It was 1955 when on one day the Second Grade teacher gave a unique lesson to her class. For some of the students, it was a Life lesson. For others, the words were recognizable but the meaning of them was like a foreign language.
Her lecture didn’t come from a textbook. It came from her heart and a desire to feel she had encouraged her young charges to strive for excellence in every aspect of their lives.
It’s difficult to remember when she addressed the fact that her class was comprised of children of color. That fact was conveyed, however, in order for them to understand the importance of the information, especially for them. It was about learning a “new math.” It was about learning how to calculate one’s worth both in reality as well as in terms of how the rest of the world evaluates one’s worth.
Paraphrasing in order to compensate for the passage of time, she counseled, “When you go into the world and are competing against [White people], remember: you need to be three times better in order to be considered half as good.”
In other words, the world as her students interacted with it in any way would find them lacking and unqualified. In order to rise above being shut out of admission to the race for attainment, in order to be accepted and receive the deserved (earned) position, it would be necessary to make certain their skills and abilities were superlative, above reproach, and undeniably three times better than anyone else vying for the same brass ring. She was also telling them to be so overwhelmingly prepared that they could venture into any place and feel confident that they were among the best striving for the same situation. It wasn’t necessary to be embarrassed in any way. The main task was to perform well and thereby bring merit to the work that was done.
Did she tell her novices that in everything they did they were representatives of not only their school and families but also of their racial identity? No. That lesson was for another day and from another teacher. The fact of their ambassadorship was already an unspoken factor in their existence. It was part of why their parents scolded and chided when something about them didn’t measure up to the socially acceptable standard.
It was important to have that lesson in those early years so that it became part of their psyche. It was supposed to become the driving force for those young minds. She wanted all of them to strive to earn more than 90% on each of their tests. She wanted them to absorb all of the knowledge available and then use that knowledge to reach for even greater accomplishments. With that, it would be possible to develop new ideas and techniques. They would be burgeoning founders of many innovations, examples to others of the good work that could be expected of them, as well as those who would be known as “first”s to achieve.
Humility was not part of the lesson that day. Perhaps the talk about humility wasn’t necessary. Perhaps, that also was a lesson for another day and from another teacher. After all, it was a classroom of young coloreds. Being subservient was part of one’s expected deportment no matter where they were. But they were also expected to have dignity, self esteem. Those characteristics did not need apology; they were expected as part of the embodiment of any healthy personality. Dignity, or self esteem, was a quality that came from within and accompanied everything that was done, from the trivial to the grand, and as part of any task that was being performed in any position. Being, even feeling, servile simply was not part of the formula in execution. Being excellent was simply a part of their identity; conversation about it was unnecessary.
That lesson never happened again in any form. There was only one lecture about the new math nor about any related subjects. For some, the lesson was indelible. For others, some of that lesson in foreign language seeped in later comprehension. That was 1955. The landscape has changed. There are more of the coloreds who are allowed to vie for opportunities. A larger percentage of those who dare are not only pushing their way through the door to positions other than in the servile range. The number of those who are of color in leadership positions are no longer the exceptions. We expect them to have all the characteristics that are part of being a leader. If lacking in any of them, the representative is allowed to linger until a suitable replacement is identified and installed. It is a death knell to have less than the best as part of the overall framework.
The Door of Opportunity is now being opened more frequently to those of color. There are times when the formula for that new math is forgotten and the struggle to prevent the Door from closing must begin anew. That’s the danger of forgetting the new math. Now what was that formula again? Let’s see. “3 x 1 = 1/2”. No, it isn’t about inflated ego; it’s actualization of the survival of the fittest in terms of achievement.