I think something broke in me somewhere on the way through my teen years. When I was a kid, I was pretty typical, if a bit louder and more obnoxious than most. While there were certainly some events that stand out as weird, they’re not any more absurd than typical childhood hijinks (well, most of them anyway- more on this in later posts). Once I hit high school, all of that went out the window.
When I was younger, I never had to apply myself in school. I entered kindergarten reading at what was at least a sixth-grade level, and I had little trouble with any of the subject matter I encountered through elementary and middle school. Suddenly, as I began to take more honors and AP classes, the material caught up with me. I could still do the work, but the fact that I now had to work to do so started some corner of my mind thinking that I’d magically become stupid overnight.
Even now, the voice in my head sometimes brings that up, although he tends to prefer the tack I discovered as I entered college. The issue isn’t really my intellect; it’s the fact that, when faced with a task that might need me to exert myself, my brain decides that ANYTHING but what I need to do is suddenly the most interesting thing in the world.
I’ve gotten to the point where I realize that laziness, and not ignorance, is my main issue. Not that this makes anything any easier for me; if anything, it’s worse. When I’d tell myself I was dumb, it made it possible for me to escape blame. I couldn’t help it if I was stupid, but I should be able to fight off sloth long enough to get things done when they need doing.
Another area in which I can continually find fault in myself is my physical appearance. I’ve been pretty overweight for most of my life. I’m never going to be petite or lanky, but I really feel like I shouldn’t be nearly as big as I am presently. It probably doesn’t help that whenever I’d walk into an audition (I used to have an agent and get parts as an extra in things), I’d leave knowing I hadn’t got the part because of my weight.
I usually got called in to these auditions because they were looking for an african-american boy around my age to fill the part. If it wasn’t my weight that botched the audition, it was the fact that, apparently, I wasn’t “black” enough.
This was another sore spot, because being of mixed African-American and Caucasian heritage meant that I never really felt like I fit in anywhere. This was made worse by the fact that the city I grew up in was overwhelmingly caucasian, while the members of my extended family I saw with any regularity were not.
Trying to take experiences and knowledge gained from either setting and apply them to the other led pretty consistently to me feeling like some kind of oddity, as though instead of being black and French I was part octopus and part giraffe.
When I got to high school, a lot of my pre-existing insecurites became too prominent for me to ignore. While in middle school, I’d been able to hide my utter lack of social skills by never talking to anyone, I found myself being forced to interact with people all the time. This was the largest school I’d attended, and I was still one of a very small (I think the high point was five or six) group of students whose skin was my color.
This meant that, in every AP history class I took, whenever the topics of slavery and racism were brought up, at least half of the class would turn to look at me, as though by simply being descended from slaves I had some deep personal knowledge of everything to do with the enslavement of Africans.
Every time something race-related would come up, from Martin Luther King Jr Day to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, I’d either end up dealing with people who assumed that because of my skin color I had some deep insight, or someone who thought that because of my skin color, my opinion on the topic was so obvious that my opinions didn’t matter.
I was a starter for the school’s quiz bowl team all four years, and I constantly had to deal with people who wrote me off as being no help to the team. It helped that I would then proceed to contribute significantly to our team crushing theirs, but even after four years, I still felt like I was being forced to prove myself, to demonstrate that I belonged there instead of it being assumed that I did. I may have thought this was the name of the game in my life at the time, but it was soon made clear to me that my own idea of how others viewed me was far from accurate.
One week, I grew tired of my complete inability to do anything with my hair (more about the whole “gay” thing is up ahead) and decided I wanted to try something a bit more drastic than trying to relax it. I convinced my mother to drive me to a stylist two towns over who could cornrow my hair.
The next day, I headed off to school, hurrying to meet the carpool and just generally being blissfully unprepared for the ordeal ahead. The other people in the carpool managed to both note the new hair and not say anything offensive, but around thirty seconds after I got to school, it started. I walked up to some of my friends, and they kind of gawked at me. One guy’s jaw even dropped slightly.
Another friend wasn’t that subtle. “Woah, Drew. You actually look black for once!” This would turn out to be the phrase I heard most often that day. For a while, I thought I’d come to terms with my racial identity issues, but that day proved that I still had a lot of personal growing to do.
The first thing I did after getting home was hop in the shower and revert my hair to its default state. I’d been convincing myself that I was conveying myself to others as someone who was of black heritage, and was also everything else that comprises who I am. That experience showed me that, however confident in myself I may have acted, I wasn’t broadening any horizons. Instead, I was put back into that giraffetopus box, as an oddity completely detached from race.
As I began my senior year, I found myself having to deal with people’s assumptions about my race at the same time as I was coping with people’s ignoring my racial identity. Whenever the topic of college applications came up, I was told that I’d be sure to get in somewhere good, not because of my test scores (a 35 on the ACT, along with perfect history subject tests and a math subject test score in the 94th percentile), but because I was able to check the “African-American/Black” box under “Race/Ethnicity” on my applications.
Curiously, I figured out how to deal with this through a kind of last insult about my appearance. At my high school graduation, we were allowed to write our own brief messages to be read as we walked to get our diplomas. In mine, I mentioned that I would be attending Cornell University in the fall.
In the giant ball of chaos, hugs, and crying that followed, I started looking for my family. As I searched through the swarm of people, an elderly couple approached me. At first, I simply walked past them, but the woman grabbed my arm. She recognized me from where she’d been sitting in the bleachers (another hint as to how easy I was to pick out of the crowd) and wanted to congratulate me on getting in to Cornell.
“It’s such a good school, especially for someone who’s the first in their family to go to college!”
I politely excused myself to find my family after this, because yelling at the elderly is too dickish even for me. Nowhere in my little blurb had it said anything about me being the first in my family to go to college. My grandmother was a teacher, and my parents are both very highly educated (my dad went to U Chicago and went on to get a law degree, and my mother went to Brown at 15, going on to get a master’s degree in marine biology).
Still, as I fumed, I sort of came to terms with this particular facet of my issues. I couldn’t really do much to shape other people’s prejudices. On the other hand, I didn’t have to let the opinions of other people dictate how I viewed myself. For the time being, I’m more or less at peace with this particular aspect of my broken self-image, although I’m sure I’ll end up reverting to my giraffetopus form sooner or later.
(to be continued)