I Wanted to Attend a Specialized High School. Imposter Syndrome Almost Stopped Me.

I Wanted to Attend a Specialized High School. Imposter Syndrome Almost Stopped Me.

I Wanted to Attend a Specialized High School. Imposter Syndrome Almost Stopped Me.

In 2018, only 3.6 percent of Black students who took the SHSAT in New York City received an offer to a specialized high school. I felt like I wouldn’t belong.


EDITOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published by Youth Communications and is reposted here with permission. YC is a nonprofit publisher of teen-written stories and curriculum to help educators strengthen the social and emotional skills of youth.

OK class, we’re about to transition to community meeting,” announced my 4th grade teacher. “On my count. One!”

One was the signal to push your seat out from the desk.

“Good job we’re moving with urgency! I like it Morgan State!” Almost every class at Excellence Boys Charter School was named after an HBCU. “Two!” and “Three!” were the signals for the class to rise, then tuck in our chairs to create a single file line down to the auditorium where we would begin our community meeting. Going down the staircase, there was no shortage of students with coarse, 4c hair in the forms of high tops, locs, or taper faded curly afros. The sight made me feel better about my hair. It didn’t resemble the Disney stars I watched at night, but it looked normal among my peers.

At the meeting, we had community-building activities that included random dance spotlights, and reciting songs that acknowledged Kwanzaa values. We also had a spirit scepter that was designed in the black, red, yellow, and green colors of Black excellence and given weekly to a scholar who pays it forward within the school community (I won it once).

From kindergarten through eighth grade, I was part of this culture. The school lived in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant and was attended by mostly African American and Hispanic students. There was a general comfort in being a person of color. I always received top marks among my peers, landing as one of the three best test performers each year.

While my friends came from middle-income families, my family was less fortunate. When I was in 8th grade, when we began to apply for high schools, they were content to have me go to Midwood, a very large, diverse school in southern Brooklyn where about a quarter of the students are Black. It’s a perfectly good school, but I set my sights on one of New York City’s more competitive, specialized high schools. Doing so seemed like a surer way to obtain a better life for and myself and my family.

Brooklyn Latin, advertised as a close-knit community with a low student-to-teacher ratio, was my top choice, with Brooklyn Tech as a close second. Brooklyn Latin stood out because of its participation in the International Baccalaureate Program, which had a new (to me) outlook on liberal arts education compared to traditional AP courses. To get into Brooklyn Latin, I had score above their cut off on the Specialized High School Administration Test (SHSAT), the admissions test for New York City’s elite high schools. The test was in mid-October, but I didn’t find out about it until June. Some kids had prepared for years, so I was already at a disadvantage, but I trusted my academic abilities and committed to studying during the time I had. Unlike other tests I had taken, this put me in competition with students from all five boroughs of New York City. I was also aware of the ongoing controversy that surrounded the SHSAT. In 2018, then Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed eliminating the test in favor of a class rank system to desegregate specialized high schools. but it never passed.

“What’s the probability of actually getting in?” I thought. As smart as I was, feelings of self doubt began to creep in for the first time. The statistical probability, it turns out, was slim. After some research, I found that out of the 28,333 applicants for the 2018 graduating year, only about 18 percent got in. But what really had an impact on me was that only 3.6 percent of African American testers received offers to specialized high schools. In comparison, 26.2 percent of the white test takers got offers, along with 29.7 percent of Asian test takers. “Yeah I could usually outperform the students at my current school,” I thought, “but all of those kids look like me. And we don’t get into these types of schools anyway.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome, according to an article from the American Psychological Association, “occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success. They often attribute their accomplishments to luck rather than to ability, and fear that others will eventually unmask them as a fraud.” I was ready to give up on the possibility of getting in before I even took the test. But my saving grace came in the form of DREAM, an organization funded by the New York City Department of Education that helps seventh-graders prepare for the SHSAT. I was accepted into the program and gained access to Kaplan tutoring by special teachers. I attended every session.

On test day, I arrived early, watching students trickle into the auditorium where we would wait for our designated testing room. The majority of them were either white or Asian, with maybe five Black or biracial students. I began to sweat, becoming increasingly restless in my chair.

The test was three hours long, with 114 questions, so there wasn’t much time for me to second-guess my responses. However, being around so many strangers who, by statistical comparison, had a better chance than I did of getting in, made me doubt myself. I double-checked answers that I already knew were correct, and sometimes I accidentally filled in the wrong bubble on the answer sheet. (I’ve since learned that this challenge is called stereotype threat, and it can depress the scores of students from marginalized groups.) I finished with barely any time to spare, and I was not confident that I had scored high enough to beat out the tens of thousands of other applicants.

Later, on the day the test results were given out, the fear of rejection filled my soul as I walked up to my teacher. “You got into Midwood.” My heart dropped. “And Brooklyn Latin.” He smiled. “Congratulations.”

I wanted to be ecstatic. I felt like I should have been. After all, this was what I had wanted. I had studied so hard. But the excitement I thought I’d feel wasn’t there. Instead, all I could think about were reasons for me to turn down the offer from Brooklyn Latin and go to Midwood: I could start off the year with my best friends. The coursework might be easier than that of a specialized high school. Maybe I’m not smart enough. I packed up my things and headed home.

Our class later watched Dena Simmons’s TedTalk titled “How Students of Color Confront Impostor Syndrome” in which she discussed feeling like a misfit at a predominately white boarding school in Connecticut. As a Black woman in the Bronx, the culture shock was a drastic adjustment. Although she was just as smart as the next student, others in the school frequently reminded Simmons that she came from a different world than them. One of her teachers, for example, mocked her pronunciation of certain words, embarrassing her in front of the class. “Asssking” the teacher said derisively. “It’s not ‘axing’ like you’re running around with an ax. That’s silly.” I became more aware of my own pronunciation after that. Although I scored above the cutoff on SHSAT, I now had a constant feeling anxiety. Like Simmons, I would be in a world where most of my peers were different than me—and perhaps felt superior. Would there be a time I got called out and embarrassed as well?

Ultimately, I chose Brooklyn Latin over Midwood. I wanted a chance to discover what I might not be good at, and what I might be able to excel at with the help of more rigorous curriculum. In my first semester, I struggled with the heavy course load and new norms at Brooklyn Latin. The school prides itself on its classical Greek culture that encompasses all new nomenclature and standards. For example, instead of referring to school areas in English like “bathroom” or “hallway,” every discipulus (Latin for “student”) had to learn the Latin counterparts: latrina and atria.

I was assigned both Spanish and Latin language classes, an honors geometry class, and an honors conceptual physics class. I didn’t live up to the expectations I set for myself. ending my initial term with my first B’s and C’s. Although these courses were hard for everyone, I felt like the courses were more rigorous for me, being African American, even though that’s not true. But I reminded myself that I enrolled in Brooklyn Latin to be challenged, and I was determined to rise above the effects of imposter syndrome.

But getting over imposter syndrome doesn’t mean convincing yourself that you’ll succeed. It means reaching beyond negative stereotypes that others have ingrained in you—even if that means facing challenges directly. As of today, I have an A- average at Brooklyn Latin, developing better skills as a student in the process. I’m not an imposter. I deserve to be here. Now I believe in myself enough to strive for the highest achievement, even at the risk of failure.

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