My mother picked up the kitchen phone immediately. The call couldn’t wait. Fresh off a long shift at the local hospital, she took off her nursing hat and put on one that she’d become more familiar with in my formative years—advocate.
She called my elementary school to insist that I take the gifted exam to enter the school’s gifted program. You will let my son take this exam and he will pass it with flying colors (no pressure, right). She knew I was special, but the school’s administration didn’t.1 The gifted program was “invitation only.” Before that day I had not gotten an invitation.
Gifted programs in the early 80’s meant one thing—exceptional white students. Scores of exceptional gifted, black children were overlooked.2 The excuse: We were still getting acclimated to post-integration grammar school education. Adding us to a gifted program might prove too disorienting.
Later that week, I was pulled from my classroom to take the entrance exam. I remember sitting in the guidance counselor’s office with a #2 pencil and a test booklet—a nervous energy I have felt many times since taking exams. This was it. My mom had stood up for me. Now I needed to show up for her.
A few days later the letter came home. Congratulations, your son is now a part of the gifted program at Altama Elementary School.
Before getting that letter, my blackness nearly cost me. It nearly cost me the science fairs, quiz bowls, and field trips. It nearly cost me a trip to the Georgia Senate to serve as a page. It nearly cost me Model United Nations invitations. Truth is: Three post-graduate degrees later, it nearly cost me my future.
Two things about my experience at Altama Elementary School helped shape me into the man I am today.
What other people call coincidence I call God’s sovereignty. What is God’s sovereignty? It is God, as the great conductor, leading this orchestra called life to create beautiful music and shape my song’s “score.”
One of those sovereign moments was entering the gifted program. It wasn’t just the curriculum that shaped me; it was black brilliance on full display in the person of Dr. Johnnie Heck.
My gifted teacher was black.3 A graduate of historic Risley High School, Dr. Heck went on to pursue post-graduate work at Mercer University. She just “happened” to find her way to Altama Elementary when I started the program. Her son, Derric, who would become one of my best friends, was part of the program—as were a few other students of color.
With the grace of Claire Huxtable and the clairvoyance of Maya Angelou, Dr. Heck was the very definition of class. She expected our best and we gave it to her. I still remember conversations with her about geography, political science, Black history, and other topics of interest. Her breadth of knowledge was both astounding and inspiring. I was proud she was my teacher. Seeing black brilliance on display every single day was refreshing. It gave us something to aspire to. For the first time in our lives, we stood alongside our White classmates, viewed and treated as equals. And it felt good.
Though I was part of the gifted program and spent a significant amount of time with Dr. Heck, we still had regular classroom assignments. One year I drew an assignment I will never forget—Mrs. P.4 Mrs. P. was the anti-Dr. Heck. Affirmation? Nope. Giving us her best? Nope. To make things worse, I got a sense that Mrs. P. was not too fond of people of color.
In an incident that many of my grammar school classmates can recount to this day, she called me a jacka&#. Did I mention I was a third grader? I was devastated. Her words cut. I rode the bus home that day, sulking—asking myself why I deserved to be called a jacka&# in front of classmates. I hopped off the bus to tell my mother, but my schoolmates beat me to it. Every kid in my neighborhood ran through our front door to tell my mother the news. Mrs. Carolyn, guess what Mrs. P called John today. I had enough witness to try a monk for murder. There was no denying what Mrs. P said.
At this point, my mother had the school’s number memorized—speed dial before speed dial existed. She called and spoke to the principal, took off work the next day to speak with Mrs. P., and made sure the entire administrative team at the school knew one thing. Mrs. Carolyn is NOT playing with y’all. This child’s education is too important.
My mother knew the importance of those formative years. She was my attorney before I became one—arguing my case in the face of what many would deem discrimination and hatred. She doesn’t have a post-graduate degree, but the three I earned are as much hers as they are my own.
The day my blackness nearly cost me was the day I embraced it with pride. From that moment, I knew it would be an uphill battle. I knew the cards were stacked against me. But I had two trump cards: Dr. Heck and Mrs. Carolyn. They stood alongside me in my battle to shape me into a young, black professional.
I know I’m not unique. Many of my friends have similar stories. But memorializing my story helps me understand the importance of raising two children of color in a “post-racial” America. May my children’s schools be warned: I’ve got speed dial too.