One of my earliest significant milestones — the first thing in my life that I can point to and say “Hey guys! This right here is a Significant Milestone” — was learning to read when I was two years old. Of course, I don’t remember learning to read when I was two. I couldn’t tell you the first book, sentence, or even written word I understood. But hearing about it from my proud mother, or impressed family members, made it part of my personal history and identity.
It's also the first thing in my life that made people perceive me as successful. My mom would recall my early reading with pride when we looked through the photo album documenting all my “firsts,” bound in a kente cloth pattern and adorned with lace trim.
As a pre-teen, I'd flip through the pages, as my mom would remind me of my younger self's accomplishments. I would look back at the pictures — of toddler me in a two-piece swimsuit, my head smushed between tell-tale Jamaican burglar bars — and feel totally detached. I had no real memory of being that little girl. But simultaneously, I felt just a little irked at the too-high bar of achievement she unknowingly set for me.
I didn’t learn to read that early because I had preternatural gifts; rather, I had the help of aggressive Jamaican schooling. For the first eight years of my life, I attended what I usually refer to as my “hippie Jamaican school,” a teeny tiny private school in Queens, New York. All of my teachers were directly from the island, and all of the kids in my extremely small classes were second generation, like me.
We studied a strict Jamaican-style curriculum, where we learned our times tables with the help of old patwa jingles, and studied fifth and sixth grade material in the second and third grades. We also learned that there were consequences for not being engaged in our schoolwork. One was experiencing the iron fist of our principal, Mrs. Warren, who'd sometimes sit in the back of class, quiet until a student answered a question incorrectly. Then she’d strike fierce and quick, firing out a question like "Yuh nevah study yuh book?"
Another was finding your name at the bottom of our weekly list spelling test scores, which were tacked up on the board each week. Every Friday, I’d cautiously approach the wall, holding my breath until I could confirm my score was near enough to the top. I wasn’t the only one taking the rankings seriously. One Friday, I saw a classmate who hadn’t done well get yelled at in front of the entire class by his very pregnant mother, who was picking him up from school.
I remember feeling equal parts mortified on his behalf, and relieved that it wasn’t me.
I don't remember my mother ever sitting down and explaining why good grades were a necessity, but it was something that was just known — part of the unwritten rules of my childhood, just under “no back-answering” and right above “no begging for fast food when there’s perfectly decent food back at home.” Good grades showed that you were successful, and a good kid. Bad grades, meanwhile, meant being grounded. So, if only to avoid that, I did my best to keep my test papers at the top of the wall.
I had spent my entire life playing by the rules, and I now had almost nothing to show for it.
By the time I transferred to a public school in the fourth grade, my Jamaican schooling and desire to avoid a grounding helped me quickly excel. Techniques I had learned to break information down and make it memorable — making up songs, jingles, little mnemonic devices — helped me in my new school, and then high school and college, too. I managed to make above-average grades without trying too hard or applying myself too diligently. I never felt particularly extraordinary or special; I was just doing what I had to do.
During my junior year abroad, I began dating a boy who became abusive, and made me feel small and unworthy of love. I began self-medicating, as well as restricting my meals and starving myself, both to punish myself and feel back in control. Back then, my scholastic aptitude was the one thing I didn't completely hate about myself. I didn’t like my clothes. I didn’t like what I saw when I looked in the mirror. The only "good thing" about me, I thought, was my ability to tune out the abuse I was suffering, find my academic zone, and pump out work that got me high grades and positive feedback from my professors.
And when I Skyped with my mom and she asked how I was doing, my coursework could be the perfect diversion tactic. I didn’t have to focus on my pesky feelings.
And then, I graduated.
Throughout my life, I hadn’t been used to ever hearing no, and I assumed my quest to become a professional writer would go the same way my academic career had — I would work hard, and I would succeed quickly.
The people at my college’s career center had looked over my resume and assured me that it was up to snuff. They said that once I graduated, with distinction, it would only make me look more attractive to employers.
In the same way I don’t remember when I learned to read, I don’t remember my first rejection letter. But before my diploma had even been mailed to me, suddenly my inbox was filled with an onslaught of “We regret to inform you”s and “Nice talking to you, but we went in a different direction”s. The first few times it happened, I was confused. As the weeks turned into months, my confusion to turned into anxiety. I was getting closer and closer to the end of my student loan grace period, and had no income to make my first payment.
For five months after graduation, I watched friend after friend land cushy salaried positions, while I wasn’t making it to the second round of interviews. By the time I’d managed to secure my first underemployment position — food service job, trying to make nice with irate customers for only a few dollars above minimum wage — my anxiety turned into sadness. As a black woman with a “black” sounding name, I was learning that book smarts didn’t mean shit after college. I had spent my entire life playing by the rules, and I now had almost nothing to show for it.
Now, I was a cautionary tale, a family problem and everyone felt the need to throw in their unsolicited advice.
My mom came to this country from Harbour View, Jamaica when she was 18. She had me a few years later, at 26; when she realized she was pregnant, she buckled down and developed a nice stable career in medicine. She’s a respiratory therapist and has worked at the same hospital for over 20 years.
She’s always been headstrong, no-nonsense, logical, and not outwardly emotional. She’s nothing like her weird, artsy, overly anxious, and totally fucking neurotic daughter. She’s never understood my tendency to get lost in my own head. To get so wound up in my own nerves it’s hard to focus on anything else.
But most importantly, she’s never gotten the whole “writing thing.” She always wanted me to go into the healthcare field, like her. She scoffed when I declared my Creative Writing major, and then scoffed again when I jumped into the job search wide-eyed and idealistic. When I wasn’t getting sensible and secure employment, she’d tell me I went about my university career the “wrong way,” and that it was time for me to knuckle down and “get serious about finding a job” (like I hadn’t applied to hundreds of job, completed hours of edit tests, and spent countless nights writing for “exposure” instead of money).
But it wasn’t just her. No one in my family has ever taken a job because they were “passionate” about it. They’ve taken a job because it paid the bills and gave them a story to tell over a noisy game of dominos during summertime barbecues. So, it was impossible to explain why I was staying at my dead-end job, asking customers if they were OK with guac being extra, all because I was holding out for something better.
After graduation, family functions quickly became an exercise in patience. “Suh why yuh nuh go into teachin’? Mi hear seh dem ah hire dung ah di city,” my great aunts would ask me over a glass of rum-heavy eggnog at Thanksgiving. I’d give them a noncommittal answer and mumble something about freelance writing. When they’d ask for names of publications, I’d have to admit I had yet to grab a New York Times byline, or something equally flashy and recognizable. Their eyes would cloud up with judgement and then glaze over.
At home, it was even worse. For years, whenever my mom’s cell phone rang, my stomach would tie itself in knots — if it was her sister calling, it was only a matter of time before I became the topic of discussion. It especially stung because when I was in school and doing everything “right,” no such conversations occurred. But now, I was a cautionary tale, a family problem and everyone felt the need to throw in their unsolicited advice.
Objectively, I know she wasn’t doing it to be malicious. It's just that this was the very first rule of being a second gen kid: be better and achieve more that your parents did. So when I couldn’t, because I wasn’t getting a single callback, I felt worthless. It was the same feeling I'd had my junior year abroad — the same unshakeable anxiety, the same hollow-pit depression. Except this time, there were no essays to write, no tests to take. Nothing I could use for proof that my life wasn’t a complete failure.
I know when adults who were once tagged as “gifted” talk about their wasted potential, there’s sort of an eye roll and some hand-waving. But for me it feels different, because my relationship to academia felt so inherently linked to my culture. I was only “gifted” because of my Jamaican education. It was hard to finally come to terms with the fact that it wouldn’t automatically translate into a successful career; that success, like my heritage, wasn’t just a part of me.
I try to remind myself that seeking constant approval and validity in the eyes of my immigrant family is sometimes fruitless. And that’s OK.
I do remember my first job offer letter. I remember getting it via email before printing it out and reading it over and over and over again. Fluctuating between excitement and disbelief and just a tiny pinch of dread. After five years of side-hustling, I accepted a full-time position as a media writer. It was a new kind of achievement — instead of getting there through good study habits or being ahead of the material, I got there through sticking to my writing, and staying committed in the face of rejection.
It’s nice to have something more concrete and traditionally valid to point to and say it “hey look, I’ve done it!” But my second gen kid anxiety brain remains in full swing. No matter how many my failures I’m able to embrace and overcome, I’ll always have that pesky “what if” nagging at the back of brain. What if I’m not actually good at any of this? What if I go back to be being center of family gossip? What if? What if?
But now, I'm realizing that's part of my heritage, too. It’s the diasporic albatross around all of our necks. We know how hard our parents and grandparents worked to make it in this strange new country with its strange new traditions. Indirectly shouldering that generational trauma — while also dealing with our direct ones — makes even the tiniest failures feel deeper and more permanent.
My life has now become an exercise in straddling a line. I try to remind myself that seeking constant approval and validity in the eyes of my immigrant family is sometimes fruitless. And that’s OK. I can appreciate their sacrifices and their strength without completely allowing it rule my life and choices.
And sometimes, when I hit a new career milestone now, success doesn't mean running to my family — it looks like sharing my words with other second gen kids who are caught between two worlds and straddling that same line.