Myth Busters

“Oreo” wasn’t a word Myah McCrary had ever associated with anything other than milk and cookies, but one day in the sixth grade, she realized the word was being directed at … her! It wasn’t long before she understood the new context — Myah, after all, is one smart young lady. For the less savvy, defines Oreo as an “insulting term often used by blacks to derogate other blacks as ‘black on the outside, white on the inside.’ ” In other words, Myah’s intelligence, determination and academic success supposedly did not mesh with her skin color, which predetermined she be casually cool, aloof and not concerned about grades or the future.

Unfortunately, the “Oreo attitude” is all too common in Columbia high schools. “The media tends to focus on the negative aspects of the behavior of some, thus propagating an image that influences other students and the public in general,” explains Hickman High School Principal Tracey Conrad. “In other words, this is how stereotypes are developed.”

But minority students don’t just face pressure from students of their own race; traditional racism still exists, often in the form of microaggression — a term popularized in recent years that refers to everyday insults and offensive messages unintentionally sent to minorities by well-intentioned whites. The idea is that people accumulate subconscious attitudes and beliefs as a result of their backgrounds and upbringings, which might influence their attitudes and interactions with people of other races. These unintentional behaviors often have a cumulative effect upon the recipients.

“I can honestly say educators believe they have the same expectations for all students, but perhaps we have different expectations without really even realizing it,” Conrad says. “Therefore, I think we must be truly self-reflective about how our individual experiences may influence our attitudes and look at ways we can improve our own understanding of cultural differences.”

Conrad believes emphasizing the positive “is a pivotal step in changing the way some people may view our minority students and hopefully, the way they view themselves.” These five hard-working students believe they can make a difference.

Alexis Collins | 16 | Junior | 3.08 GPA

Alexis Collins likes to dance. She likes to move, shout, stomp, clap and grin into the spotlight. She made the high school dance team as a sophomore and was elected co-captain the following year; no one expected anything less.

Academics are another story. Alexis has always excelled in school, but her good grades and well-rounded resume don’t come easily. “Being a minority, I have to prove to others what I’m capable of,” she says. “At times, I feel underestimated by teachers.” Alexis admits that she works hard to impress her parents and teachers. “I want them to see that I am a young lady who has her head on straight and is a great student.”

Alexis knows that excelling academically has nothing to do with skin color — “it has to deal with me believing that I can achieve at higher levels and do better than I have before … everybody can work hard and get good grades in school and have an outstanding GPA; everybody has their talent to show the world” — yet she still feels she’s breaking stereotypes by performing well. “It’s sad to say that our society expects minorities to come up short when it comes to academics,” she says.

Alexis, like Myah and many others, has faced resentment by some black students for her success in school. She says the kids who have degraded her are often the same ones who get in trouble frequently. Not wanting to be known as a troublemaker or a poor student, Alexis has sought out friends who accept her for who she is.

“When I got pushed away, I made other friends; I grew as a person,” she says. “Being judged by them makes you want to find other people who don’t judge you.”

Being viewed in a positive light is another matter. Alexis believes she can be a role model for other minorities, especially young women. “I want to set an example for students at my school that being a good student, not getting into trouble and being a leader is what you want to be remembered as,” she says.

Alexis will certainly be remembered as a leader by members of Hickman’s dance team.

“She’s hard working, gives 100 percent every single time, cares about playing fair, and the passion she has for dance shows all the time,” says Coach Kristina Schaefer. Alexis, who had little formal dance training before joining the team, worked hard to become indispensible after initially being accepted as an alternate two years ago. “The girl busted her rear,” Schaefer says of the extra hours Alexis practiced to perfect her technique.

Alexis continues to stay after school, but now she is the one helping other dancers tackle tough moves in preparation for the regional competition in December. “She has completely blown me away this year,” Schaefer says. “She just rocks.”

Martin Jonnes Kamau | 17 | Senior | 3.8 GPA

Martin was 15 years old when his family immigrated to Missouri from Kenya. He describes himself as an “African in America” rather than “African American” — a unique perspective for a black teenager in public school.

“For black people in America, there is a stereotype of a typical black teen who is playing basketball or football and having a lot of fun without giving a second thought to the education side of life,” he says, noting that many black teenagers believe excelling in sports will earn them more money than studying hard and finding a good job. Martin hopes to spread the message that for minorities, “education is crucial and just as important as the excelling-in-sports black stereotype.”

Martin — who is cross-country runner — started putting thought into academics when his family moved. His parents made the transition from East Africa to the Midwest to provide a better life for their children, and Martin intended to take advantage of new opportunities. He enrolled as a sophomore at Rock Bridge High School, and with the help of guidance counselor Matt Miltenberg, began a rigorous class schedule.

“Martin is very quiet, respectful, and extremely polite compared to most American-born teenagers so, truth be told, I wasn’t sure if he wanted the challenge or was too polite to say no,” Miltenberg remembers. “I’ve since learned that Martin wants any and every challenge you can give him, and he rises to those challenges consistently.” Martin, who plans to attend the University of Missouri in the fall, says simply: “I stepped up and did what I had to do; my dream is to one day be either a neurosurgeon or a cardiologist.”

Miltenberg has no doubt that Martin will succeed at whatever he puts his mind to: “Martin is an extremely bright, conscientious young man with a passion for learning and a strong desire to use education to make a great life for himself … he does not see anything as being impossible for him, he does not perceive any barriers.” Martin sets clear short- and long-term goals for himself and then uses classes, assignments, jobs and even other people to reach his objectives.

“He believes that if he works hard he can achieve anything, and he’s willing to do that work to be successful,” Miltenberg says. Martin’s pro-active approach keeps him going when many students give up.

His attitude and hard work earned him membership in the Minority Academic Achievement Council and the National Honor Society organizations that make him feel simultaneously fulfilled and forlorn. For example, last year Martin participated in the Columbia Junior Leadership Program, where he was the only black student present. “I felt proud I was the only one there, but I also felt lonely because I was the only one,” he recalls. “Being a high-achieving minority senior is highly rewarding and yet also very lonely because there are very few of us.”

The Leadership Program wasn’t the first time Martin felt out of place. On his first day at Rock Bridge, some white students made fun of his thick accent. When he began losing self-esteem, Martin realized he had to work hard to prove those kids — and himself — wrong.

“As time progressed, they came to value me as an equal player,” he remembers. “They also started looking up to a sort of example of what to be.”

Harvey Lee | 19 | Senior | 3.8 GPA

Life hasn’t been easy for Harvey Lee. His mother died when he was 2, his dad was rarely around and due to a bad case of sickle cell anemia, he’s been in and out of the hospital for years. Ironically, the factors that might cause most teenagers to become despondent and discouraged have been Harvey’s sources of fortitude and motivation. Harvey wants to be a nurse practitioner — or maybe an anesthesiologist — like many of his aunts and the medical personnel who have cared for him in the hospital. He hopes to attend Truman State University or Columbia College and eventually establish a career in Columbia.

Becoming Harvey Lee, C.R.N., is years away, but the Rock Bridge senior knows his actions today will pay off in the future. He wasn’t always the best student in junior high, but that changed when he started high school.

“I realized I had to step it up and get with the program,” he says. “High school is where it starts counting; if you get into trouble, it goes on your record.”

Harvey almost immediately realized that this attitude make him different from his black peers. “I didn’t feel like I really fit in,” he says. “Sometimes they look at me like they’re trying to figure me out.”

Harvey’s good grades often earn him praise from teachers, which often falls negatively on the ears of other black students. “Students almost want to see me fail,” he says of those who don’t think they can compete with Harvey academically. Harvey’s view is just the opposite: “Anybody can do well; you just have to put your head into it.”

Harvey realizes not every high schooler has a plan for the future — and he’s OK with that —what he doesn’t understand is why some kids aren’t motivated to find a plan. “A lot of black kids go to school just to go to school, just to be there,” he says. “They really don’t want to be there.” Not surprisingly, approximately 6 percent of Harvey’s black classmates will drop out of school.

Not Harvey, though.

“Harvey is one of the most diligent and focused students I have ever had the chance to work with,” says Mary Grupe, who taught Harvey for two years. “This A student is not afraid of taking academic risks and has a desire to be a life-long learner.”

For Harvey, life-long learning includes pursuing his interest in music as a bass drum player in the school band. He’s also a member of Future Doctors of America and spends his free time volunteering at the hospital.

“He is a leader and role model for my all of my students, regardless of color,” Grupe says. “This young man is a gift to our community.”

Myah McCrary | 16 | Junior | 3.98 GPA

If Myah McCrary’s high school resume is any indication of her professional aspirations, then her dream to become a cardiologist has an excellent chance for success.

“I have goals, and to reach my goals, I know I must try my hardest and do my best,” she says. “I can’t allow myself to do less than what I am capable of.”

Myah’s discipline and tough work ethic have earned her leadership positions in many organizations such as student government, MAC Scholars, the Fellowship of Christian Athletics and the NAACP Youth Group

English 10 Honors teacher William Morgan says Myah is among the hardest-working students he’s ever encountered. “I think Myah’s motivation is caused by her desire to see what she can accomplish,” he says, noting that Myah has been known to receive A grades on assignments and then ask how to improve her work. “She doesn’t even care whether you change the grade or not,” he says. “She just wants to see whether she can get closer to perfection.”

Although her minority status clearly has not hindered Myah’s academic performance, she does believe being black presents challenges, often in the form of stereotypes.

“We are led to believe that because of our race, we can’t perform on the same level as other races,” she explains. “I sometimes feel that we are expected to do less and be less.” To overcome this, Myah works hard and relies on her support group of parents, friends and teachers to encourage her to reach her full potential. “Having people that believe in me empowers me,” she says. “Support at home is most important.”

Myah’s parents have always cared about her academic success. Myah says a lack of support at home is often where problems start and stereotypes are developed. If parents aren’t supportive, kids underachieve and tend to resent the kids who do care.

“They’re not used to minorities doing well, not cussing or being respectful,” Myah explains. “They’re actually really intelligent — they just have to be shown opportunities.”

When faced with resentment, Myah often ignores people who try to deter her. “I know I can do and become whatever I put my mind to,” she says. Although she has always felt supported at Hickman, sometimes she feels overlooked at conferences, especially if she is the only black present. “I refused to look at it as a black/white thing because it would only make me feel worse,” she says. “I raise my hand for every question until finally I am called upon. I think people get tired of seeing my hand!”

Perhaps unlike many students, Myah pays attention to the news and statistics surrounding minority performance levels. “I am a minority, and I love my race,” she states simply. “I want everyone to know that we are high achievers also.”

At the same time, she doesn’t want to be placed in a racial category. “If they do that,” she says, “it makes it seems like I can’t be compared with the nonminorities; I just wish people will stop judging a person’s performance by his race.”

Cameron Solomon II | 16 | Junior | 3.6 GPA

The average person wears a lab coat and safety goggles during high school science classes — and never again. Cameron Solomon is not an average person “I hope to go to college and study to be a chemist or a pharmacist because of my interests in math and science,” Cameron says.

“Cameron is a smart young man and a quick learner,” says Rob Ndessokia, Cameron’s mentor and football coach. “Cameron’s motivation is to be the best in everything he does, whether it’s football, in the classroom or Boy Scouts; he always gives 100 percent effort.”

Cameron works hard and stays focused on academic success and his future. Being a minority has never deterred him from excelling in school — he’s a regular in honors classes and MAC Scholars. He does say, however, that “some people may believe that since I’m black, I don’t perform as well as students of other races, which may be because some other minority students don’t try as hard to succeed.”

The best way to change such attitudes is to prove them wrong, which Cameron is doing not only though his own academic performance, but also through A+ tutoring at Lange Middle School. Without having prior teaching experience, Cameron taught math to sixth-graders during the summer. “I felt that they looked up to me, and I was a good role model,” he says of his positive influence on the kids there.

“The students responded very well and were sad to see him go,” Ndessokia adds. “His excitement of wanting to be educated and willingness to do what it takes to be successful showed this summer as he volunteered his time to help our youth, attend football workouts, attended engineering camp, as well as Boy Scout camp. This is very impressive to me coming from a high school junior.”

All A+ tutors are required maintain good grades, regular attendance and good behavior throughout high school. Meeting such requirements makes Cameron eligible for a community college scholarship, which he is happy to have as an option after high school. But the Georgia native has not made any plans yet — he might even return to the South for college.

“He understands the value of education and he does not accept mediocrity,” says head football coach Jason Wright. “His attitude and work ethic are above a lot of students at HHS — no matter what color, what nationality, what gender.”

high schoolnovember 2010
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