2013 Runner-Up - Personal Essay
The F.M. Bubble: My Experience with Suburbia
When I first walked into my new public school Fayetteville-Manlius High School (F.M.), my roommate Dori and I looked at each other in awe when the homeroom bell rang. Our new school looked like a scene straight out of one of my childhood favorite shows growing up, Lizzie McGuire. There were really nice lockers and big hallways nothing that any of us girls had back in Washington Heights or the Bronx. I saw numerous cliques, for instance, the cheerleaders (aka the populars), the punks, skaters, the theater kids and the “smart people” walking in their groups down the halls. The hallway was a big crowd of white teenagers rushing to get their things from their lockers, with a speckle of minority kids here and there, however mostly Asian kids. Soon I realized we were both thinking the same thing. Dori said to me “this looks like the high schools we see on television.”
As young as 11 years old, I knew that I wanted to go a suburban school like I saw on television because my NYC elementary school and middle school were underfunded and filled with disruptive kids in the classroom. For instance, the books were falling apart at the hinges, the computer lab barely had computers and the few computers that were there, had missing keys, there was not any soap or tissue in the bathrooms, there were a lot of suspensions, drugs, and fights When I would watch white television shows, especially Lizzie Mcguire that had a female lead, I wanted to be just like her, live in the suburbs and go to a great school. I knew if I moved out of the city, I could finally have a nice facility and a class of students focused on only their work. Watching the Lizzie Mcguire show, made me want to go to a suburban school, because the kids on the show had nice facilities with computer labs, books, bathrooms (where the popular girls hung out); there weren’t any fights or disruptive kids in the classroom. I went in thinking that the suburbs were a utopia (funnily, I would learned the word utopia in my freshman year in my new school when all the white kids already knew what it meant in class). However, when I moved away from my family to live in a suburban town Manlius in order to go to a better public school, I quickly learned that suburbia was not perfect. Specifically, in my new town Manlius, I had to constantly deal with ignorance from my peers and from teachers. Why wasn’t this shown on Lizzie Mcguire?
A Better Chance, (a program that puts scholarly minorities in prestigious boarding, private or public schools all over the country) allowed me to go to a well funded suburban public high school called Fayetteville Manlius (F.M.) four hours away from New York City. Manlius, a predominantly white, upper middle class would be my new “home” for the next four years just so I could get a decent education. F.M. had everything I could ask for when it came to resources unlike my New York City schools. The school had about six computer labs with brand new computers, and every classroom had a smart board and a television. There was also a small newsroom, a small observatory and four lecture rooms. I had many different types of courses to choose from with the levels ranging from basic to Advanced Placement classes. The school owned fields and land for miles too. When you looked into the fields, it was as if you were looking into the sea and could see no end. There were guidance counselors and teachers who stayed after school, because there was funding to pay them for nine periods. Having all these resources was like being in a candy store for me.
Although F.M. had all the resources I needed, it lacked diversity. Constantly, I had to deal with people who lived a very sheltered lifestyle, and had a lot of misconceptions about New York City. Most of the white students I met at F.M. didn’t understand why I had left my home to go to their school. My freshman year, many of my “friends” would say, “New York City is so awesome. Why would anyone want to move here?” I would respond by saying, “Because NYC had poor schools.” They didn’t understand that the school systems in NYC were horrible and that I felt like I had no choice in ordered to be well prepared for college. But after a couple of months, I began to see why F.M. students asked that question. F.M. students wanted to live somewhere more exciting and after a while I did too. All they had in that town was a small mall, bars and schools. Pathetically, most of the entertainment came from the school plays and recitals. These events were the highlights of the year. I missed NYC because it had a bunch of different stores, restaurants, and people from different cultures. There were also always free museums, festivals or concerts I could find. On the other hand, I mostly missed home because I felt alone and isolated. I didn’t have my old friends or my family that understood my Jamaican culture and the urban lifestyle. Even though many F.M. kids thought New York City was awesome, they still feared it. Well, they feared anywhere that was not 42nd street or the lower east side.
Kids had all types of assumptions about the city. I had a “friend” my freshman year named Brie who was shocked when I told her I walked around the Bronx at night sometimes. She thought it was too dangerous. Comments like these would typically make the ABC girls and I angry but like them I learned to laugh at these situations. The upperclassman of the ABC house would tell me that I should have been happy that Brie didn’t directly ask me if I had been shot like their friends had asked them. They made it clear that it would be the first of many times that I would have to defend the city amongst other things. Even though I understood Brie’s point, she had no right to judge my home based off what she probably saw on television. The same way I had no right to judge all suburbia to be a utopia based off of Lizzie McGuire. People who aren’t from the city can’t understand that city people in their neighborhoods interact with each other outside a lot. Many groups of people are connected in my Bronx neighborhood, because people walk around a lot or hang out side on their porches, especially during hot summer days. So it wasn’t like I was alone outside. Unlike in the city, the streets were almost always empty in the suburbs. People stayed inside their homes more, enjoying all the luxuries they had. The quietness and emptiness of the streets gave me the creeps. Who knew who was hiding behind the bushes or trees? And trust me, there were a lot of them too. My “friend” Brie probably didn’t understand that shootings and robberies didn’t happen every day in the city. She couldn’t see that it is publicized more just because it is an urban area. Now thinking about all the misconceptions people had about the city, makes me think about all the misconceptions I had about suburbia being sunny and safe. Specifically, Manlius was definitely more snowy and cloudy. I didn’t feel safe because there were still a families driving around with a confederate flag on their car or had the confederate flag on their houses. Soon comments about the city wouldn’t be the only thing to upset me because I would encounter more comments and situations that would specifically make me feel isolated because I was black.
Once a year for a week, a dance instructor named Senior Guzman came to teach us dances like salsa, cha cha, slide, or whatever he decided for that year, it always sucked, because I would never get picked. My freshman year, when he was teaching salsa, my female gym teacher matched me with another couple, since no one picked me. The class would always start with Senior Guzman teaching the basic steps in 4 or 5 big rows in the gym. Girls were on one half of the gym facing the guys while Guzman was in the middle showing us the moves. After he taught the gym filled with about 60 awkward teenagers, he would yell, “Guys, find a partner.” This was always the part I dreaded. At first, the guys would move slowly, but then they would find girl friends that they knew and pair up with them. Some how, all the blacks girls were left standing alone without a male partner? It was obvious no one wanted to dance with us. We were left to dance with each other or to be a third wheel of another couple. If there were black males in any of our gym class, they always picked the white girls. That was the ultimate betrayal. Black males of course were popular because of sports or just more accepted overall so they had an easier time during prom time too. No surprise there either. Later some of the black girls would complain to each other about this outcome that happened almost every year. Sadly, we weren’t surprised. It wouldn’t matter too much if we were light skin black, with straight hair, or the sweetest non-ghetto girl, or if we grew up there our entire life. All us black girls had the same problem.
I remember the ABC girls who were also black, coming home everyday that week and we would complain about not being picked during our gym periods. We were in different gym periods, but had the same results. The complaint would be sometimes “They even picked the overweight girl over me or the foreign exchange girl”. The feeling was the same all around the ABC house. We felt unwanted and sad. But, that is a price you pay when going to a sheltered white school. Similarly, I remember watching Lizzie Mcguire episodes about her trying to get dates, however it was because she was not popular. By the end of the episode, she would get a date to the dance, by finding a nice guy who secretly liked her. So if Lizzie could get a guy to dance with her, why couldn’t I get a guy to dance with me? I realized now that, Lizzie didn’t have to also deal with her race being an issue. After each passing year things wouldn’t change, I stopped caring about not getting picked, because I was more comfortable dancing with my friends. It was fun deciding who would be the boy. I would take the lead. It was funny, especially since I danced like I had two left feet. This problem wouldn’t end for me, or any for the other black girls during our dumb dance lessons, and it would continue around prom time.
Shockingly, my first real rude comment about my race came from a gym teacher during these horrid dance lessons. My tall and lean, white gym teacher walked over in his grey shirt and navy blue sweat pants. He walked over to my dance partner and I as we were trying to get the stupid positioning right for the salsa dance we were learning. Many of the gym teachers were going around trying to help couples, so I thought he was coming over to do the same. Instead, he asked me curiously, “Why do you degrade yourself in music videos?” This was yet another question that stemmed from ignorance. Just because a few black girls were shaking their asses in music videos doesn’t mean all black girls were shaking their asses. I responded by saying “I listen to reggae music so I wouldn’t know.” What more could I say? I felt powerless. Besides, I knew he didn’t see me, Shaunice Shantel Phillips, a 14-year-old girl, shaking her behind in a music video? After that I don’t remember much of the conversation. I think it is best that way, because I bet that nothing else smart came out of his mouth. At the time, I couldn’t believe what he said to me, because he was my teacher. On the Lizzie Mcguire show, teachers asked kids about grades, or other school issues, not about their race. If I were so smart, like my past NYC teachers had told me, why didn’t I know that ignorance doesn’t discriminate, or that television did not always reflect all aspects of reality like racism?
Recently, I learned that my gym teacher is known for being a bigot. Even though I know this, his statement still bothers me to this day. Constantly, I wish I could go back in time. I would say to him “ No I don’t know. But riddle me this, Sherlock. Why do so many white women do porn?” Now I wonder, what he would say to that. Then maybe, he would learn that blacks should have the right to be individuals, since whites can do things without it being projected across their entire race. It is only fair that way. I wished I had challenged his perspective of black women, by saying something back then rather than being passive. By staying quiet and not challenging his white male view point then, he will continuously feel that it is alright to lump minorities into groups without questioning how whites get to be individuals.
Over the years, the statements made in school just got more offensive. Sometimes students would say things by calling out my race, specifically not linking it to gender and instead link race to intelligence. The one statement I remembered the most, is when kids would say, “African Americans only get into college because of affirmative action.” That statement would always be followed by another angry student continuing to say, “And they are taking away spots from people who deserve it.” After statements like this, (that seemed to only happen in English and Social Studies courses) I would always become angry. It was like saying I didn’t deserve to get into college because of my intelligence, but instead my skin color. However, I was 4 hours away from home, I was putting up with a lot of shit at a young age, just so I could be prepared for college. Most of my white “friends” would tell me they would never been able to make the decision to live away from home just for education at such a young age. Therefore, any college I get into I deserve to be there. Whenever, I encountered comments like this I would become shocked, then I would shut down. It was always by kids who came from loads of money. It was like their damn polo shirts and khakis that they wore everyday made them feel better than everyone else. Why didn’t these kids question the thousands of white kids who get into college just because their parents went there or their parents are giving the school money? Was it fair, that because of centuries of discriminatory practices in the United States, that white Americans acquired wealth for lower and higher education?
Funnily, little did my white peers know that mostly white women are the ones who benefit from Affirmative Action (Unzueta 121, Leonard 65). Typically, when an ignorant statement is said, I would just try to block out the rest of the class conversation. My voice had no power in a room where no one looked like me, so I stayed quiet. Can you imagine being in a room where the majority of the people either agreed with the statement, or wouldn’t defend the other side just because it had nothing to do with them? To them, race is a minority problem not a problem that is perpetrated through the very act of not saying anything, not realizing and denying your white privilege. The worst part of all this was not having any teachers say anything against ignorant statements such as this one. It was like my feelings didn’t even matter. I felt alone, mostly because I was. Since I dealt with these problems on a regular basis, my sadness quickly turned to anger. I especially felt mad ,when it was one of my so-called friends insulting me.
One day my during junior year, the ABC girls and I were sitting in our usual spot in the art wing. This was a long hallway, connecting building one and two of our high school. In this hallway, we would sit on the window ledge as we finished last minute homework, and watched familiar faces walk by. My “friend” strolled by and stopped to say hello. We began talking about everyday school issues and laughing about things normal teenagers laughed about. In the middle of our conversation I asked her if she wanted to sit down because we had about 30 minutes until homeroom. There was plenty of room for her to sit, since there were only four of us on the ledge.
She said, “I don’t want to sit with all the black girls because I’ll be the only white girl.”
I was in complete shock, so I paused for a second. You think I would be used to it by now, but I wasn’t. Though, I quickly rebutted, it didn’t make sense. She knew all of us and she has stopped by many times to say hello at our morning chill spot, but the one time I offered her a seat she refused? She had some nerve!
“Well, I have to walk into a white class room everyday and I have to be the only black person. You think that is a piece of cake especially, since I am four hours away from my family?”
“Well, I know. But I still I don’t want to.”
I dropped the topic out of pure frustration from the daily racial issues I encountered. In the Lizzie McGuire show, Lizzie had a best friend, Miranda, who was Mexican, and that was never a problem. So why was being black a problem for my “friend?” After a while I, learned which battles to fight and which ones I should back away from. My friend and I continued to talk as she towered over me. Our positioning was symbolic. She had the POWER and I didn’t. Most of the kids in this school grew up in this upper middle class town and would never have to sacrifice their comfort, because the real world wasn’t any different from their neighborhoods, their school, their town, or their lives! They were the majority and I had to learn to accept it. I knew that the majority would never have to be forced to leave their comfort zone, never have to go to a black or Latino school. Suburbia was made to be perfect for them, a dream come true only for them. Soon after the incident, her white friend walked by. With no surprise, my friend sat down because her friend decided to sit down; exercising the POWER she has without having to claim it.
Even with all of us sitting together it was still segregated. Two white girls on the left side of the ledge and the black girls on the right side. Since that monumental moment, over the last two years of high school, I had to find a voice to defend myself, because, I couldn’t depend on anyone else to. So when my friend made that statement, the anger that had built up over the years finally took charge. Good thing too, because, I actually said something back to her. Though, I didn’t push the conversation to the maximum, I was proud I said something. Maybe it was because the other ABC girls were there and there weren’t a lot of white people around. Who knows? I just know that I felt good afterwards. It was big for me because my first two years of high school, I wouldn’t have said anything. I would always feel my blood boiling, but also felt my nerves trembling too. I didn’t know how to get my thoughts together all those other times. It was like being electrocuted then asked to talk after. Luckily, time has helped to change that. Being the token black girl had less of an effect on me. I began to stand up for my people and more importantly, myself, because I was tired of the overt and covert racism that I dealt with on a regular basis. For me though, the blunt form of prejudice, such as my friend refusing to sit down, wasn’t as hurtful as the subtle forms of racism.
Similarly to the Guzman’s dreadful instructive dances prejudice manifested itself without words during prom time. Getting a date for prom was not only awful for me, but also for a lot people, and being black in this situation didn’t make it any easier. If I couldn’t even get a partner during a one week dance lesson, how was I supposed get a date for junior prom or senior ball? I wasn’t alone in this. A lot of the blacks girls were asking that same question. Where were we going to find dates? We all couldn’t go together like we did for gym class. We wanted to feel special. We wanted to fit in. That is why for junior prom, I told my best friend Mikey he was taking me. Mikey was the one guy that was there for me my entire four years of high school. Though we truly became close friends my junior year. He was African and had come to the F.M. area two years before I did. He was nice, smart and very athletic. I even called him chicken legs sometimes because he had skinny, toned brown legs from running track. One day early on in my sophomore year, I brought up prom to him randomly in our biology class.
“Hey Mike guess what?” I asked.
“What?” he asked back.
“You are taking me to prom next year,” I said with a smile.
“Ok,” he said.
There was no further discussion needed. He knew that he had to be my prince because not many people were up for the job. My other black friends were not so lucky in finding dates. So many of the ABC girls had to “import” dates as we use to call it from back home in NYC. I thought I wouldn’t have to import a date because I had my best friend Mike, but he had moved away the first month of junior year, but came back to take me to prom. He was truly my prince. As for senior ball, I went through five dates (all of them people of color). Most of them were with sophomores who really wanted to go to the senior ball. However, they would commit to taking me, but then in the end couldn’t find money to go. So, I imported a date from a city school nearby called Nottingham High School. One of my friends of color who use to go there knew someone and hooked a few of the black girls up with dates. So again, I had to import a date, because none of the F.M. boys would ask me. Watching all my white friends being asked was like being told over and over that I wasn’t good enough without actually being told. In the end, after feeling invisible and ugly to the F.M. boys, I was just happy that I found a date. When the end of ball came it just meant graduation was around the corner. What I really meant to say was good riddance F.M! Thanks for the education, but not for the hell.
After graduating from a suburban school, the biggest lesson I learned was that suburbia wasn’t perfect at all, because it was a fabricated lie. The Lizzie McGuire show never explained how sheltered people were living in suburbia and how the lack of diversity could be disadvantaging them. Manlius had created kids who were constantly being protected from the truth about the real world. Suburbia did not force people to experience new cultures, it instead made people misunderstand outside cultures. Also, suburbia either made people think they weren’t ignorant or made people feel like it was all right to be ignorant. Teachers and parents made F.M. kids feel really smart , because they could pass a test with flying colors, but reiterating knowledge is not the only thing to make someone intelligent. Experiencing viewpoints different from your own is what helps to create a brilliant person because it challenges them in ways a test cannot. This is something a lot F.M. kids and adults do not get.
Even though F.M. made me say “F’em” on many occasions, I am thankful for the fact that this experience has given me more than just book knowledge. It gave me the opportunity to live a different life outside of NYC and not have to base everything off of television. The new sense of self-perseverance that I have is great too. It makes me sad that a lot of F.M folks will never have this sense of true accomplishment, because they will never understand that true triumph comes from tears, anger, hard work, and even more so culture shock, not a piece of paper. Many F.M. people will instead continue to live sheltered lives, moving from one F.M. bubble to the next.
Leonard, Jonathan S. Women and Affirmative Action
The Journal of Economic Perspectives.
Vol. 3, No. 1 (Winter, 1989), pp. 61-75
Unzueta, Miguel, Gutiérrez, Angélica S. Ghavami, Negin.
“How believing in Affirmative Action quotas affects White women’s self-image.”
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Aug. 2009 Web. 8 April 2019