Mrs. Levin was taken ill mid-year, and was replaced by a substitute: Ms. Levine. She was the complete opposite of our permanent teacher—young, warm-hearted, and unbiased where black children were concerned. My grades shot up to A- and A immediately, and then settled into the comfortable B+ range. I even relaxed enough to stare out the window during class one afternoon. Ms. Levine caught my attention with a question, and later on as she returned an assignment to me, she said—kindly, and with a sigh—that she knew I could do better than B+ if I applied myself. I knew she was right, but I also knew I had nothing to prove to myself or anybody else. And I also knew without a doubt that I was not the problem.
So often when you are fighting institutionalized prejudice, you are told that you are the problem or that it’s all in your head, or that you’re simply complaining. Blacks have been told this. Women have been told this. Heck, I was told this by my own mother when I would protest my brother’s misbehavior towards me both while I was growing up, and later as an adult. But once I knew I wasn’t the problem, I was able to detach. In school, math became just a set of numbers and letters. It was no big deal. My successes or challenges with it didn’t define me, although since we didn’t need to take math in 12th grade, I certainly did not. A dream deferred? Agony avoided.
Geometry—10th grade math—remained my favorite branch of mathematics. Later, in college, I would go on to take Basic Astronomy—as a lifelong stargazer and fan of NASA, I considered Astrophysics as a career for a while. I got an A+ there, and could tell that my instructor would have loved to see me in his more advanced classes. I preferred—excelled at—languages, literature and music, however, and have been trying since that time to find a way to support myself using the talents, skills and knowledge that are a natural part of my expression in this world. I have been searching my entire life for a place where it is safe for me to be smart, female and black.