Black, ranked 14th in her high school graduating class: admitted to Harvard. Asian valedictorian: wait-listed by Harvard. How did it feel to be me when students and teachers learned of this college admissions outcome? “Twisted Shame” is the title I would give to a story about what it was like for me to get into Harvard University as a 17 year old, female, half black/white adoptee at the end of senior year in a public high school on Long Island, New York, in the late 20th century. Another way version of a title for this tale: How did it feel to experience public condemnation as a recognized victimizer who robbed those she could not outcompete? Ok, that title is a bit clunky but it summarizes what happened. I have never written about this event. I am going to take the unusual step of more fully embracing these words by reading at least some of this writing in an audio that accompanies this post. I feel brave.
Thurgood Marshall was the first black justice on the Supreme Court. At the press conference where he announced his retirement from the Court he was asked if he thought he should be replaced by a black justice. He answered “a snake is a snake. Black or white, it will still bite.” His position was that all race based policies are inherently flawed, maybe even evil. No matter how well-meant, no matter what a good idea it seemed to be, any policy that factors in race will not end well. My high school and college classmates assumed I was the beneficiary of affirmative action and my benefits came at the expense of deserving kids. Innocent victims. My victims. I was a purposeful victimizer, applying for privileges that I did not deserve, knowing full well that I would get advantages through a glitch in an unfair system that favored me instead of beating me down. No one rejected vociferously to any unfairness other than the perceived and assumed inequity I was said to have willfully inflicted. By writing this piece I came to understand that I had not only been accused of being dumb, an accusation that had always been clear to me. Now I understand that I was not only dumb but also a villain. Little wonder that an honor, a dream come true, turned into a source of condemnation by others and shame for me. What terrible experience–my admission to Harvard and public awareness of my admission. It was from hell.
“You only got into Harvard because you are black. You were not qualified to be admitted.”
Those are familiar words to every American with even a vague understanding of college admissions. People said this to me, about me. I feared it was true. For reasons I did not know, colleges were looking for black students and they chose the best black students out of the tiny group of black applicants. I did not compete against anyone but the other black applicants, was how I understood the way things were. My class rank was 14th out of, I forget exactly, 250+ kids, I think, who were in my high school class of 1990-something. I had applied to Harvard after Harvard sent me an application when I scored a 1470 on the SAT. I never worried about admission because I figured if they had sent me an application, that was that. the valedictorian, a Chinese student who had been my classmate in gifted and talented since 5th grade had also applied to Harvard. I do not know if he had received an application. Students did not work together on applications.
It seemed like all of the colleges in the country informed applicants about how they had fared on the same day, May 05. When you came home from school on that day, you’d know where your life was heading. Everyone found out if they had gotten in, or gotten rejected, and everyone found out what happened to everyone else. The thick admission packets and slim rejection letters arrived via U.S. mail. Harvard accepted me with a thick packet. The Chinese valedictorian was wait-listed. I was unfamiliar with the wait list option. I do not know if they told him in letter or sent a packet, in case a slot opened up. The valedictorian would end up at Princeton, but nothing had been decided on May 6, 1990-something. That was the day everyone commented on what had happened. There was no debate. Everyone knew I had snagged the advantage and he had been screwed over. Like everyone else, I compared the two of us. We had both scored 1470 on the SAT in 11th grade, and kids I had been in gifted and talented with since 3rd grade had voiced utter amazement that I would get the same score as him. But in all fairness his rank was higher than mine. By 11th grade we also had identical overall average grades if 100 I know the grades because every kid grades 9-12 with an average of 90 or better had their names and overall grade posted outside of the guidance office. Political Correctness had yet to take hold in schools. We weren’t the kids who grew up playing games that had no score and no declared winner, after which everyone received participation trophies for taking part in something that had no goal. Everyone pretended not to know who was skilled and who was holding the team back. Everyone acted like the kids enjoyed the togetherness and the only thing that really mattered is that the kids had fun out there. Back in my day, yes I am old enough to say that, people kept score, out loud. People kept track. People knew how you stacked up.
The valedictorian hadn’t had to bring his grade up from a 92 in 9th grade the way I had, due to what I now believe was terrible depression over being in that abusive foster home. Unquestionably the valedictorian’s overall record was better than mine. He had been an A+ student since forever and I had gone from A- to matching his grades at the time we turned in our college applications. It is possible that my progress gave me a leg up without me knowing it. Now that I have the benefit of an unconventional source of wisdom (prison) I can see how an admissions committee might have compared two kids by examining the way a parole board compared two inmates. However, prison taught me something about institutions. They are (perhaps mistakenly) more impressed by significant improvement than in unchanged high quality achievement. An inmate with no disciplinary problems was at a disadvantage when compared to an inmate who went from violent to a model inmate
I will give you a for instance that shows how steep progress beats unwavering compliance. I had a friend in prison, Betty, possibly the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in person (before she lost her teeth as is common for the local Hawaii population older than age 25.) She had grown up with a father who beat her like she was a man. When she was 19 she was in downtown Honolulu and she punched a man so hard he went down. And hit his head on the sidewalk. And died. They gave her a year because at 19 she had “youthful offender” status, but she kept returning to prison well into her 30’s. During her last stint inside she progressed from being so violent she had to be shackled hand and foot and flanked by a guard on either side of her to go to the medical unit, to getting a job in house and living with the minimum custody people. That’s how I got to know her, when we both lived in Ahiki , as the housing unit was called at WCCC, the Women’s Community Correctional Center. Of course I had already known who she was. She was the only woman who got into fights and left her opponents bleeding profusely enough that maintenance had to clean the significant amount of blood off of the ground.
Betty had her violent episodes but other than that she was very popular. She was a hugger. She had a beautiful singing voice. She was loyal to her friends. She listened to people when they spoke. When people complimented her beauty she gave them the full benefit of her shy smile. She was beautiful inside and out, until something provoked that rage within her. But even then she did not just lash out indiscriminately. Her anger was directed at the person who had offended her and everyone else was still within her warm, loving circle. The consensus was the person had done something to deserve her wrath although perhaps she went a bit overboard. And of course, she was Polynesian, she had been here all of her life and was tied to other inmates and guards through family connections. Nothing but nothing beats family connections in Hawaii. When I had the chance to spend time with her and be her friend I felt quite fortunate. We both wept when she was released to work furlough and I had to watch her go. I watched her go, although I was a non-violent offender (for the record, my offense is no longer considered a felony by the state of Hawaii, just to give you the perspective of how possession of one pill might compare to manslaughter).
How did Betty get out faster than me and so many others? The parole board was so impressed by the changes she made that they offered her parole in 6 months if she had no fights. That’s how she went from max custody status to getting out on parole faster than women with non violent crimes and women who were model inmates who had not only refrained from injuring others but had never been in a single physical fight. Improvement proved to be impressive especially if prison officials had the idea that somehow they could take credit for her rehabilitation.
I am sure the admissions committee at Harvard would be deeply offended by this statement: maybe they were similar to the Hawaii parole board in their assessment standards. Perhaps Harvard had been impressed with my academic improvement from A- to A+. When it came to extra curriculars, I was clearly the standout. I handled the money for all the school’s 4 vending machines for 3 years. All cash, Zero supervision, never a penny missing. New York Newsday, then the 4th largest paper in the country, had published my letter to the editor about black history studies I was a good, but not great, runner as All-County in cross country. I would never be all State, but the valedictorian didn’t have a sport or any activities whatsoever prior to Senior year, when we both ran cross country together as seniors. I was all county. He was pleased to finish the whole 5k without stopping to walk. The colleges were hip admission strategies, and their applications asked how many years you had participated and what you had accomplished. I always thought Harvard frowned upon him joining cross country at a time when NO ONE gets the notion to start competitive distance running. Maybe they felt he was playing them for fools with the transparent bit of con artistry. I am quite sure he had been advised by elders to get a sport to show colleges. Following the conventional wisdom of the time might have torpedoed him. Hindsight shows us all that conventional wisdom of the day is often not wise at all.
I am aware of this possibility today, but at the time, I suffered in silence, listening to what everyone else said. “Everyone” was probably 3 or 4 vocal kids and a couple of teachers, but the words of condemnation, accusation surrounded me like I was in Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Pit and the Pendulum, and I was in the Pit, while the words had taken the physical form of the pendulum looming ever closer to slicing me in half. I did not speak my opinion, but others said plenty. Everyone who commented said what hurt him, was my clearly inferior, unqualified presence. The grades had been posted for years. Hard evidence of Harvard favoring inferior me. I, specifically, took his spot, as if the admissions committee juxtaposed our applications and needed a black student to look liberal. Who was looking at Harvard? Who judged Harvard more favorably for my being there? These logical questions never came to me on May 6, 1990 something. I simply believed what was said. “They” needed to “look good” and that’s where I came in. On the surface I appeared to represent someone who fit the bill of acceptable appearances. Interestingly, the same thinking led the people who adopted me to take me in. They had adopted two kids with developmental disabilities, though that’s not the term that was used back then to describe children with these issues. The adopters received monthly disability checks which the female half of the duo loudly bragged about. But they, mostly the woman, worried that people would think those were their “real” kids and the only kids they could produce were obviously defective. I was supposed to look “normal.” What an awful lot of effort to produce an appearance for no-one knows-who and with no tangible results other than what one imagines people think.
For some reason I was late to Advanced Placement English the next school day. When I walked in the steady, unintelligible buzz of voices went silent as if a switch was flipped off. One person half-heartedly said, “There’s our scholar.” The room remained silent. I felt my face burning the way it flamed when someone mentioned black and every white face looked in my direction by directly staring or grabbing furtive glances while I tried to will myself to disappear but failing that I learned how to go away inside my head into an elaborate fantasy world where my skin was free of acne, I had friends, and I was a star runner/singer/model. I always remained in my world until the bell signaled I could escape. “Drop away,” I told myself as I always did in frequent moments of humiliation. I was out of there, by going deeper inside my mind. Until the classroom door opened and I was thrust back into reality.
The valedictorian was also late for English class reasons having nothing to do with me. When he walked in, the chattering class did not fall silent the way they had when I had entered. Instead the silent students, the way I remember it, exploded with expressions of condolences for him. “I am so sorry! You should have gotten in.” With an emphasis on the word “you” instead of “should” as in “YOU should have gotten in” rather than “you SHOULD have gotten in.” He would end up at Princeton, as I mentioned earlier. From there he would go on to Harvard med school. Me? Well, you know how I ended up.
And that is how something that was no doubt celebrated by the families of other applicants, admission to Harvard, was, for me, something I wished everyone could forget about. Humiliation compounds faster than interest on savings. I hated that everyone knew what I had done. I hated that I seemed like such the obviously wrong choice. No matter what I did every victory was tainted. I could not escape “loser” status. My 7th grade nickname seemed aptly chosen.
I think of that young woman, emotionally immature, alone in the world and unable to figure out how to get along with people and I feel so sorry for her. What’s really sad is that none of the political maneuvering that produced race based policies resulting in deeper racial divides had anything to do with me or any of the kids. Nothing we thought or said was original–including what I thought of myself. I though I perceived reality with fresh eyes. I thought my classmates saw me for what I was. Without knowing it we were parroting ideas of adults. The adults were repeating centuries of the same thoughts. The people changed but the words stayed the same. The suffering, the anger, was all thrust upon us and none of us deserved to have to believe what we had been taught was true.
As I now know, there was a lot about the admission process I did not and do not know. The ability of the government to create a policy that so thoroughly cemented in people’s minds the inferiority of the black intellect makes me wonder if we were in some sort of CIA sponsored mind control set up. If black kids escaped poverty and the drugs and guns that were sent to black areas, well, there was a way to work on the successful black kids so that they would diminish themselves. Like addiction, self-doubt is a gift from and to the devil because its a gift that keeps on giving. The ills of addiction and self doubt take hold of the mind and whisper into the soul’s ear long after the departure of a drug pusher or a discouraging voice. No one has to come along and hurt you because you are now equipped to manage your own destruction, unassisted.
When I was at Harvard I found a way to drop my SAT score into conversations with class mates as an offer of proof of my qualifications that no one could dispute. I don’t mind telling you that it was only when I graduated, 1990 something, Magna cum Laude, ahead of most of the graduating class in terms of gpa, did I finally feel I had the right to be proud of Harvard. I had belonged there. I had proved it. But it had hurt me. To this day, my graduation from Harvard with High Honors is the highest official honor I have ever been awarded. But given the tenuous hold I have always had on emotional and mood stability, in light of what happened next in my life, I wonder if the spiritual cost of fighting that fight was worth it. I am not saying being force-fed shame caused my downfall. Who can say? Still, I am quite certain it did not help me.
I have never told this story before.