Like most eighth grade students, I was counting down the days until graduation — not just so I could go to high school, but so I could finally be myself and not get bullied because of it. All throughout middle school, I was teased for being smart.
I skipped fourth grade, which made me both younger than my classmates and, apparently, the teacher’s pet.
It didn’t help that I also listened to *NSYNC and Britney Spears while everyone else at my predominantly Black grammar school listened to Tupac and Biggie.
To say I didn’t fit in was an understatement.
When I toured an all-girls Catholic high school in the neighboring county and learned that my tour guide and her friends also loved *NSYNC, I knew I had found my people. We instantly bonded over our love for J.C. and Justin. I’m not saying this was the deciding factor in my high school choice — but it definitely didn’t hurt.
None of my middle school classmates were attending my high school, and I gladly welcomed the opportunity to reinvent myself.
There, no one knew me as the “teacher’s pet,” as an Oreo, or as Krusty the Clown, a nickname given to me by a boy who made fun of my chapped lips on the ONE DAY I forgot to bring lip balm with me. (To this day, I never leave home without ChapStick.)
But, as my luck would have it, I essentially went from one extreme to another.
Whereas my elementary and middle school had been mostly Black, my high school was mainly white.
I was one of two Black girls in my graduating class — or, as my mom liked to call me, “one of the only chocolate chips in the cookie.”
Because I had some serious self-hate issues at the time, however, I relished my role as the token Black girl — the “smart and nice” one who wasn’t “loud and ghetto” like “other Black girls.”
If only I’d known then what I know now, I would have seen these backhanded “compliments” for the racist remarks they actually were. But, I was 13 at that time, so I cared more about being liked than being woke. (Also, this was in 2000, and “woke” had yet to enter the mainstream lexicon. In fact, Merriam-Webster traces the first use of “woke” as we know it today to Erykah Badu’s 2008 song “Master Teacher.” The more you know…)
I spent the majority of my time in high school playing down my Blackness to assure my classmates that I really was cool enough to be their friend — lest I get bullied all over again.
“Oh, my family lives in the suburbs, I’m not from The City.” “My great-grandparents are white and Native American, so I’m not all the way Black.”
Both of these statements about my identity are true, but I cringe when thinking about how I used them as some kind of validation, as proof of my self-worth.
I was smart and my parents paid full tuition — I deserved to attend that school just as much as my classmates did, but I craved their acceptance so badly.
It wasn’t until college that I met other “blerds,” or Black nerds like me, and I no longer felt the need to change myself.
There were plenty of Black students who had grown up in predominantly white neighborhoods, students who were the only chocolate chips in their cookies. I’d finally found my tribe, and there was no turning back.