I Was a Low-Income College Student. Classes Weren’t the Hard Part.

Anthony Abraham Jack:

Now, as a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, I teach a course I’ve titled C.R.E.A.M. (Cash Rules Everything Around Me) — borrowing the title of that still-relevant Wu-Tang Clan track — in which we examine how poverty shapes the ways in which many students make it to and through college. Admission alone, as it turns out, is not the great equalizer. Just walking through the campus gates unavoidably heightens these students’ awareness and experience of the deep inequalities around them.

I’ve spent half my life in Miami and the other half in Massachusetts. One 20-minute phone call with an Amherst football coach when I was a high school senior, and a college brochure that arrived two days later, brought this dual citizenship into existence. I can still hear my brother asking, “What is an Amherst?” We didn’t have internet at home, so we had to wait to get to the school computer lab before we could look up the unfamiliar name. We learned that the “H” was as silent as my brother was when he found out a United States president — Calvin Coolidge — was an alumnus, and so was the eminent black physician Dr. Charles Drew. Now maybe his baby brother could be one, too.

The path from Miami to Massachusetts was not one that everyone around me could see. I attended George Washington Carver Middle School, which had an International Baccalaureate program, in my neighborhood, Coconut Grove. But the summer before I started at Carver, I took some summer school electives at Ponce de Leon Middle School, our zoned school, where my mom worked as a security guard and which she helped to desegregate in the ’60s. Before the starting bell one day, an assistant principal from Carver saw me goofing around with some friends from around the way. She strode over and said to me, “You don’t have the potential to be a Carverite.”

That assistant principal saw black, boisterous boys and deemed us, and me, less than. She didn’t see my drive to succeed. My family didn’t have much, but since my days in Head Start, I was always a top performer in every subject. During one rough patch, I stayed home from school for a few days when we couldn’t afford all the supplies needed to carry out my science-fair experiment on bulb voltage and battery life. I developed my hypotheses and outlined my proposed methods without the materials and had everything ready to go when we were able to afford the supplies. I missed the ribbon but got the A. So on that summer morning when the assistant principal admonished me, anger welled up inside me, but I couldn’t let it show. That would have just played into her preconceived notion of who — or rather, what — I was. I had to prove her wrong. I had to prove myself right.

But even as I write these words, I’m aware that this is exactly the kind of story that poor, black and Latinx students are conditioned to write for college application essays. In everyday life, as the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote, we “wear the mask that grins and lies” that “hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,” but when we write these all-important essays we are pushed — by teachers, counselors and anyone who gives advice — to tug the heartstrings of upper-middle-class white admissions officers. “Make them cry,” we hear. And so we pimp out our trauma for a shot at a future we want but can’t fully imagine.

Related: Former Madison K-12 Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s Harvard lecturer position.