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  • Nicole Doyley

The Strong Pull Towards Mediocrity - and why it scares me

When our boys were little, we had a love-hate relationship with beach vacations. My husband and I both love the ocean; we love to look at it, float in it and listen to it. We love beachy restaurants and shops. Back in the day, though, we didn’t love hauling bags of sand toys, snacks, and life vests for the boys. We understood families who unapologetically used a wagon to lug it all. We also didn’t love the vigilance required to make sure they didn’t drown. I remember just standing in the water, knee deep, pulling my boys back to shore as currents tried to carry them out. It was exhausting. They wanted to body surf and dive under waves, and Marvin and I just stood anxious guard.

Now both kids are big enough and proficient enough swimmers that we can sit on shore while they frolic, although neither of us feels relaxed enough to get lost in a book.

These days, though, the current that concerns me the most is the strong pull of mediocrity.

About a week ago one of my sons came home and said,

Mom! I got a great grade on my math test!

Really!? I responded.

Yes, an 80!

Umm, I wouldn’t call that "Great."

But mom, all my friends got 70’s and 80’s.

Yes, but you’re great at math; you can get a 90 – or more!

I wasn’t trying to disparage his friends; perhaps they’re not really math people (God knows I’m not), or perhaps they forgot to study. I didn’t care, I just knew that my son is really good at math, but, as he later admitted, he didn’t study. That is what I took issue with.

Like many parents, I think a lot about striking the right balance; I don’t want to be a tiger mom or stress my kids out, but I also don’t want them to be satisfied with underachievement, especially since they’re Black boys.

Every Black parent I know tells their kids the sobering truth that they will have to work twice as hard as their white peers to get ahead, and where white underperformance might be excused or overlooked, Black underperformance often is not. Don’t be late. Don’t be unprepared. Don’t look sloppy. Don’t look tired. Don’t share personal struggles. Don’t show weakness. Always wear your game-face (except at home). There is less benefit of the doubt, less grace, less mercy, less generosity. Lose your temper and you’re a threat. Fail, and racists will feel justified in their low opinion of you.

In his book, Whistling Vivaldi, Dr. Claude Steele talks about the noise in the minds of Black and brown people which we try to silence as we walk through life. For example, he talks about Black college students dealing with the normal amount of test anxiety plus the added fear that failure would validate the negative bias of their professors. Women in STEM face with the same thing. If they fail an engineering class, for example, their male classmates may feel justified in their opinion that women just aren’t that good at math. As a result, women work hard making sure they don’t fail, as do Black people.

Of course, every Black person and every woman does fail; we can’t perform well one hundred percent of the time, but those failures often crush us more than they should and striving nips at the heels of many of us.

Unless you’re a 12-year-old who sometimes doesn't feel like studying.

My son hasn’t internalized this race-based pressure yet, which is a good thing. But a little pressure wouldn’t hurt. Our boys are smart and talented, and we want them to reach their potentials regardless of their color, but their color makes this more crucial. Black men are scrutinized more by police; how much more if they look unkempt. (I know of a Black doctor who wears his scrubs almost all the time because he is profiled less when he wears them.) Black men are neglected by white college professors; how much more if they are average students. Black men are discouraged by teachers and guidance counselors from pursuing STEM; how much more if they fail a math test.

They can’t afford to be mediocre.

My husband and I exert a fair amount of energy evaluating when to ride our boys and when to let things slide. When is an average grade the best they could do, and when could they have done better? We are not helped by American culture where so many boys in general seem to be underachieving. We are swimming upstream in this and we’re grateful for the Holy Spirit and good friends who nudge us when we’re getting too stressed out or when we need to be reminded that they’re just kids, human kids, and perhaps we should just cut them some slack.

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