were accepted to the District of Columbia Board of Education Gifted and Talented Program could attend this school.
Each classroom was separated by a series of small bookcases as a border for the room. She couldn't see the students from where she sat, but she could see the teacher talking to them. What were they studying? What were they doing over there? These questions and so many more kept running through her mind. The sound of her name brought her attention back to the moment. The teacher just asked her a question. She sat there and stared, not knowing what was asked. The little girl sitting at the table with her blurted out “see, this is what my mama said about them. She’s too stupid to be here. N----, don’t belong in this school.”
This was the moment I realized my whole world would be altered. Nothing would ever be the same for me again. I had never been called the N-word. I remembered my grandmother telling me earlier that people would call me out of my name. I remembered being told that things at this school would be different.
Well, it certainly was different. I never met a mob of parents screaming and yelling at me before entering the building that day. I never saw adults behave in such a barbaric manner. The screaming frightened me, and I did not truly realize until this moment that the signs that said, ”this is our school,” did not include me. The declaration from the little white girl at my table made that very clear. I looked around at the other students staring at me. Even the teacher from the other class was looking at me now. The air grew heavy. It was palatable as if it had a voice of its own.
In 1980, Washington D.C. was going through a transition. The city was 70 percent African American. Black Arts, Black Power, Women, and Statehood movements were flowering. The political and cultural changes proclaimed that the struggle for justice and equality for African Americans that took place mainly in the 1950s and 1960s had made great strides. But on that day, the neighborhood named after a fort that was built in 1861 at the start of the Civil War was blatant about its resistance to change. Fort Lincoln is a neighborhood located in northeastern Washington, D.C. This 360-acre trapezoidal residential community perched on a hill overlooking beautiful parks and walking paths evoked a sense of pride. That pride was intent on being exclusive in this instant. That day this section of the city was not ready to embrace this movement.
I was handpicked along with a few other black students to integrate this public middle school. It’s hard to believe sometimes that in 1980 a public school was still segregated. Policy initiatives primarily aimed at abolishing inequality and establishing communities that would be racially and economically integrated is what prompted my presence. My grandmother shared with me the stories of many others that had to do the same thing. My grandmother was an activist. She told me about the struggles she endured being locked up, beaten by police, and hosed so that I could have a chance to get a good education. She told me that she had carried me as far as she could in this struggle. The rest of this was up to me. It was now my turn to stand up to injustice. It was now my turn to stand in the gap to ensure equality was available for me and generations to come.
That’s a lot for an 8-year-old little girl to face. What was wrong with the adults in this world that an 8-year-old has to implement change!? All I really knew that day was that I wasn’t stupid. I was just curious about what was happening in the class next to us. I had to get tested, just like everyone else in the school, to even attend. I scored so well on the test that I was forced to repeat it. In 1980, when a black student scored well on a test, it was automatically believed that they cheated. In my case, the thought was magnified, because I had such a hard time focusing and sometimes it was difficult to understand the words that were written. I would later discover that they determined that I have dyslexia and my lack of focus would later be called ADHD.
School is designed to offer educational tools that aid students in achieving excellence so that society as a whole could have the brightest minds operating to better our nation. I am grateful that the teacher repeated the question. It forced me to make a choice that day. I could stay silent and let my fears overwhelm me or I could speak and let my voice stand for me.
That day, I learned to stand and fight through my learning disability. That day, I learned to stand and fight through injustices that would try to dismiss and diminish me because of the color of my skin. That day, this neighborhood that embraced being on the cutting edge of education had to face its fears as well. I am glad progress did take place. The school would later be named Thurgood Marshall Elementary School.