Young, Gifted, Black

December 19, 1993|By James Bock | James Bock,Staff Writer

James H. Collins Jr. received the graded pre-calculus test from his teacher, noted the 93 written in red ink and turned quickly to the only other black student in class.

Two bits in the bank. James, 17, had edged out his fellow senior at Calvert Hall College, the Catholic high school in Towson, by one point to win their running 25-cent bet.

It was another small victory for James, who carries a 91 average at the boys school, in an academic career that he hopes will eventually take him to medical school.

But for bright black students, particularly males, being smart often exacts a price of loneliness and pain.

Smart black students say they fight a battle on two fronts: one to overcome society's doubts about their abilities, and another to conquer peers' doubts about their blackness.

"I've had people say to me, 'You think you're white or something,' " said Oliver Myers, a University of Maryland Baltimore County senior. "I've had people call me an Oreo cookie [black on the outside but white on the inside]. It really hurt. It was definitely painful."

From the corridors of overwhelmingly white Calvert Hall through the shops of predominantly black Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore to the classrooms ethnically mixed Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, black students say they must rise above peer pressure to excel academically.

Indeed, American students of all races risk being labeled nerds, dweebs, brainiacs or worse if they get A's in school, where being smart is almost never the road to popularity, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education study.

The United States generally demands less of its best students than other developed countries, the study said, and American youngsters often regard smart peers as kids who think they're "better" than others.

That doesn't fit well with the U.S. tradition of egalitarianism.

Scholars believe that peer pressure not to be smart is especially strong among black youths, particularly males, although they say more research is needed.

"Bright black kids felt they had to choose between doing well and having friends," said Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor who surveyed 10,000 high school students over four years. "The clear lack of support for academic achievement in black peer groups seems to undermine very good efforts by black kids' parents."

James Collins, a lanky, bespectacled student who plays trumpet in Calvert Hall's band, has coped by developing an iron will to excel and a seeming disregard for what his peers may say.

But only two years ago, he quickly dropped plans to join the school debate team when other black students accused him of selling out. That and other slights have bruised him.

"The funny thing is, I'm more respected by white students than by my black peers," James said. "It's like, 'He's one of the smart ones, but he don't play no sports.' . . . It's pretty sad, but among my peers, if you speak correctly, you're speaking white -- which is almost insulting yourself."

Black youngsters who overcome peer pressure often enjoy strong family support, form bonds with other bright black students and relish shattering people's low expectations about their academic ability.

"It helps being a minority because you feel a need to prove yourself," James said. "There's a preconceived notion that the only thing African-Americans do is play sports. I feel a need to prove that notion incorrect."

No role models

Oliver Myers, 22, was a top student at a Prince George's County high school, captain of the football team -- and often alone.

He played wide receiver in football, a position that he now views as an apt metaphor for his social standing.

"Everybody else is over there, and here's a little island over here getting ready to run his own pattern," he said. "People knew who I was, but I wasn't the one they would invite to a party. . . . As far as friends forever, I really didn't have any of those."

Mr. Myers, now a mechanical engineering major headed to graduate school, felt a sense of relief when he was admitted to UMBC's prestigious Meyerhoff Scholars program for gifted black math and science students.

Gifted and talented programs across the country have too few black students, and special education classes have too many, studies show.

Black students often feel their teachers expect more of white students than of them, and that an outstanding performance on the basketball court will reap more praise at school than an A on a science exam.

But the Meyerhoff Scholars were black students chosen expressly for academic merit. The presence of so many black achievers was liberating.

It reassured Mr. Myers that he could be smart without sacrificing his blackness. Suddenly, he felt he was not alone.

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