Peer ridicule fails to deter young scholar

June 23, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

In the summer following her freshman year at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, as her classmates headed for deeply intellectual pursuits on the beach at Ocean City, Nefertiti Harmon interned at the University of Maryland Medical School, where she researched the correlation between gout and hypertension. This was considered a warm-up for her.

In the spring of her sophomore year, she took a telephone call from Thomas Cech. He is a Nobel laureate in chemistry. Cech was calling to ask if Nefertiti might wish to spend the summer at his laboratory in Colorado. She might, indeed. She spent three months there, on a project described as "cloning a telomere bind protein in the Euplotes aediculatis." Don't ask what it means. It's enough to know that Nefertiti knew. She was just turning 20.

The following summer, she interned in the anatomy department at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where she "mapped the topography of efferents from the 'oculomotor' vermis to the fastigial nucleus of the rabbit." Don't ask what "oculomotor" means. For some of us, it's tough enough to know what a nucleus is.

This summer, having graduated UMBC with a 3.93 average with studies in biology and sociology, she's working on a study of teen-age pregnancies and preparing to enter Johns Hopkins Medical School in the fall.

"The pregnancy study's a look at 83 girls," Nefertiti was explaining last week, "about 95 percent of whom are black. In the black community, we know it's hit us very hard. We want to understand why. And do something about it."

Don't think she won't. It's been a spectacular and sometimes painful journey this far, which she sometimes laughs about and sometimes doesn't.

"I can remember when I was young," she says, "my parents always pushed me and said I was going to college and could do anything I wanted to do. My father would walk me to school and say, 'Who are you going to school for?' I was taught to say, 'Me.' 'You're not going for others,' he'd say. 'You're going for yourself. That's the key to happiness.' School was never just an option."

Her mother, Mary, is a city school teacher. Her father, Allen, is retired. Attending city schools, mostly with black classmates, she began to hear criticism when she'd work too hard.

"They'd say, 'You're trying to act white,' " Nefertiti remembers. It's a cry of self-destructiveness that ripples across parts of black America. "Oh, I got flak. It happens. Especially when you talk properly. I saw a lot of that when I worked down in Cherry Hill, in the elementary schools."

She means the three spring semesters when she volunteered for Project Discover, the UMBC honors program effort in which the college students tried to help the little kids' self-esteem.

"You'd look at these kids," Nefertiti says. "There's something in them that wants to learn. They want to achieve. It excites them. But they get to the fourth or fifth grade, they know they're tracked, and they know if they've been put in a low class. They know. Their self-esteem goes down.

"So it becomes a defense mechanism, 'Oh, you're acting white.' They're negative toward their peers who are doing well. It's because they're stuck and don't know how to get out. They have poor skills and don't know how to cope, so all they can do is make fun of those who are doing well. It's a mechanism to deal with pain."

In her own youth, from the middle of elementary school through high school, she heard the same taunts.

"A lot," she remembers, "though less when I got tracked into accelerated programs. But even then, if the classes were predominantly black, you'd hear it. I heard it as early as the third grade at Windsor Hills Elementary. I got skipped out of the second grade, and a big girl kept pushing me and pushing me. Yes, it starts that early.

"Later I'd hear, 'You're trying to act white, you're a half-breed,' which I'm not. But if you're light-skinned, they automatically assume you have a white parent. I felt like I didn't have any friends."

At Western High, where she graduated with a 3.98 average, there was more pressure. "It's college-geared," she says, "and it's an excellent school, but I went through four years of flak."

She immersed herself in outside activities. She served as student representative on the city's school board, was president of the citywide student government, wrote for a citywide student newspaper.

At UMBC, she's been a Meyerhoff scholar. It's a program created eight years ago, with a $522,000 grant from the Robert and Jane Meyerhoff Foundation, to address the shortage of black students who pursue careers in science and engineering.

"UMBC has been wonderful," she says. "It's taught me to work hard and be steadfast. My reach has exceeded my grasp. Yes, the Robert Browning line. I love that phrase."

She'll continue reaching at Johns Hopkins Medical School, though she's not certain exactly what she'll study, except "probably something with young people. I look at all the problems black kids have with drugs, with pregnancy..."

And sometimes, with writing off their own future by imagining academic success is only associated with white people. They might wish to examine the life of Nefertiti Harmon, which tells them otherwise.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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