Ann Jannetta, Challenge Scholarship, Continental Airlines, Crush #2, Dean's List, Disillusionment, East Asian History, Financial Aid, General Foods, Grades, Grinding, Homesickness, Humanities, Internalized Racism, Masculinity, Mom, Mother-Son Relationship, MVHS, Newark International Airport, Phyllis, Pitt, Racism, Self-Discovery, Sexism, Stereotype Threat, Travel
Dateline, Tuesday, January 5, 2016. Exactly twenty-eight years ago on this day and date, I left Mount Vernon and New York for my second semester at the University of Pittsburgh. I sensed, but did not know, that this was a make-or-break time for me as a student and as a person. At least when that day began. I had a 5 pm Continental Airlines flight out of Newark (my last time flying out of there, thank God!), and had plenty of time to kill before catching a cab to East 241st at 2 pm to catch the 2 Subway to 42nd, the Shuttle to Grand Central, and then the Carey Bus to New Jersey.
Then the mailman arrived a bit earlier than I expected, around 12:30 pm. I’d been anticipating and dreading this moment for seventeen days, since Saturday, December 19, the morning of my last final in Pascal.
The day I was scheduled to go back to Pittsburgh was also the day I finally received my grades. I earned an easy A in Astronomy, a B- in Pascal, and a C in Honors Calc. All three of those grades I expected. The C in East Asian History was completely unexpected. My grade point average for the semester gave me a 2.63 to start my postsecondary career. That might’ve been good enough for most folks. But of course not for me. My Challenge Scholarship absolutely depended on me maintaining a minimum 3.0 average at the end of every school year in order for me to stay eligible. That was my wake up call to what I’d allowed Phyllis, and my thoughts of her and me — and of her with me — to do to me. I didn’t even give Mom the chance to see my grades.
Because I was seventeen when my first semester began, my Mom was still the responsible adult and my Mom’s address the primary address for my academic records. This was the first and last time I received my Pitt grades this way.
I was so mad. But I was more disillusioned than angry, especially with myself and my view of the world. I knew I had no margin for error this Winter/Spring semester at Pitt. I needed to raise my overall GPA to a 3.0 or higher in order to keep my academic scholarship for my sophomore year. I could barely afford Pitt as it was, between room and board and books. It wasn’t as if I could depend on Mom and my father to keep sending me money. They had sent a total of $480 my way that first semester. I was still $1,200 behind on my Pitt bill, even with student loans and me working sixteen hours a week.
The days after I got back to my dorm I spent assessing my situation and what to do about it. The first decision I made was to consolidate the funds I managed to secure at the end of December. I had General Foods cover my remaining room and board payments for the school year, increased my Stafford Loan amount for the semester, and marched down to Thackeray Hall. I waited all day to take care of my bills, get my few hundred dollars of leftover cash from all of my aid — all of which I needed for books — and registered for classes. The last part took the most time, and was the hardest to do. The low the second morning of the semester was two below zero, and the high that day was eight above. Fahrenheit, not Celsius. I stood in line outside for over an hour in that weather surrounded by two feet of snow with the occasional winds and snow drifts before getting inside at nine that morning.
But in the moments I had that week, between some quiet time for myself and in discussing my performance with two of my professors (I just couldn’t believe I earned a C in East Asian History!), I realized two or three things. One was that I over-performed, given how depressed I was the last seven weeks of the semester. I missed nearly three out of every four classes in November, and nearly forty percent of my East Asian History class during the entire semester. I went without a textbook for Honors Calc I after someone stole it from my job in the computer labs in the Cathedral of Learning at the end of October. I managed a solid C in the course anyway. It could’ve been much worse.
Two was that my East Asian History professor Ann Jannetta was right. I really was “lucky” to have managed a C in an upper-level history course my first semester of college. I still acted as if I was in Humanities at A.B. Davis Middle School or MVHS, that a C was some indication of low IQ or confirmation that Whites had bigger brains or something. Jannetta was very encouraging. It was the first time any of my professors had made me feel like I belonged in college.
The most important thing I realized, though, was that I couldn’t let anyone or anything get in the way of me bringing my A-game (or A- game, maybe) every semester and in every course. Phyllis didn’t matter. My internalized sexism or what others though of me because of their racism didn’t matter. My idiot classmates or parents didn’t matter. Heck, being hungry, cold, and short on money didn’t matter. All that mattered was my ability to do what I did best back then. Get A’s in bunches when I needed to.
Of course, all these things really did matter. I merely decided to play the game of college that semester with a combination of fear and anger, arrogance and obliviousness. To the tune of a 3.33 and the Dean’s List! Yay me!