No excuses, and no apologies.
That was the unspoken motto of my home. As the youngest child of immigrant parents in a homogenous, milk-white Idaho community, I could think of plenty of excuses not to excel in school.Many are the same excuses -- or explanations -- some district officials in Utah are using to explain sagging standardized test scores statewide: students coming from homes where English is not the primary language, a lack of parental involvement in a child's academic life, and the list goes on and on.
But explanations like those were not acceptable in my home, or at school. Regardless of whether my parents could help me with my homework, or how well my parents communicated in English, or how much money my school district had to spend on educating me, the expectations were clear and universal: There were no excuses I could use to explain away poor performance.
Communication in my family was more labored than in most "normal" families -- I never learned to speak Japanese, because my parents wanted their children to have every advantage of being "American" (a move I now regret). But in spite of our language barrier, my parents nevertheless impressed upon me their absolute expectation that I excel in school. I was lucky that way, I guess. Lots of kids today don't have that support.
I was one of very few minority students in school, and was treated as such. Kids would call me names, and teachers would speak VERY slowly and even more loudly when they first met me, just in case I couldn't speak English.
Their ignorance was frustrating, but one element of it happened to work for me. I think it might be applicable when discussing Utah schools as well.
Whenever I walked into a classroom, I entered knowing my ethnicity would precede me. It was the first thing teachers saw, and the first formative opinion they would use to deal with me.
Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for many Utah students, my ethnicity carried with it certain stereotypes. Being Japanese means something to most people: It means I should be fabulous at math, play a musical instrument and be a compulsive perfectionist when it comes to academics.
For better or worse, teachers treated me according to the stereotype. I was not allowed to fall behind in any subject, lest I face a barrage of "You should know this," or "I expected more from you." One teacher even had the gall to use the dreaded "Your people" phrase once. It went something like this: "Your people are supposed to be good at this. Go sit down and try it again."
I took offense at the remark -- rightly so, I believe -- but later realized it pushed me to actually sit down and try again. And again. And again, until I understood the concept I was supposed to be learning. I knew that there were no excuses. I simply had to work harder.
In my case the tactic, however misguided, worked. But what of the other students, who might not have certain stereotypes working for them? In my high school, I knew of one other minority kid, a Hispanic boy, who did not fare as well.
I don't remember his name, but I do remember watching him very intently. I watched him walk, head down, shoulders slumped, from class to class. I saw the way others teased him because his parents were migrant farm workers, and called him "lazy," "stupid," and other derogatory names.
Teachers never said "Your people are supposed to be good at this" to him. They never told him they expected him to learn something, even if it was hard. They never drew a hard line in the sand, eradicating all excuses. And ultimately, I saw him live up to the low expectations imposed on him.
But what if someone -- a teacher, adviser, administrator, or district -- had drawn the line with him as they had with me? What if his teacher, realizing he might not have been getting stable reinforcement at home (or at school), stepped up and provided the support and firm expectations he needed to feel capable and valuable?
Here's what I bet would have happened over time: I bet he, like I, would have worked to achieve more in spite of what might have been less-than-ideal circumstances. I bet "his people," like mine, are more than capable of rising to the challenge.
I bet things would be different if the expectations placed on "my people" applied to all people. Kids would measure up. I did. They can. Every one.