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The Only Black Kid On The Team Learns To Thrive As The Odd One Out

RadioActive producer Jaylen Wheeler at a RadioActive listening party.
KUOW Photo / Jason Pagano
RadioActive producer Jaylen Wheeler at a RadioActive listening party.

I’ve done this a million times: Wake up, get ready, drive to school.

At first, I hated getting up so early for school every day. It only made it worse that it took me an hour to get there. It would have been easier if it was five minutes away.

The person who pushed me to do this was my mom. She wanted my path to be different from her own. She didn't get a chance to finish college because she had me.

"In order for doors to open for you I had to make drastic decisions," she told me. This struck me pretty hard.

I wanted to talk to someone who knew what it was like for me, so I went to talk with Walter Jackson, the dean of students at my school, University Prep High School in Seattle.

Where he grew up, he said, there weren't a lot of black kids that felt like they could go through any door they wanted. Yet Jackson, who is black, said he was brought up to feel like he had "just as much right" to be where he wanted to be as anybody else.

"That can be a pretty powerful thing," Jackson said. "If you come up around people who are just doing what they do, then there's a very good chance that you're going to follow that pattern too."

His path was a lot like mine. When I was in elementary school, I was in a public school class with all black kids. But things changed in sixth grade at University Prep.

I played baseball and felt super uncomfortable being the only black kid on the team.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Walter Jackson is the dean of students at University Prep in Seattle.", "fid": "114555", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201501/RA-Jackson.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Jaylen Wheeler"}]]That's kind of like Jackson's experience playing tennis. He and his dad still laugh about the first time he played in a tournament at the Mercer Island Racquet Club. "People were asking my dad about me like they were at a zoo exhibit," he said. "I could see them talking to my dad like, 'How did he end up playing tennis? Does he play basketball, too?'"

My friend Roberto Carpentier told me he's felt awkward being the only private school kid with his family friends. One of those friends is a high school junior who mentioned that he was reading a hard book in English class, "The Giver." Carpentier recalled thinking, "Wow, at U-Prep we read 'The Giver' in seventh grade."

I can understand how he feels. We all have different situations where we feel weird, odd or uncomfortable. But these same situations can lead to opportunities. 

Jackson recalled wanting to take students downtown to meet a friend of his who worked in sales. One of the students responded, "They don't even let black people wear suits and work downtown."

Jackson remembered thinking "Man, that's a 16-year-old kid who has lived in this town all of his life, and he really, legitimately thought that they don't let black people wear suits and work downtown."

To achieve what you truly want in life, you have to be pushed into situations you don't want to be in. For me, I'm going to college next year, and I don't know what's in my distant future. There were plenty of times that I wanted to go to the school five minutes away from my house instead of University Prep.

The only thing I do know is my life is defined by the situations I've been in and the opportunities I've created for myself. That came from working to be different from others and striving to be the odd one out. 

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Fall Workshop in partnership with the Tukwila Community CenterListen toRadioActivestories, subscribe to the RadioActivepodcast and stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.