The student body was one-third African American and Caribbean, one-third Hispanic, and one-third Caucasian. The school also touted a full-time gifted program and a bilingual program in Spanish and English. The odd thing was the African American and Caribbean students were all in the “traditional” academic program, while the Caucasian children were in the gifted program. The Hispanic children were almost all in the bilingual program.
As a child in the Bahamas, I looked longingly at the new dolls, bicycles, and skates other children received on Christmas morning. I remember really wanting the Raggedy Ann doll that was very popular one year. But my gifts were predictable: books. My mother and stepfather gave me lots and lots of books over the years. What could I do? I would find a clean spot in the linen closet, under the bed, or any quiet nook and cranny in our tiny, crowded home; I sucked my right thumb and read for hours and hours each day. All of this reading about my stepfather’s native United Kingdom history, Caribbean folktales, and even the Encyclopedia Britannica made me a dull companion for other children; however, adults loved quizzing me about random topics. “Here comes the lightbulb!” my eldest sister’s boyfriend, Nat, always said.
So, as a child, I knew I was a “smart.” Things went to another level when I, at age thirteen, along with my seventeen-year-old sister, Omath, got student visas and migrated together to the United States. I vividly remember the ladies in the Foreign Student Office for the (then) Dade County Public Schools in Miami whispering: “What should we do with her?” Apparently, I scored quite high on a student placement test. While I was slated for grade eight, the women accelerated me to grade nine and placed me in the Exceptional and Gifted Student Education Program. I was successful in high school, became editor of the Skyrocket student newspaper, and won the prestigious Silver Knight Award from The Miami Herald and Knight-Ridder Publishing Co. By the time I reached my senior year, I had completed all coursework needed for graduation, so I interned as a writer at the (then) Metro Dade County Government. Had I known about Advanced Placement courses, I might have chosen that option.
In my freshman year at the University of Florida, I registered for twenty credits: Astronomy, Yoruba language, African American Women Writers, Intro to Philosophy, Algebra, and, for fun, Theatre Appreciation. No one advised me that Spanish might have been a better foreign language option, since I had studied that language in high school; or to limit my first semester course load to fifteen credits; or to drop the Philosophy or Astronomy course when my grades started to drop. As I earned a C for the first time in my life, I determined that everyone heretofore was wrong: I was not really smart enough to be gifted. After all, I reasoned, gifted scholars always earn straight As.
Navigating the educational system for my two eldest daughters seemed a bit easier; I had a much better understanding of the American educational system. When Nuola was in third grade at an international studies magnet program in Miami, her teacher recommended her for the gifted program. I took advantage of this opportunity to also recommend my kindergartener, Moremi, for gifted testing. Both girls easily qualified. In fact, Moremi’s IQ score fell in the 99.999 percentile. Thanks to DukeTIP, they took the SAT in grade seven and attended a prestigious college preparatory middle and high school, but both girls were unhappy, for a number of reasons.
Moremi was bored with having to “act white” at school to fit-in with her classmates. Nuola was simply bored with the emotional immaturity of her age-mates. Both Nuola and Moremi ended up dropping out of high school. Well, sorta. They left high school during ninth grade to attend Bard College at Simon’s Rock, the early college for young scholars, in Great Barrington, MA. While Nuola was incredibly homesick, she was successful at Simon’s Rock and found community there. Moremi was happy because she could be herself in Great Barrington—nappy hair and all—but missed the hustle and bustle of a big city. She transferred to and graduated from The New School in New York.
The big challenge came for me years later with my younger daughters, Breanna and Brooke, now age twelve. The twins were born premature at thirty-two weeks gestation; prematurity can cause developmental, medical, and vision defects. Our family lived, studied, and worked in the United Arab Emirates for five years when the girls were ages three to eight. Upon our return to the States, we were faced with a very real case of educational discrimination, based on race. We enrolled the girls in third grade in what seemed to be an ideal school, based on the numbers: The student body was one-third African American and Caribbean, one-third Hispanic, and one-third Caucasian. The school also touted a full-time gifted program and a bilingual program in Spanish and English. The odd thing was the African American and Caribbean students were all in the “traditional” academic program, while the Caucasian children were in the gifted program. The Hispanic children were almost all in the bilingual program. My husband and I wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald about the experience: https://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/op-ed/article45661389.html:
With borrowed funds, my husband and I had the twins privately tested for the gifted program then had a yearlong struggle getting the Miami school system to recognize Breanna and Brooke as gifted. A major challenge was that Breanna has an eye-tracking disorder that creates a challenge for her to succeed on nonverbal tests; she excels on verbal tests. Another challenge was the teacher recommendations. While teachers in Dubai viewed the twins as creative, curious, and intelligent, the teachers at this particular school simply said the girls “talked too much,” “didn’t know anything,” and “lacked creativity.” In the end, we had the overseas teachers complete the teacher recommendation forms, and the girls were identified as gifted.
Our family now lives in Montgomery, Alabama. The twins are in grade seven at a private college preparatory school. As is true at most college prep schools, there is no gifted program at this school. The unspoken “understanding” is that all of their students are “smart” high achievers. I already see the signs that, like their older sisters, Breanna and Brooke are bored with the traditional school setting. In the summer of 2017, the twins — with the support of Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University— produced Architects of Change, a thirty-minute documentary about the African American people’s triumphant journey to freedom. You can find the minute-long trailer here: https://www.womenintraining.org/awards-and-honors
In the summer of 2019, Breanna and Brooke started a campaign to end #PeriodPoverty by giving monthly #WITKITS of menstrual and hygiene supplies to at-risk girls, young women, and non-binary youth. You can read about Women in Training’s campaign in this Montgomery Advertiser article: https://amp.montgomeryadvertiser.com/amp/2356504001.
What’s next? I’m not sure. Both girls excel in cross country, play a bit of tennis, and have decent skills with the violin and viola. Like their older sisters, the twins love the stage and have performed in professional theatre and film productions. Brooke is researching boarding schools, which are mostly in remote communities—perfect for Brooke, a quiet soul like her older sister, Nuola, who appreciates creating community. Bree, however—like Moremi before her—wants a school in a big city with theatre, lights, and action. We won’t consider separating the girls, so who knows what the future holds?