It seems growing up, I kept hearing “you have to be twice as good to get a shot”. I believed that, and although my formative years don’t show that I tried to accomplish that, my post-secondary years do. I worked hard enough to get accepted into a pretty reputable college, Clemson University. I finished in four years and was fortunate enough to secure a job teaching English at my hometown middle school well before my actual graduation.
After I started teaching, the mantra, “you have to be twice as good to get a shot” seemed to become louder. It was important to prove that White parents of this once known as the affluent middle school didn’t worry about my being their kid’s teacher. Again in a quest to prove my value, I sought National Board Certification. If I’m being completely honest, I was also very motivated by the monetary incentive. However, having this certification would mean having something that not everyone else had, and could be used in my arsenal of justification for why rich White parents should not worry about my being their child’s teacher. It would prove that I was qualified as if holding a professional certificate and having a degree from a reputable university didn’t. I grew as a teacher, and although I had minimal experiences of having to actually go into my arsenal of justifications, it made me feel secure to know that I had them. If I had only known that this false sense of security would eventually reveal itself to be just that: a false sense of security.
When I decided to pursue my graduate degree in Educational Leadership, I was excited about the possibilities of promotion, an increase in compensation and the expanded opportunity to influence and impact the lives of young people. I worked hard to complete assignments with quality and care, to make high marks, to demonstrate a diligence that set me apart from my peers. The mantra, “you have to be twice as good to get a shot” seemed to be blaring in my ears and I found myself hearing it more frequently. When I was named principal in 2008 of the elementary school I had attended this mantra seemed to hang over me like a heavy cloud that could erupt at any moment, bringing rain, thunder, and lightning with it. It was exacerbated by the fact that I was the first African-American principal the school had ever had since its 1977 opening. I was barely 30 years old and female, which also had its consequences.
My initial experiences as principal of that school would only enhance this perceived need to add evidence to my arsenal of justification. I needed to somehow make sure that those same folks were comfortable with my intelligence, my character, my abilities, my skill set. To do this, I worked hard, stayed late, built strong and trusting relationships with the students, and tried to do the same with the teachers and parents. I studied our achievement data incessantly. I quickly formulated a plan to improve our academic performance and improve the practices of teachers in the school. I had to make sure the school did not fare worse under my leadership, but even maintaining the same performance wouldn’t be “good enough” because I had to be “twice as good to get a shot”. This relentless push was not well received by the staff. Their frustration with my assumption that they were not already working hard, and that they were not an already “good school” caused friction. Along with this friction, also came a number of experiences that seemed to validate my need to add evidence to my arsenal of justification that said I am smart enough, skilled enough, and qualified.
My first week on the job, I stood at the copy machine early one morning. I placed my paper in the tray, the master on the glass, and pressed copy. I raised my head to say “Good morning” to a staff member I saw rounding the corner. Her reply shocked me. “We finally got us a token,” she said. There I stood, waiting for my copies to finish, almost too shocked to respond. I quickly asked her if she could step into my office for a moment. As I walked briskly to my office, my mind raced and I knew I had to determine what I would say to her. She sat down. I remained standing. I honestly don’t remember my exact words. Sometimes I think I’ve blocked experiences like these out to keep the belief of knowing that being twice as good won’t matter in the end out of my mind. At any rate, I told her that what she had said to me, in the presence of others, was unacceptable and offensive. She quickly summed it up as “just a joke”, one I did not find funny. That experience has never left me. Years passed before I shared that story with anyone other than my immediate family. When I finally did share it, I was the principal of a different school, and it was 6.5 years later. Even then, I’m not sure some of the few friends I told believed me.
It was a cold day when a veteran staff member asked to see me after school. I had just come in from bus duty, my fingers still wrapped tightly around my walkie-talkie. I removed my coat and welcomed her into my office. She went on to tell me that she planned to retire at the end of the year, and I needed to start thinking about finding a replacement. As she concluded the meeting she shared that she’d always said she “wouldn’t work for a colored” and then asked if she could pray with me. She prayed and I waited for what felt like an eternity for it to be over. I can’t even remember what her words were, but it definitely proved I needed to continue adding things to my arsenal of justification.
As I’ve moved on to other jobs, I’ve had more of these experiences: a prominent community member giving me a copy of memoir he authored and alerting me of the frequent use of the “n-word” throughout, a parent, who after asking me about my education and background, also asked this question, “Are all the Black principals as smart as you are?”, a pair of teachers who noted their uncomfortableness with me as their principal because I was “young, Black, and female”. Every time I had an experience like this, it seemed to reinforce the message “you have to be twice as good to get a shot”. That message was one that said, go after the highest degree in the land and get it from a reputable university, or you won’t be taken seriously. It was one that told me, having a Master’s degree and an Education Specialist degree wouldn’t be enough. I needed a Ph.D. from a reputable university to be taken seriously as an educational leader in this profession, and so I earned one.
After earning my doctorate, I spent a year feeling somewhat lost. There was no more school to attend, no more degrees to earn, and so it seemed the available tools for my arsenal of justification were becoming limited. I took on the challenge of leading a low performing school with my best friend and colleague, Mike, and that too proved itself to be one in which race mattered. In that environment, race mattered and it mattered a lot. Somehow, Mike and I worked to be an example of what could be and what we felt should be. We are as different as we are the same. Mike is White. I am Black. Mike grew up in South Florida. I grew up in South Carolina. Mike grew up in a middle-class family. I grew up in poverty. He was raised by his parents, who were married. I was raised by my mother who was divorced. There are other more obvious differences, but these were the ones that shaped us growing up and made our experiences different. When we became co-principals, we quickly faced questions about the nature of our professional relationship. Who is really in charge? What happens if you don’t like each other’s decisions? Who gets the final call? As we answered these questions by sharing the high degree of personal and professional trust we had between us, folks seemed to give us a “the jury is still out” look. As time passed, we proved ourselves to others, but mostly we hoped that we had been an example to our students and the adults who engaged with us. We wanted others to see that our friendship was one of authenticity and that they too, could find common ground with others who were not just like them.
I met Mike in the early 2000’s. We were both new administrators and came to be really good friends through shared interests. We began working on various projects together, presenting at conferences, and eventually had the unique experience of being co-principals. However, it was not until we were co-principals that I shared some of the experiences mentioned here with Mike. He was a witness to the memoir incident about the prominent use and appearance of the “n-word”, and that seemed to open the door to further conversation. As we drove home one day, I shared some other experiences, similar in nature, with him. I could see the troubling look on his face. He didn’t know what to say, and he certainly did not think it was right. I can remember saying to him, “That’s just the way it is,” as an attempt to just keep the conversation light, but it wasn’t light and it isn’t at all o.k. In fact, it is really tough to have these experiences, over and over and over again. While I in no way am attempting to make my suffering similar to those who paved the way before me, it does not make it less difficult to accept. As much as I hope I’ll be judged by the content of my character, the skill set I possess, and the work I’ve proven myself to be able to do well, that is not always the case.
As I enter year 19 as an educator, the mantra, “you have to be twice as good to get a shot” has been reborn. This time though, it has a different ending. As I have matured, grown, and had more life experiences, I have come to this conclusion, “you have to be twice as good to get a shot, but in the end, it probably won’t matter”. I have a dream of furthering my career and leadership at a different level, but after recent experiences of failed opportunity attempts, I have learned an important lesson. For everything I have done to prove myself, for every extra hour I have spent working to get outstanding results, for every day that I have given it my all, for every degree I have earned, my chances at getting a shot have not increased. There is no such thing as having an arsenal of justification, a portfolio of evidence that prevents others from questioning my competence, and in spite of a variety of excellent results at different levels in different kinds of work, in the end, when it comes down to it, none of these things matter. I should have never felt this burden, not to mention, internalize it the way I did.
I wish I felt that my work record was enough and that I was at a point in my career where my professional reputation and performance spoke for itself. I wish I didn’t feel like getting a fair chance depends on whether or not the person who makes the final decision has a fair mind and a fair heart. I realize now that those who have given me a shot have done so not only because I was “twice as good” and had an arsenal of justification, should their decision be questioned, but also because they are people whose hearts allowed them to do so and I am grateful for their willingness to believe in me.
I am convinced that my next “shot” will be one where my skill set, education, and record matter, but it will also be one where the person or people who give it to me believe in me as much as my record. While I am proud of my accomplishments, I am more than the sum of my achievements. I am a person, with a heart, mind, and a soul, who is committed to making a difference in public education, and I don’t have to be “twice as good to get a shot”. I just have to be me.
Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder!