As a very young child, people continuously told me “you can be anything that you want to be.” I heard this all through my early years of elementary school, but then things started to change and I began to question if this was really true. I was becoming aware of a type of categorizing that was taking place around everything, -race, income and social and mental intelligence. From the age of 7, I was being placed into a box; I felt that I had to fit into a mold about everything and if I didn’t I something was wrong with me. When my actions, ways of thinking, and overall sense of self began to form outside this mold, life seemed different, scary, and hard.
I grew up on Ballantyne Country Club Drive, a street where everyone was the same, upper-class and White. We were the only upper-class Black family in the neighborhood. However, we all went to the same school, had the same afterschool teacher, were on the same sports teams, and lived very similar lives. I had always been a part of this white group of kids who grew up together and lived that similar lifestyle, but I always felt different, like I really didn’t fit in. Sometimes I felt that I became the “token” black kid that made everyone else feel like they were not racist. I stayed with them throughout my entire elementary school years, but then parted ways in middle school so I could go to a more challenging school.
This challenging middle school had two programs, an “Open Program” and an “International Baccalaureate” (IB) meaning it was a program for intellectually gifted students. The school was completely divided in half and it was obvious which students were in which program. I was in the IB program and again, I was in the exact same situation that I had been in elementary school. Everyone was white upper-class, and I was the only person of color. The “Open” classes, however, were a different story. There were many people of color. I had never seen so many people who looked so similar to me. It was alarming, but intriguing. I did not understand why I wasn’t in those classes. Why could I never be with the people who looked like me? I became curious and decided that during lunch I was going to go outside of my comfort zone. I was going to sit with an “Open” class at lunch. It took everything I had in me to find the courage to sit with the people who looked like me; I had never done that before. I figured that the reason I had always felt out of place and out of touch with my surroundings was because I was always different. Maybe, for once, I wouldn’t feel so different.
When I went to sit with the “Open” class students, I was ignored. I waved and said hello to the people sitting around me and they stared. Finally, someone spoke. “Who let the Oreo sit over here?” The whole table laughed and I didn’t understand. This moment defined what I thought I would be the rest of my life, an outcast. My peers didn’t accept me and I didn’t feel like I was enough for the classes I was in. I didn’t fit the mold that I felt that I had to fit. I didn’t look the way I was supposed to, dress the way I felt like I needed to, or think the same way that others in my classes did. Where everyone in the IB program was concerned at such a young age what college they wanted to attend, I sat and thought of ways to change the world. Where kids were concerned about getting to the mall to hang out with their friends, I was spending all my time in the dance studio pursuing my passion. I didn’t feel like the normal kid I thought I was supposed to feel like.
This continued throughout high school and felt like it got worse. I had an English teacher who began our first day of classes with this uplifting quote, “Most of the people that you see sitting around you will not make it through the program. Choose your friends wisely.” This quote crushed me because at this point, I believed that I was predetermined to fail because what friends did I really have? …And I didn’t know how to change any of it.
Even after transferring to another high school for the ARTs where I thought I’d fit in more, because I could focus on the thing that I loved the most, dance, I continued to feel the unfairness and disempowerment of the school system. In an AP English course, we were given an assignment where we were supposed to illustrate on paper the beginning scene of a novel we read in class. I am no artist, but I made sure that I spent quality time creating a picture that I thought was my best work. When looking through all of the classes’ illustrations, she showed the class mine and said, “This is the worst one. This is not the work of an AP student. I am extremely disgusted with the quality of work you have done!” and threw my picture in the trash. I was embarrassed, ashamed, and horrified that my work had been publicly displayed and humiliated in front of my entire class. I have carried that fear of doing subpar schoolwork inside of me since.
School can be an extremely hard time for kids and I believe more kids than we know experience what I did than because as my story points out, young people always deep inside, blame themselves for their school struggles. Students spend most of their academic years trying to fit in, making friends, and worrying about being stupid in front of their peers. I believe what is as or more important is focusing on the bigger picture of learning and life, which consists of knowing your gifts and strengths, being healthy in all areas of life, learning time management, and how to deal with challenges. All of this is what i.b.mee. calls “A W.E.L.L. education” – that consists of whole person Wellness, personal Empowerment, self-Leadership, Live Your Legacy.
Becoming an intern at i.b.mee. has changed not only my way of thinking towards education, but continues to make me a better student and in more acceptance of who I really am. I have been in the old paradigm for most of my pre-college career, and I experienced the effects of how a child can feel when in an educational system doesn’t focus on the whole child and just fits them into one mold. As I become more aware of what we can do for our next generations, and as I continue to walk towards the new way of feeling, thinking and being myself, I really want to be W.E.L.L., and I want to see the next generations become W.E.L.L. generations. i.b.mee. has taught me that it’s never too late to change the face of your education, as well as others. It is up to us – students, teachers, and parents – to take a step into a new way of thinking about learning and life. We can help change our communities, schools and the minds and bodies of our children, and children to come. I never needed to fit into a box; with i.b.mee, I’ve learned that all we need is to create our own.
By Shani Searcy, Western Carolina University English Major Senior