Openness to Learn Cultivates a Sense of Optimism
A Black High School Student’s Experience on a Predominantly White Campus
By Aliyah Knudsen
When I was a freshman, I went to St Mary’s High School in Lynn, Mass. It’s a brick building that looks like a prison, but not in a bad way. A lot of the students are children of immigrants: first-generation Americans who are just trying to live up to the expectations of their parents, who moved to Massachusetts to give them better lives. Most of my classmates came from low-income houses and they struggled in school. When I talked to my friends, I said things like “sup ‘cuz” and “is mad brick outside.” As a Black student, my year at St. Mary’s was the first time that I was surrounded by more students who looked like me than didn’t. I didn’t stick out. No one paid more attention to me just because of the color of my skin. I was just another one of the Black kids.
Fast-forward one year and I was a sophomore, starting once again at a new school: Landmark High School. I came to Landmark to figure out strategies to help me learn better. I had always struggled with paying attention in school and understanding the content I was being taught. Starting my year at a new school was tough, but it was made even harder by the fact that I felt like I had to consciously change a lot of things about myself. I had to dress differently and speak differently. I went from feeling like I blended in to feeling like eyes were on me at all times. At Landmark, everyone knows who I am whether I’ve talked to them before or not. Teachers constantly tell me to “keep my head down.” When they say that, they’re telling me to mind my business, do my work, and stay out of trouble. Sometimes I wonder if they say that to white students too. Or do they just also realize that I’m more likely to get in trouble for something because I stand out?
Racial Climate Creates Expectations
I’ve always known I was different from most of the other students at Landmark, but I never felt that different until this year. Something that’s changed this year is that students expect me to constantly have something to say about every race-related issue on campus. Whenever another student says something that they shouldn’t, people always come up to me and say “Did you hear this person said that?” or “Can you believe it?” Not only that, people walk on eggshells around me, like they’re afraid that they’re going to slip up and call me a racial slur. I've learned the difference between students who are simply uneducated about race-related issues in America and students who don’t care about becoming educated. I would like to make it clear: I envy those who have the privilege to not care. I would love to not have to have another conversation about why saying “Black Lives Matter” is not a political statement but instead is a human-rights movement.
Why Black Lives Matter
When people tell me they don’t understand why “only” Black lives matter, I tell them to think about this: if there’s one building on fire in a neighborhood, the fire department will help the house on fire. They’re not going to spend time spraying their hoses at the houses that aren’t on fire because those houses don’t need their help. This is what I think about when I hear people say “all lives matter.” No one is saying that they don’t, but they’re saying that there’s a community on fire and they need everyone’s help to put the fire out.
Willingness to Foster a Sense of Support and Belonging
Being a member of a minority race in a primarily white school has taught me many things. It’s taught me that I need to be more aware of my actions because I can’t get away with the same things as other students can. It’s taught me that eyes are always going to be on me because I am a minority. It’s taught me that people are going to expect me to be the person who calls people out for making racially charged statements. It’s taught me that a lot of people are going to expect me to educate them instead of taking the time to educate themselves. But it’s also taught me that there are people who are willing to learn. It’s taught me that there are people who are willing to do the work and try to make our campus a place where all students and faculty feel comfortable and supported.
I’m thankful to go to a school that is willing to have open and honest conversations with their students, and I look forward to seeing what else Landmark has in store for us.
Aliyah James Knudsen is a senior at Landmark High School. In her spare time, she enjoys skateboarding, going to the beach, and traveling. She plans to pursue a career as an emergency medical technician.