The afternoon I took my SAT’s, an eager 18-year-old Kalamazoo Central High senior with a faint knowledge of “higher” education, the light was waning in the sky. I poured out of Western Michigan University’s auditorium with the other hopefuls and fretted the weeks away until the envelope came. I ripped it open to see what I remember to be a score of 1540. Maybe it was a 1340. Either way, I didn’t understand the numbers or the College Board legend.
I was too shy to ask any teacher, or my dream-killing high school counselor, Mrs. Harper, who had already told me that I shouldn’t think about college with such low grades in all courses except English, where I received mostly As and Bs. At home, I couldn’t ask my mom because, with her 8th grade education, she wouldn’t have understood the score sheet. I didn’t have any college graduates in my family, either. I certainly didn’t have a Felicity Huffman. I did have caregivers, farmers’ daughters, soldiers, janitors, and beautiful, caustic siblings who loved to laugh and joke about you until you damn near died on the spot, but whose love was as absolute and protective as wolverines.
So I tucked my SAT scores away in my Harriet the Spy journal and never looked at them again.
Did I do well?
At little moments between tests and interrogating the relationship between Moby Dick and Queequeg, I secretly wondered, do they know I don’t really belong in the Ivy Tower?
Adversity. At the time, I didn’t know that, as a child of a mostly single mother, I faced “adverse” impediments to my own success. I was one of seven raised by a nurse’s aide parent who worked graveyard shifts to feed and clothe us. I had no idea there was a direct correlation between race and poverty and one’s lack of access to college and opportunity. And that even if admittance was granted, because of a child’s environment, the probability for failure was higher. For impoverished children, the playing field was not only not level, it was a different ball game. Kids like me were playing Good Times basketball on a kick-back field hockey rink.
If I would have had the chance that the College Board is now granting—an “adversity score” taking into consideration my life’s circumstances based on a system I’d only inherited but unknowingly struggled against—maybe I would have received a scholarship out of high school and gone directly to college and into a Ph.D. program by the time I was 22, instead of the route I traveled. I went from high school to a nanny job, then community college to singlemomhood at 21. After a time, I re-entered college, transferring credits to a four-year university. I eventually received my BA in English, then later an MA, then after that an MFA in Creative Writing. But all the while, debt. All the while, the little voice of my counselor whispering “you don’t belong here.” At little moments between tests and interrogating the relationship between Moby Dick and Queequeg, I secretly wondered, do they know I don’t really belong in the Ivy Tower? That I was the first college graduate in my family before that was an applauded label? That I have childhood memories of loss and ferocity that children shouldn’t have?
Many years later, and with much college debt, I am proud of my three degrees, my life and work as an author and college professor, but I recognize those students who were like me: hopeful, hardworking, country sweet—unaware that forces beyond their control could dictate their choices. Now I recognize that their options might look like obstacles, but if they persist—and now with the new SAT standard—those choices could also be dreams about to come true.
Shonda Buchanan is an award-winning poet and educator, and the literary editor of Harriet Tubman Press. She is also the author of Who’s Afraid of Black Indians? and Equipoise: Poems from Goddess Country, and the editor of two anthologies, Voices from Leimert Park and Voices from Leimert Park Redux.