Although everyone expected me, a white Jewish girl with lawyer parents, to attend an old-line private high school, I chose a large inner-city public school where I represent a tiny minority. I believe that exposing myself to new experiences has made me a better, more open-minded person.
I chose to attend this magnet school, with a rigorous curriculum, because I wanted a change after years in an affluent private school. While I did have anxiety about fitting in, I was surprised at how smooth the transition was. Within days, I was affectionately called “White Chocolate.” Before long, my new friends put my “slippery” hair into corn-rows. Getting to know people who face racism and endure economic disadvantages has caused me to appreciate their achievements, and to recognize how the odds are stacked against many of my peers.
Diamond, a close friend—and personal hero–was sexually abused at age seven, abandoned by her drug-addicted mother, and passed from family to family for years. Determined to receive a first-rate education, she takes 3 buses to this school. Notwithstanding huge impediments, she remains a funny, warm, optimistic person who is entering college this fall.
A particularly uplifting experience occurred during history class my freshman year. In the middle of a lesson, Jarrell, a senior, barged into the room with tears in his eyes. When my teacher looked up surprised, Jarrell handed him a letter. As the teacher read in silence, a smile spread across his face. The teacher announced, “Jarrell just got a full college scholarship.” Jarrell pointed out the window and whispered, barely audibly, “If it hadn’t been for you, I’d be on those streets selling drugs.”
Learning about people from different backgrounds is not a one-sided experience. Some of my classmates have met few or no Jews. Many ask if I speak “Jewish” or why, if I am Jewish, my hair is blonde. Once, my friend Darrell asked me why all Jewish people are smart. Rather than lecturing on stereotypes, I turned the situation around and said, “That’s like asking why all Black people like fried chicken.” Darrell hesitated, and then, with a twinkle in his eye” replied, “ Yo…that’s right…I’m hungry!”
I believe that by exposing myself to people with different experiences, I have learned to think of them as individuals—not as broadly defined groups. I better understand the vagaries of life from different perspectives. While I knew racism existed, I failed to truly understand how it felt for my classmates to enter a store and immediately arouse suspicion solely based on the color of their skin. Nor did I appreciate the Herculean efforts it takes some of my friends to simply get to school, and then achieve academic excellence, without cars, computers, or the support systems I once took for granted. I feel extremely lucky to have enriched my life by spending my high school years among so many amazing, intelligent, and kind people, who cause me to step out of my own shoes—and into theirs—every day.
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