Twenty-eight years to the day was the start of a six-year odyssey of torture, disillusionment and rebirth. It was in the midst of the worst of times, for me if for no one else. It was my first day of middle school, my first day in Humanities. My first day of realizing that some people saw me as inferior to them. My first day of six years of learning how to cope with the vast contrast between my time at school and my life at home.

This is not another “feel sorry for the author” story about my not-so-wonderful years in Mount Vernon, New York — although you can feel sorry for me if you choose. It’s more about what I learned in those first couple of years, those two years at the A.B. Davis Middle School that have served me well, particularly in graduate school and in the world of work. It’s funny to think that those years would serve me better than my high school or undergraduate experiences. Yet it’s not so funny to recognize that the folks with which I attended school were more diverse and less open to diversity that any other group I’d encounter until I became a doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon. And because of my kufi, as well as my idiotic mouth, I include myself in that category.

Perhaps it was because so many in Humanities had formed cliques long before I’d ever met them. So many of them were in the elementary version of it that I would’ve been at a significant social disadvantage even if I had grown up solidly middle class and with my current level of wisdom by the time I arrived in seventh grade. But the cliques that formed in the weeks after the start of seventh grade — in part a response to the pre-existing cliques — would be of interest to any sociologist, psychologist or sociocultural anthropologist. There was what I called the Italian Club (long before we actually had one as a class), the middle-class-Black-girl clique, the Afro-Caribbean clique, the Black male clique, the affluent Jewish/WASP girl clique, and so on.

Few within our subset actually ventured outside of those cliques and formed lasting bonds during those two years. There were enough exceptions to prove the rule, though. Those exceptions occurred with those designated to have special gifts, talents, backgrounds that made their crossings of divides possible. Kind of like the way we see our current president and others like him today.

But I think that there was a bigger fear among us, one bigger even than race or class, religion or gender. It was even bigger than trying to be cool or not being able to fit in somewhere. It was the fear of competition, of giving anyone in Humanities an added advantage by coming to their defense. It was a fear, a worry, an anguish that was with many of us every day regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or level of affluence. When combined with the unacknowledged diversity of Humanities, it led to a cliquishness that would define most of our in-school friendships and relationships until college.

Perhaps that was why some in our classes could get away with their brand of verbal harassment because the alternative meant sticking your neck out for someone you might prefer not to be in competition with in the future. If you were weak enough to knuckle under because one of the Italian students called you a “monkey” or a “brainiac” for a month, then you didn’t deserve to be in Humanities. A program where the ultimate show of strength was your grades. Not to mention your ability to negotiate the social terrain of the in-crowd, the folks from Grimes and Pennington who’d been taking courses together since at least second or fourth grade. If you failed in one, you had a chance to redeem yourself with the other. If you failed at both, you’d likely either drop out of Humanities or fade into the background.

Despite whatever I thought about my grades at the time, I knew deep-down that I was as good as the best and brightest in Humanities, and better than most of the Whites who were there. As for being a part of the in-crowd, I accepted that this was likely to happen only when there was peace in the Middle East and my stepfather Maurice was out of our lives. At least one out of two wouldn’t have been bad. My strategy from the end of seventh grade on was to at least be on the margins of what was considered “in” socially. If that opened more doors to social acceptance, that was fine. If it didn’t, that was fine, too. At least it beat being a total outcast or an ostracized nerd.

That’s the ultimate lesson I learned in those first couple of years in Humanities around race, class, gender, religion, and grades. That no matter my talents and abilities, my wittiness or lack thereof, that my race and religion brought with it automatic assumptions of weirdness and inferiority, at least for my Italian classmates. That and my mouth made me a Humanities outlier for folks who were in the front and center of the social circle. In climbing out of the social hole I had inadvertently dug for myself this time twenty-eight years ago, I learned so much about diversity and negotiating difference, all of which would help me after my Humanities years.