Following is an essay submitted by one of my wonderful former students, Nicole Marquez. It is a story of individual diligence. It is also a story of mistakes we can make as educators—and ways we can do better.
540 and 423. These are not numbers that indicate how well I will do in college. They do not tell you that in less than seven months from now I will graduate with a juris doctorate. They do not tell you that for the past month I have worked as a legal intern to a Colorado Supreme Court Justice. But what do they tell you?
After I graduated high school, I left for college. I attended San Diego State University. A public school located in beautiful, sunny, always-70-degree-weather San Diego, California. I was the first in my family to go to college. I remember my Mom telling me that she was so proud of me, and my Dad telling me, “Keep working hard.”
On the first day of classes, because of my “low numbers” on the SAT, I was placed in remedial math and writing. That year the administration implemented a new policy. The policy required students who scored low numbers on their SAT to pass the remedial math and writing classes within one year—their first year. If the student did not fulfill this requirement, the school would academically disqualify her. So, all I had to do was just pass these classes along with the general education courses.
I remembering entering the class room for my remedial math class and saw nothing but brown faces. I thought to myself, “Wow this is strange, considering that there are not that many students of color at this school to begin with.” The professor explained to us that this class would not count towards our academic record, and that we had to score within a certain range to move on to the next level of remedial math. Which would also not count towards your degree, essentially two math classes and then you could stay.
After that class, I then went over to the remedial writing class. Again same setting, a bunch of brown, scared-looking faces. The professor then told us that throughout the course we would write a number of essays and then take a timed writing proficiency test. Once we passed the first writing class we could then move on to the second level of remedial writing. She said that neither class, remedial writing one or two would count towards our degree. However, if you did not pass the classes, you could not come back the following year.
I thought to myself—“just another hurdle”—“don’t freak out.”
First semester ended, I passed both levels of remedial writing and math. I was on my way to level two of remedial world. I hadn’t told my parents because I was too embarrassed. What would they think? What if I could not pass the second level of the remedial classes that would not count towards my degree anyway? Many of my friends were in the same boat. We studied together, drank lots of redbull, and pulled all-nighters.
Looking back probably not the best of study habits, in terms of the redbull and all-nighters, but we worked it out. And while we were panicking about getting “kicked-out,” the other students who did not have to pass these classes were on large colorful buses heading towards Tijuana to get their drink on! I think I resented them a little. But, I already knew that I did not belong on those party buses anyway. Their stories always sounded the same— got drunk, puked, and then slept all day. Plus, it was kind of a mockery of Mexican culture. The girls would always come back saying “Oh, I love Mexico!” As if that is all they thought Mexican culture had to offer—cheap drinks and crazy whistle blowing guys that throw tequila down your throat. We never had any of that at my family parties…..so it was kind of insulting.
Second semester, same drill, on top of the remedial classes we also had to take three other classes. I forgot what I took the first semester, but second semester amongst the other classes, I selected a chicana/o studies. I remember walking into the class the first day; Prof. Jacobo greeted each person individually. This time when I walked in, I remember seeing a bunch of brown faces, but they were happy to be there. A sort of energy filled the air every day in that classroom— empowerment. We learned about the lemon grove case (small city in San Diego, CA), where Mexican students were forced to go to school in a barn. The parents were mobilized by the Mexican consulate and challenged the unfair treatment. The court ultimately held that the Mexican students had to go to the school with the white kids because under the law Mexicans were not “black,” so for all intents and purposes they were white. That was a trip to me. I would later find out that this was a common occurrence throughout the U.S.
And then there I was in the remedial math two. Again, brown faces, but always worried and anxious looking—not like the faces in my chicana/o studies course. The semester passed by so quickly. This time our professor informed us that we would need to score at least fifteen out of thirty-five questions correctly in order to pass the course. A week before the final, a group of friends of mine decided to really hit the books hard. We drilled each other. The day before the exam I thought about calling my mom but decided against it. I did not want to stress her out, and I think it would have stressed me out too, knowing that she was stressing out over me.
On the day of the exam, I remember filling in all the bubbles—name, student id, social security number. And then it was over. The professor announced that he could grade the exams right then and there. Everyone lined up, anxious to find out if they were coming back the next year. Monica a friend of mine was a couple people in front of me. She got her score back. She got fourteen correct. She turned around and looked at me. Her face was red and her eyes were full of tears of disappointment. I felt so sad for her. Had she just answered one more right she would have been able to stay. The next two people went—I don’t remember if they passed or not—I was too distraught and anxious to find out what would happen to me. The professor graded my exam. He said, “Ok, you got fifteen right.” I said, “Really, can you count them over again?” He said, “Sure,” counted them quickly, and said “Yep, fifteen, congratulations.” At that moment, I had never felt more confused in my life. On one side I was ecstatic that San Diego State was going to let me stay. On the other side, I was so sad and upset that my friend who worked just as hard as me was not coming back next year. And what about my other friends in the other classes? Would they not be coming back the following year too?
I ended up calling my mom as soon as I got back to the dorms and told her what was going on. She told me that she could tell something was bothering me because every time we spoke on the phone something in my voice indicating to her that I was worried. She told me that she was very proud of me. I spoke to my dad later that day, and he told me “I knew you would work hard.” “Keep working hard, and if that does not work, work harder.”