Rising Above Low Expectations How do you succeed in the face of low expectations? What happens when you set lofty goals, and friends and family resent you for it? Farai Chideya talks with teacher Sakhalin Finnie, psychology professor Carolyn Murray, and Ayesha Walker — a reporter for Youth Radio.
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Rising Above Low Expectations

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Rising Above Low Expectations

Rising Above Low Expectations

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This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, we continue our month-long series called The Great Expectations, facts on people who succeeded against the odds and sometimes against other folks' perceptions. You might know the term hater. It's a word for people who just aren't happy when others succeed. You know how it is. You want to go to grad school but your family, your community isn't having it. And just who do you think you are anyway? That's our question. What happens when you raise your personal expectations but those around you resent that you aren't settling for less? We've got some folks to help us talk about that clash.

Sakhalin Finnie is a teacher at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy in Wilmington, California. She has won the Milken National Educator Award for excellence. Carolyn Murray is a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside, and reporter Ayesha Walker is a reporter for Youth Radio. Her commentaries about growing up in Richmond, California, had aired on NPR.


Ms. SAKHALIN FINNIE (Teacher, Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy): Thank you. Hello.

Professor CAROLYN MURRAY (Psychology, University of California-Riverside): Hello.

CHIDEYA: So Ayesha, let me start with you. Tell me a little bit about where you grew up, what it's like, and when you were in high school, what did your classmates want to be when they got older?

Ms. AYESHA WALKER (Reporter, Youth Radio): I stayed in Richmond, California. And in my city, it's pretty - it's a working-class city, I mean, and I'm speaking on the inner city. And while in high school, you had a mixed group of people, a lot of white and Asians and I - you had the - there are people who grew up in the upper-class neighborhoods or middle-class neighborhoods who wanted to go often, you know, go to school, go to college after high school. And then you had, like the people I hung around was - were majority blacks who weren't really thinking about college. I know I wasn't thinking about college in high school. And I didn't really work towards graduating high school, really.

CHIDEYA: What do you mean by that? How did you come up with that template for what you expected from yourself?

Ms. WALKER: I have to find resources outside of my city. I had to surround myself with a whole bunch of people who wanted to be successful in life and that means that I had to kind of move myself away from the people who I grew up with, in a way.

CHIDEYA: Did they consider you a stuck-up, a traitor, too good, you know, not black enough? How did that all play out in how people saw you?

Ms. WALKER: No. I don't think my friends or my family members see me as too good. But we don't really see eye-to-eye on the things that we're interested in. Like I find myself telling my friends that, hey, I have to work in the morning, I have three jobs, and I'm trying to go to school, and I can't go out and party with you guys. And they'll get mad at me, but I just have to, you know, tell them, hey, I just to communicate with them, that I'm doing different things now.

CHIDEYA: Carolyn and Sakhalin, let me turn to both of you. You're educators and I'm going to ask each of you. Sakhalin first, why did you go into teaching?

Ms. FINNIE: I went into teaching because I enjoyed tutoring. I have always helped other people in school. When I was in middle school, I was back at my elementary school. When I was in high school, I helped my friends. In college, I tutored. When I was working as an engineer, I was being paid to tutor.

As I started to volunteer in my son's elementary school classroom, I realized that it was much more fun, much more enjoyable. And to see a kid's eyes light up when they get it makes all the difference. So it was much more enjoyable and I decided that he would also give me the same schedule as my son. So I decided I'd switch for, even if it's just until he graduates.

CHIDEYA: Now, you've achieved incredible success in the classroom. How did you friends and family treat you growing up? I mean, what are the kind of thing where you were groomed for success from day one like, okay, you've got to do this. You've got to go out, you've got to achieve or was there a lack of expectation? Where do you fall on that spectrum?

Ms. FINNIE: In my immediate family, we were always taught that no matter what we choose to do, we were expected to do our best. We represented my mother and father. They talked about how difficult it was for them to get to their level. And we were expected to try hard, no matter hard it was, you were expected to never give up. So we're a very determined bunch of kids. We don't always make the right decision along the way, having all those (unintelligible).

CHIDEYA: Who does, right?

Ms. FINNIE: But we are very, very determined in what we do. Outside of my personal, immediate family, there have been people along the way that have said, you already have one degree, why get two? Or don't you have enough? I think the hardest part about teaching was when I made the switch, going from engineering to teaching a lot of people that I knew thought I was crazy. Why would you make that switch and told me I would never be happy? Because I was such a go-getter at that time.

CHIDEYA: Carolyn, before I get to your - how do you got into teaching - what does it say - what kind of challenges do people face if either you're coming from a background when you're a pioneer, you are moving forward into paths that other people haven't taken educationally or financially? And maybe you faced resistance, even passive resistance? How do people - how should people deal with them?

Prof. MURRAY: Oh, it's a very difficult situation to deal with. But people can overcome it. I knew I personally overcame it. For instance, when I went off to graduate school, my godmother was very concerned about me and she was saying and - but this is like the late '60s, early '70s. And she said to me - she said, you know, when you went to college, we thought - well, that's nice - but now, graduate school? You know, you really need to get out, you need to get a job, you need to get seniority on a job. You don't need to be playing around in school. And I was thinking to myself, well, I'm earning a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, the most - one of the most distinguished schools in the country.

But my family didn't see it that way and I know a lot of black families do see it that way but mine didn't. And the reason why they didn't is because we lived in a community where most people went to the automobile factories and they worked and they got seniority and they own their own homes and they raised their families.

But - so I was going against the grain, and so I was kind of seen as doing something that wasn't going to pay off, but that was realistic for that particular period of time. And why that was realistic, I had worked at the Post Office. And working there, I interacted with men and women who had master's degrees. I also interacted with people who were porters on train, who had gone to law school but they couldn't get jobs prior to the 1970s and the occupations that they have been trained for.

So my family thought that the same thing would happen to me. That I was going to be frustrated because I would have all this education, and I wouldn't be able to use this education. But a new door had opened. Even though it had only slightly opened, it had opened. And so I was taking advantage of it but because I was a pioneer, I was seen as doing something that wasn't going to be beneficial for me in the long run.

And I think part of the way you overcome it, part of it is personality. I have the kind of personality and I was going to - I was so motivated that I could go against the grain. A lot of people aren't and that kind of pull from the family or the community often results in them not succeeding. But you really do have to just continue in spite of the resistance. And then the other thing is to have a good mentor. If a person has a mentor, someone to let them know the ins and outs of the road that they're traveling, it makes it a lot easier.

CHIDEYA: So in case you're just tuning in, this is NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. We're talking about what happens when you have high ambitions and other people may or may not share that. It's part of our series called Great Expectations.

We were just hearing from Carolyn Murray, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside. We also have Sakhalin Finnie, a teacher at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy in Wilmington, California. She won recently the Milken National Educator Award for excellence. And we've also got Ayesha Walker, a reporter for Youth Radio based in Northern California.

Ayesha, you heard Carolyn just talking about some generational issues that because we, as African-Americans didn't always have that way to move up the ladder that some people may have just been trying to be protective when they said, you know what? Just don't this, don't do that.

What about you, generationally? Did you feel like there was a perception coming from Richmond, which I know pretty well having lived in Northern California. There's a lot of toxins because of the oil refineries. There's definitely issues that go on there. Did people feel like this is a new day we can achieve or was there not that sense?

Ms. WALKER: I don't feel like - sometimes I feel like there is no hope for my city because of all the things that are going on. You know, youngsters are out there killing each other and sort of are trying to make fast money selling drugs, and it just seems like there's no hope.

But when I was younger in elementary school, I would say one thing: Every single last one of my teachers were black. And therefore, that made me, you know, it gave me a sense of who I was as an African-American or American-African. And I learned my culture and I learned a lot more. And then there was that shift when I got to - during our high school and I didn't - I no longer had solely black teachers and there was a disconnection there. And I just feel like the schools have a lot to do with, you know, helping us prepare for its revolution.

CHIDEYA: You did a recent commentary and talked about how your mom likened living in Richmond to living in a bucket of crabs. You just talked about the streets and you've also talked about how your best friend and cousin got shot, luckily survived. What's this whole bucket of crabs that your mom was talking about?

Ms. WALKER: Well, my mom - she's always been wanting to push me towards success, and I owe a lot to - I owe all of it to her or most of it to her. And she always told me that the people around me are going to pull me down no matter how hard I try to move myself up, and I'm trying to get out of this bucket. And then I have, like, you know, my cousins. I have my friends. I have my family and people that I meet on a day-to-day basis in my city pulling me down with influence.

CHIDEYA: Sakhalin, when you face a student who feels like they're in that bucket of crabs, what kind of pep talk do you give?

Ms. FINNIE: I talk to them about their goals, coming to talk to us, giving them other mentors. We have programs and I have friends that are other African-American teachers where we take on students and personally make it our goal to get them to graduation.

And so if their home environment or their friends' environment do not encourage them to graduate, then we do. And we make it a point that we go so far as to make sure they do homework with us. If we need to call them to wake them up in the morning, we get them a partner to call. We talk to them and tell them that any problem they have, they can call us. We give them our cell phone numbers, our home phone numbers for the kids that have the most problems.

And we do everything we can, including talking to the parents, about helping them in being more positive in their lives. And then we ultimately tell them that when it's all said and done, it's just them. It's just their choice. And we need them to be strong enough to say I don't want to quit, I want to do this. And if everybody says I can't, Ms. Finnie, says I can. Or Ms. Nissy(ph) say I can, and they believe in me. And we just - we hang in there with them. We still have students that call us. They're in college now or they're in the military now or they write us or whatever. But sometimes, if their immediate family can't do it, then we become their surrogate family. And that's - that's the only way sometimes that we make it.

CHIDEYA: Carolyn, you talked about finding a mentor. How do you go about that, maybe as you get older? How do you find that person who's also going to lift you up?

Prof. MURRAY: Well, first of all, you try to identify people who have common interest to your interest. We've already been a trailblazer in that area. Now sometimes they're not trailblazers in that area. They may be area that's closely related, but you attempt to identify that person or persons. Often mentors will choose you. They will choose you because they see something in you. And that's the best way to get a mentor - one who sees something in you and they want to groom whatever that is in you.

But sometimes you have to search out a mentor and you have to let them know how motivated you are in what you have to offer. And so people should take the time to find people who have interest that are similar, who've already succeeded, or who have done things that are outstanding in a certain area.

CHIDEYA: Ayesha, do you have a mentor and do you mentor anyone else?

Ms. WALKER: Excuse me - I do have a mentor. I have several and yes, I find myself having to talk to my - to people around me, to students, and my cousins. And I know there are a lot of boys that don't have fathers and who need role models. And I'll say that a lot of successful people who grow up in Richmond, they move up and then they moved out. So we don't have anyone to really look up to opposed to the people who are out in the streets.

CHIDEYA: Sakhalin, what about that issue of gender? There's a lot of - we here at the show talk a lot about the issues of black girls and black women. There's some specific things black boys and black men. You are, obviously, a woman. How do you deal with some of the issues that your male students might face?

Ms. FINNIE: We actually seek out as many black males as we can find as a friend to just help us. A lot of boys hang out in my room. I seemed to do well with them but I definitely - there're certain points I will call my friend, I will call my brother and say talk to this kid or call my father or someone. And if the kid trusts me enough, they'll talk to whoever we have.

But it's a really, really serious need because we do not have enough males in the school. And our black boys really need someone there to meant to act like, someone to say, well, this is how I should act in this situation as a man. When they talk to me, it's - they say a lot of times it's like talking to their mother. But they need a male to say this is like talking to my father. So we seek out as many people as we can find to bring them in.

CHIDEYA: Well, I want to thank you guys for your wisdom. Sakhalin, Carolyn, Ayesha, thanks so much.

Ms. WALKER: Thank you.

Prof. MURRAY: Thank you.

Ms. FINNIE: You're welcome.

CHIDEYA: Sakhalin Finnie is a teacher at Harbor Teacher Preparation Academy in Wilmington, California. She won the Milken National Educator Award for Excellence. She was here at our NPR West studios. Carolyn Murray is a professor of psychology at the University of California-Riverside, and Ayesha Walker is a reporter for Youth Radio. She's contributed commentaries to NPR about growing up in Richmond and joined us from Youth Radio studios in Oakland, California.

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