“12 years of doing what we’re told, as opposed to what we need, is detrimental to personal development, to the Mind, and, most importantly, to the Soul.”
This is the message I hope stuck the most out of my speech at the Education Reimagined Symposium in Washington, D.C. in early 2019, because it still drives me today. When I say “need,” you may think, “The education system is giving us what we need. Math, literacy skills, history, science . . .” and so forth. These things are essential, but what’s missing is our individual approach to learning these things. Everyone loves to learn, but what we love to learn is what makes us individuals. When I say “need,” I’m referring to the things that make you want to get out of bed, the things that make you happy, the things you dream to do over and over again – the things that engage you.
Me, I was a curious kid. I questioned everything. I grew up in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, where my schooling began at a Montessori Elementary. I remember being acknowledged for my quick-wits and inquisitiveness from an early age. I was smart. In kindergarten they insisted I skip a grade, but of course my mom said no, not wanting her little girl to grow up any faster. Throughout elementary, I always felt like I zipped through things. I’d often finish my work early and then go distract my friends. After my teacher started getting on my case, I started slipping friends the answers to help them finish early too, just so we could talk. I’d get this fire from getting 100% on my work. We’d have multiplication competitions where our teacher would have us clear our desks, say go, and start the timer. I’d make sure I was one of the first to finish, and a fire would light up in me during corrections – “Star here, star there!” Because 4th, 5th and 6th graders were all in one class in my Montessori, in 4th grade I wanted to be better than the 6th graders.
At this age my happiness depended on school – I had a lot going on at home. My mom, being a single parent who struggled with money and worked an unfulfilling job, would often come home stressed. Dealing with a needy child, while also barely being able to provide, really set her off. I felt like whenever I’d ask for anything, she’d blow up, and I’d blame myself. I didn’t understand that she was just upset with her circumstances. I was sensitive, so I’d want to run away. School was my chance to do that. Excelling in school gave me something to feel good about when I felt worthless elsewhere.
But that started changing in middle school. I moved to a conventional school, where we weren’t taught hands on like at my Montessori Elementary. But with my desire to have something to feel good about, I enrolled in all accelerated courses, and I made A or B honor roll both years (for the most part). I felt good about that, but I no longer felt quite so good about myself. It started registering that my success in school meant little more than that I processed information quickly and could follow instruction. My drive completely disappeared in this realization. And without school to fall back on, my happiness did too. I started seeing a school “therapist” my first year of junior high. I was even called in for a meeting because my teachers were reporting concern for me to my counselor. It didn’t matter though. There was no longer that fire or desire, and it showed on my report card the last trimester of 8th grade. That summer I struggled with the presence of a feeling I recognized soon as depression.
I saw high school as an opportunity to make a fresh start. I thought, “A new beginning, a new me!” I enrolled in Central High School in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and once again enrolled in all accelerated courses. It was strange compared to my previous experiences – the school was huge and diverse. But the accelerated classes showed differently. There’d usually be one other black person, or, if I was lucky, two. In my English class, which was my favorite core subject, there was one other colored person. I’d somehow always get paired with her. I also began noticing the differing expectations for me compared to my white classmates. They were held accountable, and I wasn’t. I could put my head down, keep my headphones in, and turn my work in late with no punishment, while my white classmates would be reprimanded for the same behavior. Some days I’d even test my teacher. I’d purposely walk in late, put my head down when she looked, and keep my headphones in just to see if she’d say something. Nothing. And on the other end of the spectrum, in my other AP classes, my teachers would be shocked by my excellence like it wasn’t expected – “Wow, Jasmine!” But it wasn’t “Wow!” with my white classmates; it was just what was expected of them. So, in my head, I believed I had already reached my accelerated teachers’ highest expectations for me as a black woman: being smart enough to get in the class. Then, “poof!” – just like in middle school, my motivation disappeared.
I dropped to all regular courses, figuring it was better to just get by easily. It was like going from one dimension to a completely different one. Classes shifted from predominantly white to predominantly colored. But there was one similarity between the two course levels: low expectations – and who they were given to. The curriculum was so dumbed down compared to what I had in my AP courses. And if there was a white kid in the class, you better believe they were expected to do well. Because, in the teachers’ eyes, this was work we could all do. It was offensive, and not only because colored students can do anything white students can do (there’s no correlation between shade and brains), but also because I knew school wasn’t about brains as much as discipline. I was placed on a pedestal as the “smart girl,” but it felt more like a term of resentment. There was nothing endearing about being seen as the “special” type of black person, because often the stereotype of a “regular” black person was negative. My own colored peers would associate me with the white community for who I was (and it didn’t help that I loved rock music). It wasn’t until I started ditching class that they felt a relation to me. Little did they know, I wasn’t ditching to be defiant or cool. I was ditching because I couldn’t force myself through disinterest any longer.
Eventually, I ended up truant. By my 10th-grade year, I was absent more often than present. The school started sending warnings to my mom, so she’d force me to go. Even then, I’d go to my first-period gym class, see the therapist, eat lunch, and leave. I still had a lot going on at home, and this didn’t make my relationship with my mom any better. But my depression was gradually worsening, and my school environment intensified it. Now it seemed all environments intensified it. The question “What is the purpose?” presented itself over and over. I even asked my Algebra 2 teacher countless times how y=-3x+4 and x+4y=-6 was going to help me in my life at all. He hated me for it because my classmates would look at him in wonder every time, and he didn’t have an answer other than that it would help me earn my diploma. The frustration from not having a satisfying answer sucked the life out of me, like leeches attached to my scalp. It led me to a dark spot deep down in my head – “Why live if you have no purpose?” “You’re worthless.” “You’re going to struggle all your life.” “Your life has no meaning, cut it short!” Finding purpose meant a lot to me, especially because I grew up in an environment where money was very scarce. The things we had to go through, the emotional stress, and the family disconnection that resulted from it left me saying, “I can’t live like this when I grow up. I’m going to harness my purpose and be financially independent.” This resulted in deeply rooted anxiety that I still experience today, anxiety around finding a meaningful career that will help me live happily and be financially stable. I realized that, ultimately, that was the source of my depression . . . I had nothing to harness.
For months, I did almost nothing but lock myself in my room, cry, binge watch TV, eat, and sleep. I had no motivation – not even to battle my depression anymore. One summer day, I hit my breaking point. I told my mom about my feelings of wanting to die. She, dealing with her own inner demons, had nothing to say. I was brutally hurt, because having suppressed these emotions until then, I was finally crying for help, and I felt she didn’t care. I stole one of her cigarettes, burst out the door, sat at the top of a concrete bridge, lit up, and cried. I was 16, and I felt my life coming to an end. Leaving the bridge and heading toward my old high school (which I’d just stopped attending), I walked red lights with my head low, and then even stopped in the middle of traffic. A taxi came so close . . . but just swerved off and honked at me. They all just angrily honked. I was devastated.
I snuck into the high school and burst into my old therapist’s office, crying hysterically. She shut the door, surprised to see me, and I struggled to say between breaths, “I tried to kill myself in traffic, and no one hit me!” She kept asking me questions, but all I could say was, “I need to go to the hospital!” She called in the school cop to escort me to the hospital, and I admitted myself into the psych ward. Over the course of two weeks in the ward, I realized there was something a lot of us had in common: we all wanted relevance. Whether it was relevance at home, at school, in relationships – we all just wanted a sense of purpose. We wanted to belong somewhere. I was just a 16-year-old with repressed emotions, a stressful home environment, a fear of failing, and hormones. I wanted something to mean something; I wanted to mean something. I wasn’t crazy, and through that experience I came to understand that.
My situation didn’t take an immediate turn like I’d hoped. I was given antidepressants before I left the ward. My mom begged me not to take them, and she was right, because I had adverse effects. It was awful! I was feeling like I felt that day I admitted myself, only worse, and every day. I had to quit them. Unfortunately, the withdrawals were worse than the medication itself, and I often experienced emotional breakdowns. After enrolling in and being dropped from my new performing arts high school (my breakdowns forced me to miss class repeatedly), I could have easily returned to that dark spot I’d been. But I remembered my experience in the ward and the promise it had led to: I promised myself I’d never underestimate my strength again.
A friend told me about the High School for Recording Arts, a learner-based school that takes an individualized approach to education. He mentioned things like flexibility, choice, and independence. I wasn’t used to hearing those terms in a description of school, so I just thought he was overexaggerating. I went to check it out and noticed it was 99% African American, which made me a bit nervous, being the “alternative black girl” and all. . . . But I enrolled because I needed a diploma, and as a result of that decision, now every day I think about how my life happened exactly how it was meant to. They had so many resources to help me explore my interests. Recording, producing, instrumentation, photo/videography, dance, sketching/painting, acting, sports, cooking! We even got to travel, which I found to be a passion of mine. There was so much opportunity, and I took as much of it as I could get, leading me to some of the connections I hold close today. I was able to dip and dab and differentiate between what I like as an idea and what I love the process of. I like the idea of being a music artist, an actor, a fashion designer; but I love the process of being a photographer, a writer, a dancer, a stylist, a director. Ultimately, both my likes and loves give me an outlet to express my emotions and to grow more into who I am. I found some non-artistic strengths within myself too, but overall I found purpose in it all. I was learning the requirements for graduation by doing things that interested me. For instance, when I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer, for a math credit I had to figure out how much to sell each shirt for in order to make back more money than I’d invested. This was super relevant to me at the time, and I was super engaged. This level of choice was definitely more challenging, because it was so easy to choose to slack. The matters were left in your hands. But that’s how the real world works! You have to make things happen for yourself. And following conventional education’s rules, I wouldn’t have understood this. Having people make decisions for you for 12 years, and then being expected to know how to make them when it’s most important? That’s crazy! When I started making choices through my education, I started making change in my life. I was no longer suffering from depression, I didn’t feel unclear about what I wanted to do, and I felt in control of my life. I learned a lot academically, and even more about myself.
I’m here today a bit more confident in myself. I have a better understanding of who I am and of my natural gifts, like diplomacy, compassion, inquisition, and connecting and talking to people from all walks of life. I have a better sense of what I still need to work on, like patience and not worrying so much about others’ opinions of me, and of options I wouldn’t mind making a career out of, like traveling, blogging, acting, or being a poet, an art director, a dancer, or even an author. There are also things that I may not make a career out of but that I’d still like in my life as passionate hobbies, like being with animals, practicing horticulture, or painting. The life I need is adventurous, ever-changing, creative, but stable. I will do whatever it takes to get there and to be who I want to become, and that takes confidence. I didn’t realize how important confidence was until it got me through something crazy like opening for a TedX event in Denver. I still had some anxiety and doubt beside me, but I knew it was up to me to make what I want out of my life. I’m learning what I’m capable of, and that’s why I’m so passionate about sharing my story. I believe if all children had the opportunity to tap into and develop their interests and natural abilities from the start, the economy would thrive and mental health would decline, because we all want to be happy and do something purposeful. We all have a contribution here, but a lot of us don’t know what that is because we were placed in a system where we weren’t allowed to make our own decisions. Learning what you want means learning who you are. And if you truly know who you are, you know it’s not all you can become. I am a black woman from the hood – from struggle, pain, and confusion. But what I am from is not all I can be, and today I am better.
Imagine your ideal life – why should that self be impossible? If you can create the image in your head, you can create the image in your life. Choose better, and don’t stop at imagining. Make it your reality!
Jasmine McBride is a multidisciplinary artist, radio personality, and host from Minneapolis, Minnesota. She drives to inspire a breakthrough from society’s standards with the development of her artistic phenomena and life wisdom.