‘You Can’t Read.’ How I overcame my suburb’s racial achievement gap

This is the first part of a four-part series on the writer’s experience and research on the achievement gap in her hometown of Evanston, Illinois, a diverse suburb north of Chicago and home to Northwestern University.

One day when I was in second grade, my mother approached me with an envelope in hand. Wordless, she glared at me, and I wondered what I had done wrong. It couldn’t have been that bad if I didn’t remember the misdeed.

My mother broke her silence. “This letter says you can’t read,” she said.

Was that it? My body sagged in relief. It was just a misunderstanding.

“But I do know how to read.”

And my mother knew I could, too. She’d not only seen me reading books at home and reciting sight words I encountered—exit signs in hallways, stop signs on the street—she also could no longer spell out words she didn’t want me to hear. She discovered this after spelling g-i-f-t while talking to another relative in front of me, only for me to badger her about my present.

But my obvious literacy skills didn’t console my mother in this instant. She explained that the letter from my school said my test results indicated I didn’t comprehend what I read. I might have a learning disorder and require special education classes.

My mother and stepfather did not picture this scenario when they relocated to Evanston, Illinois, from Chicago in time for me to start kindergarten. They made the move to the racially diverse college town on the North Shore precisely so I could get a better education than they imagined I would in the Chicago Public Schools system.

Evanston is best known for being the home of Northwestern University, and if you’ve never visited the suburb you’ve likely seen it on the big screen. A number of classic movies, including “Home Alone,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Uncle Buck” were filmed there.

Incredibly, the town of roughly 75,000 people has also spawned its share of celebrities. John Cusack, Jeremy Piven, Eddie Vedder, Daniel Sunjata and Bill Murray have ties there. And nestled against Lake Michigan with an array of parks and trees, Evanston really does have the Norman Rockwell feel it’s portrayed as having in movies—at least in its more prosperous neighborhoods.

My mother hadn’t left the city for this idyllic suburb so her daughter could be labeled learning disordered. Mind you, I attended elementary school in the 1980s. Then, the public largely viewed students with learning disabilities as “stupid” rather than as children equally smart as their peers but in need of additional support in some areas.

Fearful of the stigma attached to special education and that it would reflect badly on her as a parent, my mother demanded that I show my teachers how smart I was. She knew that I was shy in public and gregarious in private, but that no longer mattered. I was to sit in the front of the class, raise my hand, ask questions and shout out answers.

A mere 7-year-old and a racial minority in an affluent public school district, I had the burden of proving to my white teachers that my blackness didn’t make me an intellectual inferior. I had the task of defying what George W. Bush famously termed the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that children of color routinely face in schools.

My mother’s tips worked. I never ended up in special education. Instead, I took the reading test again and performed well. When I’d initially scored poorly on the test, it wasn’t that I couldn’t comprehend the reading passages; it was that the passages bored me. The next time I took it, I simply willed myself to pay attention to the reading anyway, enabling me to correctly answer the comprehension questions that followed.

An intuitive teacher might have come to this conclusion before sending a note home suggesting I had a reading disorder. A teacher who felt a sense of connection to me might have recognized that I could read and even enjoyed doing so, given my fondness for any book about Ramona Quimby or Encyclopedia Brown then.

Without my mother’s intervention, I might have experienced an entirely different fate in Evanston’s District 65.

 

Photo courtesy of PBS

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Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle

Nadra Kareem Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She’s reported on education for the Los Angeles News Group, the Atlantic, EdSource and others. She was raised in Evanston, attended public and private schools in the area, and graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles with a bachelor's and master's degree in English.

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