By getting on the school bus on that grey-sky morning in fall 2003, I revealed a secret to the world: I was illiterate. At least I was according to the public school system. I was the lone Grade 11 student on the bus, because only 10th-graders had to come to school that morning to complete a test proving they could read and write at their grade level. All the other kids in my grade had the morning off. I should have been sleeping in, too, but I had failed the test the year before and had to rewrite it to free myself of the “illiterate” label.
Anyone who saw me on the bus that morning would label me illiterate, just as the school had. Why else would I be there? Why else did I want to cry so badly as I buried my face in my book bag at the back of the bus? Why else did I feel like such a loser?
I actually could read and write — well enough, in fact, that less than 10 years later, I would graduate from Yale Law School. But at 16, I wasn’t motivated to try at all in what I considered a rigged system designed to work against people like me. That system wasn’t just school, but everything else around me, too. It was me against the world, which was also the name of my favorite Tupac Shakur CD at the time.
To use a cliché, I was one of those young people who fall through the cracks. My hopes and dreams weren’t captured by the institutions that were supposed to guide me to a positive life. And I was desperate to ﬁnd an alternative way to live. Every hour that I was supposed to spend doing homework and studying for tests was instead going toward ﬁnding a way out of the rigged system I was born into.
Rappers were the closest things I had to role models. They were gangsters, I thought, who had found a way to make money and have a life outside the conﬁnes of this system. They didn’t appear to need school. I dressed, spoke, fought, and made friends like the rappers I saw on TV. That was my life at 16. If you had asked me then what I thought my future looked like, I honestly would have said, “I don’t think about it.”
That day on the bus was one of the toughest of my life. Pretty soft for somebody who wanted to be a gangster, right? I contemplated dropping out of school altogether, just to avoid the embarrassment of exposing myself as somebody who couldn’t read. But weeks earlier — with tears in her eyes — my mom had pleaded with me to ﬁnish high school. It was hard for me to say no to her. I promised her I would get my diploma, hoping that eventually I’d ﬁnd my way to a place where school didn’t matter. Unfortunately for me, I needed to pass that literacy test in order to graduate.
With the weight of that “illiterate” label on my shoulders, I rode the bus to school and wrote the test. A few weeks later, I got a letter saying I had passed. Thankfully, I could, in fact, read the letter.
In the years before I wrote the literacy test, I was caught up in a cycle of rejection. At eight, I’d seen my Black and Muslim father belittled by police ofﬁcers, which convinced me that the world wasn’t fair to people who looked like him or me. As I grew up, I was also frequently stopped or followed by cops and security guards on my way to and from school. It’s hard to feel you belong when your mere presence on the street, at the mall, and at the bus stop draws the suspicion of people who are supposed to keep your community safe.
My father, whose experiences introduced me to feeling as if the world is against you, also rejected me by not being around for most of my childhood. He was rarely at home and left the responsibility of raising three kids to my mom. When he was around, my father regularly spoke to me with more anger in his voice than I’d heard from police ofﬁcers.
Many of my teachers didn’t seem to like me much, either; they treated me like an untrained dog that wouldn’t focus or do as it was told. They never seemed able or willing to make my classes useful to me and the problems I was facing. At school, we never talked about the police, about racism, or about broken families. I had to read books that didn’t meet my sense of urgency, and I was told I was a bad student when I ran out of patience.
In response to all this rejection, I rejected the world around me. I gave up on learning, having a peaceful family life, or feeling like I would ever belong in my own country.
After I wrote the literacy test the second time, the rejection got worse. I was even less optimistic about my prospects for a good life in a system that had labelled me in such a painful way. At 17, I doubled down on my search for an alternative way to live, carrying the Hollywood gangster subculture I’d learned about from rap music to a point where I couldn’t keep up with it anymore. I was always one small but signiﬁcant step away from being caught up in the drug trade, and I started planning for a future where I would earn a living as a criminal. I tried to buy a gun for the ﬁrst time — to make a move into selling drugs — and I realized I was about to turn into the very thing I was angry at the cops for accusing me of being: a criminal. The tears of shame I’d cried on the bus to write the literacy test poured from my eyes once more. You don’t get to win a game of chicken when you’re playing by yourself. I learned that the hard way.
From Why Young Men: Rage, Race and the Crisis of Identity by Jamil Jivani ©2018. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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