Sunday, June 28, 2015

Thoughts on my story

When I was a teenager back in 1987, was looking at taking the SAT's for the third and last time, but was severely disillusioned, and for some reason just didn't apply. Luckily before it was too late, one of my teachers Ms. Mary Jane Tipper asked me one day at school was I ready for it and I told her. She freaked out. Got an application, had me fill it out, and send it in, where she paid the application fee plus the late fee. What happened next is like a Hollywood ending, but it's relevant to first go back into the past some years.

You see, Ms. Tipper had been the one who tested me for the gifted program which I entered in the fourth grade when I was nine, and somehow she was there again at a critical moment in my life, when she saved my future.

Where were my parents? In many ways very supportive their support had faltered after a messy divorce. They didn't even know this story until I told it to them recently as I reflected upon it. And I don't like to blame race, but their backgrounds in racist society? The in's and out's of getting your kid into college weren't part of their training. But I should add there was a heavy religious component involved as well.

I was saved by a White teacher in the Deep South, as I grew up in the area of Tifton, Georgia, USA, and my life points to a different reality than most wish to see.

My avid love of reading caught the attention of one of my teachers in elementary school, which is how I'd been sent to Ms. Tipper to be tested. And yup, teacher was White. Wish I remembered her name. Remember her face though. She was young and I never forgot how important it was to her. Even as a child I could see: education is a BIG DEAL as it was written all over her face.

After I got into the gifted program, which in Georgia was called ILP back then, not sure what it is now, for Independent Learners Program, I found most of my classmates were not of my race, as I ended up in the college track. At one point I think there was just me and one Black girl, whose name was I think Hope. I was expected to go to college.

Turns out your peer group has a vast impact on you as a teenager, and as far as my peer group was concerned I was not only one of them, I was just expected to do similar things to them, like most were headed for college.

But as I noted a high score on a test for adverse stressors in childhood in a previous post I had a LOT going against me. Product of a broken home, with so many things I'd just as soon remain private. My parents had always at best been lower middle-class, but poverty had come after the divorce when I and my brothers were with my mother. Being poor is no fun, and is crushing to the ego. It saps your strength, and makes it harder to do important things, like work on your education.

The rest of the story amazes me to this day and actually refreshed with Ms. Tipper recently in a phone call, and was surprised at what I didn't remember. Turns out she also enlisted the help of a classmate of mine named John Dorminey who had a car. He picked me up on the day of the SAT's, and dropped me off back home later.

And when the scores came back, guess what? Already hinted at a Hollywood ending, so yeah, I had the highest SAT of my graduating class.

Mailbox filled up with letters from colleges and universities from all over the country, and for some reason only place I applied was to Vanderbilt University. Thankfully, they accepted me and gave me a full tuition scholarship, and I graduated in four years with my degree in Physics.

Was I in any way a victim of a racist society? I ponder that question but in a different way from most, as yes, to some extent as to what my parents knew, but no, of course not, as to the unbelievable support I got from community, where yeah, important people in that community happened to be White.

Reality is complicated. We oversimplify at our peril.

All kids need community support. And they need knowledge about what best to do.

It's not enough to have opportunity: you have to know it's there, and also seize it, where a prod here and there can make a world of difference. Someone has to be there for you looking out for what's best. I was lucky enough to have that someone.

Thank you Ms. Tipper, a teacher who made a difference. And, John Dorminey for being a great classmate when I was in serious need.

The South will confuse you if you think you understand it without looking deeply. It is so much about community, at its best.

Community is what matters. How we help each other is what makes a difference.

James Harris
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