This post is based on my TEDx talk on the importance of educational equality.
I have always been confusing for people who needed to label me.
My birth certificate says I am Negro, and growing up, I was labeled “bIack” or “colored.” But I also have a light complexion and blue eyes. That has been an issue for people since I was a child.
I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in Peekskill, New York. Peekskill had a history of racism — known for racist groups such as The John Birch Society and the Klu Klux Klan. Where white men, afraid of losing their supremacy, demonstrated and engaged in violent encounters with black Americans and Jewish people. Yet Peekskill also had good schools for poor families like mine who were intent on moving up to the middle class. Peekskill also had teachers who preserved stereotypes about the nature of intelligence — those who were “born smart” and who were not – based on skin color. Taunted during elementary school for my skin color, I had to protect myself against attacks by children of both races.
By the time my family moved to a primarily white school system outside of Peekskill, I attempted to hide the fact that I was a Negro. I worked hard to convince classmates that I was not black. This was not an option I coveted. I internalized the shame that America projected — and still projects — on the descendants of sons and daughters who were forced into slavery.
But I couldn’t escape the consequences of what today might be called “learning while black.”
My high school guidance counselor said I did not have the “cognitive makeup” to attend college. For a time, I seemed determined to prove her right. I was accepted into a community college in upstate New York despite my poor performance in high school and SAT scores, only to be kicked out after the first semester for partying and poor grades. My father begged the dean to readmit me, but I was surprised when my biology teacher — who just happened to be white — also went to bat for me. He assured the dean I was capable of doing college-level work.
It was the boost I needed. I was re-admitted, my grades improved and I even transferred schools, eventually earning my bachelor’s degree.
But I never forgot my high school guidance counselor’s prediction. From time to time, my mother would run into the guidance counselor and apprise her of my progress. The counselor always had a way of minimizing it. “Anyone can get into a community college,” she said. When I transferred to a college in Mexico for a year, she said: “Anyone can get into a school outside the country.”
So when it came time for graduate school, I decided to apply to the school my guidance counselor attended — Columbia University’s Teachers College. I just had to take the Miller Analogies Test (MAT.) That was another “learning while black” moment.
It is here that I ask you to imagine a young man, in the city of New York on a Saturday morning, taking a difficult analogies test. The first question went something like this: “Crewing is to the Charles, as boating is to…?”
Well, I knew what a crew cut was, and Charles was a good friend of mine. But for the life of me, I had no clue. I knew nothing about “crewing” or the Charles River in Boston. I hadn’t been exposed to the vocabulary needed for the MAT. I later learned that my MAT results were among the worst in the history of Teachers College.
Through hard work and persistence, I eventually was admitted to Teachers College, received my master’s degree and even applied for and completed a second master’s. After I discovered that my former guidance counselor did not have a doctoral degree, I pursued that, too, earning a doctorate from Teachers College in interdisciplinary studies: education administration, psychology, special education and anthropology.
I could not wait until my mother ran into my high school guidance counselor! Can you guess the counselor’s reaction?
She said: “I always knew Eric had it in him.” Go figure…
I share this because I believe all children “have it in them,” and I’ve dedicated my life to ensuring all children reach their potential. We all have the ability to step outside the labels we are given and exceed every meager expectation that is set for us.
That is more than belief. It is science.
If we teach students how the brain works — that we are not born smart, but become creative and successful through both sustained effort and failure — they will learn that the individual controls achievement, and mediates institutional and personal factors.
Environment is critical. Students thrive in surroundings that are conducive to high achievement, where they are exposed to language, homes filled with books, good schools, positive peer interactions and engaged parents. Potential also depends on educators who guide, mentor and mediate student strengths, rather than focus on deficits or weaknesses.
Violence and poverty can critically impact learning and achievement. Research suggests experience with excessive violence can actually distort the brain, causing stress and the emission of the hormone cortisol, which inhibits comprehension and learning. The good news is that the influences of negative stereotyping and violence can be reversed. Neuroscience reveals the miraculous workings of the brain: how memory is stored and where; how to retrieve it; and how to grow brain cells through physical activity and mental stimulation.
In the end, Wendy Mogel, an internationally acclaimed clinical psychologist, says it best: “We should think of our children as wildflower seeds in an unmarked package. We can’t know what will emerge. All we can do is plant them in fertile soil, give them plenty of water and sunlight, and wait patiently to see the uniqueness of their beauty.”
Every child, regardless of race or family circumstances, has a unique talent and gift waiting to be discovered.
I think that idea is worth sharing.
Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement.