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YOUNG, GIFTED, BLACK

THE BALTIMORE SUN

James H. Collins Jr. received the graded pre-calculus test from his teacher, noted the 93 written in red ink and turned quickly to the only other black student in class.

Two bits in the bank. James, 17, had edged out his fellow senior at Calvert Hall College, the Catholic high school in Towson, by one point to win their running 25-cent bet.

It was another small victory for James, who carries a 91 average at the boys school, in an academic career that he hopes will eventually take him to medical school.

But for bright black students, particularly males, being smart often exacts a price of loneliness and pain.

Smart black students say they fight a battle on two fronts: one to overcome society's doubts about their abilities, and another to conquer peers' doubts about their blackness.

"I've had people say to me, 'You think you're white or something,' " said Oliver Myers, a University of Maryland Baltimore County senior. "I've had people call me an Oreo cookie [black on the outside but white on the inside]. It really hurt. It was definitely painful."

From the corridors of overwhelmingly white Calvert Hall through the shops of predominantly black Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore to the classrooms ethnically mixed Wilde Lake High School in Columbia, black students say they must rise above peer pressure to excel academically.

Indeed, American students of all races risk being labeled nerds, dweebs, brainiacs or worse if they get A's in school, where being smart is almost never the road to popularity, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education study.

The United States generally demands less of its best students than other developed countries, the study said, and American youngsters often regard smart peers as kids who think they're "better" than others.

That doesn't fit well with the U.S. tradition of egalitarianism.

Scholars believe that peer pressure not to be smart is especially strong among black youths, particularly males, although they say more research is needed.

"Bright black kids felt they had to choose between doing well and having friends," said Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor who surveyed 10,000 high school students over four years. "The clear lack of support for academic achievement in black peer groups seems to undermine very good efforts by black kids' parents."

James Collins, a lanky, bespectacled student who plays trumpet in Calvert Hall's band, has coped by developing an iron will to excel and a seeming disregard for what his peers may say.

But only two years ago, he quickly dropped plans to join the school debate team when other black students accused him of selling out. That and other slights have bruised him.

"The funny thing is, I'm more respected by white students than by my black peers," James said. "It's like, 'He's one of the smart ones, but he don't play no sports.' . . . It's pretty sad, but among my peers, if you speak correctly, you're speaking white -- which is almost insulting yourself."

Black youngsters who overcome peer pressure often enjoy strong family support, form bonds with other bright black students and relish shattering people's low expectations about their academic ability.

"It helps being a minority because you feel a need to prove yourself," James said. "There's a preconceived notion that the only thing African-Americans do is play sports. I feel a need to prove that notion incorrect."

No role models

Oliver Myers, 22, was a top student at a Prince George's County high school, captain of the football team -- and often alone.

He played wide receiver in football, a position that he now views as an apt metaphor for his social standing.

"Everybody else is over there, and here's a little island over here getting ready to run his own pattern," he said. "People knew who I was, but I wasn't the one they would invite to a party. . . . As far as friends forever, I really didn't have any of those."

Mr. Myers, now a mechanical engineering major headed to graduate school, felt a sense of relief when he was admitted to UMBC's prestigious Meyerhoff Scholars program for gifted black math and science students.

Gifted and talented programs across the country have too few black students, and special education classes have too many, studies show.

Black students often feel their teachers expect more of white students than of them, and that an outstanding performance on the basketball court will reap more praise at school than an A on a science exam.

But the Meyerhoff Scholars were black students chosen expressly for academic merit. The presence of so many black achievers was liberating.

It reassured Mr. Myers that he could be smart without sacrificing his blackness. Suddenly, he felt he was not alone.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of UMBC and founder of the Meyerhoff program, recalled asking the first group of black scholars, including Mr. Myers, to name an achievement of which they were proud. Not one of a roomful of excellent students student mentioned an academic honor.

"It's not cool for black kids to be smart in general, and it's more so the case for males. They work hard to show they're not too smart," Dr. Hrabowski said. "What can you expect when their only role models are entertainers and sports figures?"

The only smart young black male on television is the super-nerd Steve Urkel character of "Family Matters," Dr. Hrabowski said, asking: "Who wants to be a nerd with pants up to his chin?"

School bully

Ramon Burks, 16, used to enforce the unwritten law that it isn't cool to be black and smart. As a sixth-grader in a city middle school, he was disciplined so regularly for fighting that he was held back a year.

Ramon bullied the teacher's pets, the students whose hands were always up in class, the ones who worked hard to get A's.

"The smartest guys were usually the weakest guys physically," he said. "It was easy to pick on them."

In retrospect, Ramon believes that he made scapegoats of bright students.

He was venting rage at himself for failing in school and being afraid to try to succeed.

Now Ramon, who lives in a tough neighborhood near North and Greenmount avenues, is a City College sophomore. His attitude is much improved. He wants to go to college.

The change began when he became a camera operator for the middle school's broadcast studio. His family and neighborhood youth workers encouraged him. The improvement was cemented City, where he says peers criticize him more for doing poorly than for doing well.

Ramon raises his hand more in class now. But he retains ambivalence about being smart, and his grades range from barely passing to outstanding.

"I don't study very hard," he said. "I study enough so when I get there I won't be lost. A good 50 minutes, and I'm finished."

His ideal is "to be a jock in the honor society," a student who succeeds without grade-grubbing from teachers. "Not to be a kiss-up is the ultimate thing," he said.

Trying too hard

Black students from diverse backgrounds make the same distinction: Good grades are socially acceptable if you're considered "naturally smart." An athlete or class clown who happens to get A's is OK; a library denizen is not.

"You'll get called a nerd not because you're smart, but because you're trying too hard," James Collins said. "The cool thing is to do well, but not to look like you're trying to do well."

At Mergenthaler, a blue-collar city high school, a brace of honor students sat at a cafeteria table and described the keys to popularity: Flashy clothes. Timberland boots. Gold jewelry. Sports prowess. Nice car. Sex appeal. Spending cash.

No one mentioned good grades.

Dress in hand-me-downs at Mervo and you're likely to be insulted as "off-brand." Study too hard and you'll often be regarded with suspicion.

"Being smart by itself, you've got a 10 percent chance of being popular," said Jeremiah Grier, 18, a senior with a 90 average in English.

When Charles Mullins, a cocky 16-year-old National Honor Society member, aces a test, he lets the class know about it. But classmates expect him to share his brilliance.

"If I don't give them all my work, they'll say, 'You're trying to be jTC like white people and keep all your work yourself,' " he said.

Top black students at Wilde Lake High, where a third of the

pupils are black, said being smart alone is insufficient, especially for males.

"If you're just a good student, you kind of fade out. You're not really noticed," said Kwesi Ewool-Robotham, 17, an honor student, all-county soccer player and delegate to the county student government association.

Students described hiding good grades from their peers while trying to satisfy their parents' often high expectations.

"If I got a 98 [on a test], I wouldn't say," said Irene Silas, 17, a senior whose mother has always expected her to bring home A's. "If I got a test paper back, I would turn it over."

The Wilde Lake lesson: Smart black kids must act both "white" and "black" -- in effect, move between two worlds. It is a foretaste of the challenge they will face as blacks seeking mainstream success in white America.

Monique Alston, 17, lives in an upper-middle-class Columbia neighborhood and takes advanced courses. She says she strives both to be smart and to conserve her black heritage.

"Why should I feel ashamed of what class I'm in at school or where I live?" she asked. "You have to walk a really fine line, and it's not easy at all. It's not easy to be a black teen-ager in America."

Low expectations

One anthropologist who studied a predominantly black Washington high school compiled a list of behaviors that students considered "acting white," including: speaking standard English, attending the opera or ballet, going to a party with no music, being on time, studying in the library and working hard to get good grades.

Why do black students, especially males, often equate academic success with "acting white" and resist being smart?

If school represents the majority-white society, says Signithia Fordham, the Rutgers University anthropologist, then black students who want to do well must adopt a "raceless" persona.

Hence, their success implicitly challenges the black culture that opposes white dominance.

Ms. Fordham and other researchers theorize that during the era of segregation, blacks commonly viewed any African-American's success as a gain for all blacks.

Now, black achievement must be collective to be accepted, and an individual who stands out may be resented.

"To confirm that they are still legitimate members of the black community, gifted black students may sabotage any chance they have of succeeding beyond it," writes Donna Y. Ford-Harris, a University of Virginia education professor. She says she once begged her own teachers not to name her to the honor roll for fear of being stigmatized.

Jeff Howard, a Massachusetts psychologist whose Efficacy Institute has influenced Baltimore's school superintendent, theorizes that white society's "rumors of inferiority" about blacks have led black youths to doubt their own abilities.

"To avoid being proven stupid, many young black people have devised preventive measures," Dr. Howard writes. "They drop out or otherwise evade and disparage the academic situations where their worst fears might find confirmation.

"In too many cases, they are encouraged to do so by schools that view them as intellectually limited."

He contends that being smart is not something you "are" but something you can "get." He offers black youngsters a three-step antidote to the anti-achievement ethic: "Think you can. Work hard. Get smart."

Walter G. Amprey, the city superintendent, says that when society expects little of black students and provides them with ,, second-rate schools, "the kids do the rest: They live down to whatever we say."

The superintendent says his job is to make educators, parents and students believe that black youths can get smart -- and then reform the schools to make that happen.

"Nobody is born with the natural ability to play basketball, but [black youths] believe they can and they spend countless hours working on it," Dr. Amprey said. "We think it's play, but for the kid practicing, it's work. We must take the same principle and apply it to schooling."

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