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Overqualified for School?
My American HS seemed too easy
Abdouramane Barry
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“This is too easy, I don’t know why I didn’t immediately go to 11th or 12th grade,” I told my friend Ibrahima in the cafeteria as we were discussing our math homework.

“Me too, bro,” Ibrahima said, “I should have been in college by now.”

“Look at this operation here. We did this in 7th grade in Guinea,” I angrily continued, pointing at the paper next to Ibrahima’s lunch plate.

I am from Guinea-Conakry, a small country in West Africa. School there was strict. We had to memorize lessons almost every day, and recite them in front of the class the next morning. If you couldn’t do this, you were punished. Some teachers would beat you up; some made you do push-ups and sit-ups until you could hardly stand.

But the punishment inspired me to work hard, even if I didn’t want to. I studied and was among the best students, even though I didn’t value my education that much. It wasn’t hard. Memorizing things was easy for me, and I didn’t have to do any homework to pass my classes. Behavior and participation didn’t count. If you wanted, you could just show up on the exam day, and if you did well on the exam you would pass to the next grade.

Good Student, But Unprepared

Schooling in Guinea does not prepare students for their success in the future. Teachers never ask the students to do presentations or any assignments that show whether the students comprehend what they are learning or can connect it to their real life.

It’s hard for students in Guinea to understand the importance of education because you rarely see an educated person who has the life he or she deserves. Many highly educated people are imprisoned or even killed for being educated and for wanting democracy. Many of the country’s leaders, meanwhile, are corrupt, thieving, selfish, and uneducated. Success usually depends on whether you’re lucky enough to have a friend or a family member working in the government who can do you favors, not on how hard you work or what you’ve learned.

This was all I knew back in my country, so I did not understand the value of education. I didn’t have any goals, and I didn’t realize that what you learn is yours, even if it never gets you a job. Here in the U.S., it was up to me, and no one punished me if I didn’t try.

Overconfident

It took me a while to learn this, even after I came to America and experienced a totally different kind of education. When I started my schooling at Brooklyn International High School, I found most of the subjects easy even though I’d never studied English before. They put me in 9th grade, though I should have been a junior, so I was learning things I’d already learned in my country. This made me overconfident.

It didn’t help that the main thing on my mind was having fun. When you arrive in the United States for the first time, you think you have arrived in heaven. You are not thinking realistically; you expect to live a movie star’s life, with or without education.

In the first months after I arrived, I spent most of my time thinking about how I would spend all that money once I got it, without considering how I would earn it. I didn’t know that education was my only way to get there, so when my uncle gave me math problems and reading assignments to help me improve my English, I thought he was just trying to ruin my time. My uncle cares a lot about education and was going to school while working at the same time.

“This is too hard,” I told him one day as I worked on what he’d given me.

“Did you expect it to be easy?” he asked me. “Stop arguing with me, and go do what you can do. Leave what you don’t know, and I’ll help you later.”

I even argued with some of my friends who were determined to study. “You are crazy, man,” I said to Ibrahima once when he told me he had to attend a college prep class on Saturdays. “Why you are going to that stupid class? You know we have soccer every Saturday. Let’s go play tomorrow; it will be fun.”

“Nah, man,” he replied, “I need to participate in the class because it’s college prep. It’s interesting and beneficial, too.”

“College!” I yelled. “You have four years in front of you before you get into college, so why prepare for it now?” Even though he was overwhelmed with the assignments that he was getting in the prep class, he saw its value for his future. I couldn’t see the same thing.

‘Life Is Competitive’

One day after I got my first report card, my uncle returned home from work and found me on my laptop.

In a deep and angry voice, he asked me, “What are you doing?”

image by Andres Fuentes

“Nothing,” I stuttered, “just chatting with my friends on Facebook.”

“Don’t you have anything to do besides chatting? Or it is because you got good grades that you don’t have to study anymore?” he asked. He was busy and stressed with school and work, and didn’t like to see me sitting and doing nothing.

I knew if I told him that I’d finished all my homework, he would ask me if there weren’t plenty of books in the room waiting to be read. He always told his sons and me that if we want to get ahead of our classmates, coworkers, or anybody else, if we want to be successful, we should use our leisure time to work as hard as we can. “Life is competitive,” he always said.

I sat there waiting for him to start his usual lecture, but surprisingly, he didn’t say anything further. He just walked away. I sat there gazing through the door as he disappeared down the hallway.

Advice from Will Smith

A few weeks later, I was in my once-a-week leadership class. The teacher showed us a video of Will Smith talking about his life. “When people are sleeping, I am working,” he said. “When people are eating, I am working. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that there is something you can’t do.”

I immediately remembered my uncle when Smith said this. In the moment, I still didn’t care about anything he was saying or see any importance in the message. “Why do adults talk so much?” I thought.

But a few months later, I found that school was getting harder and harder. It turned out that the teachers had just been trying to refresh our minds from summer distractions at the beginning of the school year, and that was why they had been going over material that seemed easy to me. I was frustrated, and became afraid that I was going to fail.

Slacker

Around that time, I had a revelation about the purpose of school and studying. Since arriving at Brooklyn International, I had been doing my homework just to be finished with it, not to learn from it. I began to see that I was being exposed to a new way of education, a more complete education that could be useful outside of the classroom.

I first realized this when we started doing portfolio projects. The purpose of the project was to learn to collaborate with people who have different views, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds. The group would make presentations together, share information, and improve our communication skills. I’d never done a presentation or a group project before. The only thing I knew how to do was to stand in front of my classmates and recite what I had memorized, not what I understood.

But instead of recognizing this as a valuable learning opportunity, I considered it a waste of time, and I didn’t put in much work.

When we finished the project, I saw the other students getting up and speaking confidently, in good English. I couldn’t do that. I was scared of speaking in front of the group, and to make matters worse, I didn’t know much about the topic because I hadn’t taken the project seriously. My presentation was a mess and I made my group members get lower grades than they deserved.

Turning Things Around

I was disappointed and dissatisfied after the presentation. That’s when I realized that I needed to work harder, that I wasn’t learning, and that I should take more responsibility for my education. I decided then to organize myself, focus on my schooling, and to do my best.

It wasn’t easy to turn myself around, because I hadn’t paid attention while the teachers were reviewing the basics. Now they were using a deeper, more complicated English to explain more difficult concepts, and that kept me from understanding a lot. I knew if I didn’t put in a lot of work, it could affect me for the rest of my life, especially since the PSAT, the Regents exams, and the SAT were coming up. I did not want to fail or go to summer school.

I worked hard, and I managed to get As in all of my classes. I improved my English a lot, too. The school decided to skip me ahead a grade and make me a junior the following autumn.

Looking back, I feel like the Will Smith video and my uncle’s warnings gradually sunk in. Their words inspired me to work hard and to appreciate my uncle’s drive to succeed.

Learning From My Mistakes

My experiences at school in New York have taken my admiration for the United States to another level. Here, I was given the message that no matter how poor you are, you have the opportunity to be successful. There are people who know how to guide a young person toward his or her destiny. We all should take advantage of this and try to build something out of our opportunities.

I regret the time I wasted thinking that I was overqualified for my classes. If I had held on to some of the habits I’d had in my country—like putting in a lot of effort, as I did when I memorized stuff—and at the same time tried harder to adapt to the American education system, I would be at a higher level than I am right now. But I don’t regret the stressful time I went through when I realized I was falling behind at school. As they say, it is right to make a mistake. What is not right is when you don’t learn from that mistake.

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(NYC-2012-01-10b)

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