By Raedean Foote, Youth Frontiers School Relations Representative
“If a child grows up never seeing themselves represented [in the media] as successful or as the hero, then they are the anomaly if they succeed and the expectation if they fail.” – Yara Shahidi
By this standard, society definitely expected that I would fail. To start, I was born to an unwed white mother and a black father, and in the early 80s, being racially mixed didn’t feel “normal.” Aside from my brother, it’s hard to recall other multiracial children in my neighborhood, classroom or even at the grocery store – forget about seeing someone on TV who had the same shade of skin as I did. I grew up in a single-parent household, in subsidized housing, and in the free-and-reduced lunch program. As a kid with my background, it was hard to identify with those society portrayed as successful.
On TV, the heroes I saw were white males wearing capes, uniforms and the occasional sunglasses. The female heroes had hair that blew in the wind and had waistlines that nearly matched my Barbie Doll’s. That wasn’t me. The people of color I did see on TV were often criminals or sleeping on the street. That wasn’t me either.
The news also showed me the societal assumptions and expectations of who I was and who I would become. Research from the 80s, 90s – and still today – provided statistics about children with my background. My chance of graduating high school was low, but the odds I’d be an unwed single mother by the age of 17 were high. My potential of living independently of government aid was slim, however, the probability of a criminal record was favorable.
Fortunately, in my case, the media and the data proved to be wrong. I graduated from high school, completed my bachelor’s degree and went on to obtain a master’s degree. The only children I have have four legs, fur and require that I take them outside to go to the bathroom. And aside from the student loans I took out for college, I am often the one paying the government, not the other way around. Oh, and no criminal record, unless you count my numerous parking tickets…
So often I’ve been told that I am “unique,” “different,” “special” or an “anomaly” because of my ambition and success. As I look back, I realize that I didn’t see myself as one of the characters on TV or one of the statistics due in great part to the nurturing of caring adults and the support and guidance of my mother. Throughout my youth, key individuals expected me to be a high performer, regardless of the task. I came to expect the same from myself and thereby separated my life from society’s script for it. These adjusted expectations and my support system guided my life’s trajectory.
I share this because I know first-hand that kids won’t always see their potential represented in the media. That’s why it’s so important for those in their close community to see them completely, to recognize their promise and to expect them to rise up to that level.
As an adult, I’d like to see an immediate positive outcome for the work I do at Youth Frontiers to help children succeed. The reality is that these efforts take time to take effect. I remember how long it took for me. For example, I struggled with reading in my early years of school, but I had a gregarious personality. In fourth grade, my teacher saw both of these qualities in me and encouraged me to try out for the school play. What a life-changer that was! It provided me with the chance to align a growth opportunity with one of my strengths. I read short lines, developed my reading comprehension and utilized my personality to bring the words to life. Twenty-some years later, I can finally articulate that my teacher’s efforts afforded me the confidence to read out loud in class and to support fellow classmates when they struggled. The energy my teacher put forth to show me that I mattered and what I did mattered made a huge difference in my life.
Teachers like Mr. Vote, Miss Cousins, Mrs. Fellows, Mrs. Ray, Mr. Doepner and Professor Olsen will never fully know the impact they had on me. They, along with other positive role models, shaped my standards. The beauty in my journey is that because of them I never considered society’s negative expectation as an option for my life. To be kind, set goals, work to achieve said goals, go to college, have passion, love others and be purposeful were just a few of my expectations. I embraced the opportunity to be successful because those close to me never gave me any alternative.
Working at Youth Frontiers has provided a way for me to acknowledge the good work of educators and support them in it. It is, in some small way, a chance to show gratitude to my teachers for seeing me completely, for having greater expectations for me than society had and, most importantly, for knowing they were possible. Because of my teachers’ efforts, I’m a firm believer that if we give our youth positive expectations and the tools to meet them, they will deliver even if it takes a while. My hope is that although we may not always be present when a child grasps their potential that we know our efforts are not in vain. I hope that because we know this we continue to have greater expectations.