Keisha Goes to Harvard
Illustrated by Sophia Khan
When Keisha wrote down Harvard University on the list her college counsellor gave her parents, it was because she knew that he would tell her that she wasn’t Ivy-league, straight-A, or high-class Harvard material. As a result, she would have considered her duty as the daughter of two highly-qualified, much-accomplished, singularly-accoladed academic “Education is success,” “first degree comes first” parents done, and subsequently would have got them off her back for not “fulfilling her potential, Keisha, goddamnit”. The counsellor, a short man, already balding in his 30s and straight from South Carolina, had taken one look at Keisha’s list of schools, saw Harvard squeezed in between the almost-equally impressive Williams College, and the infinitely lesser NYU Abu Dhabi (Keisha quite liked the idea of the Middle East), and said, “Yes.”
Josh (pronounced, in a South Carolina drawl, as Jash) hadn’t sent any students at his last high school to any college ranked higher than Ferman University, in Greensville, South Carolina. Ferman had just fallen out of the top 50 in the US News & World Report rankings for liberal arts colleges the year Josh applied to teach at the American International School of Jamaica, as in, Jamaica Jamaica, not Jamaica, Queens. In his letter to the school, he had included a link to the rankings that had involved a few Internet “redirects” to lead the Board of Directors to a “cached” version of the webpage, one that ranked Ferman as #49 in the United States. Although he had to trade his TV on Craigslist for some Internet whiz kid’s 15 minutes to do it, when he had gotten the job as high school counsellor to Jamaica’s most expensive private school, populated by underachieving, underperforming students with diplomat parents, and he knew the sacrifice had been worth it. Besides, he told himself, he wouldn’t miss the TV; they probably didn’t have any of the good cable channels in Jamaica anyway.
Keisha, along with four other students at AISJ, had been on a scholarship which paid for her tuition, but yet her parents were still required to cobble together a US$1,500 “maintenance fee” which contributed to the upkeep of the school. This cost, while arguably negligible compared to the US$20,000 school fees that the diplomat parents were required to put down each year, was prohibitive enough that the recipients of the tuition scholarship were all light-skinned, upper-middle-class Jamaicans like Keisha. Leti’s parents were prep school teachers. Peter’s mother was a doctor. They were basically Josh’s dream subjects—black (well, as much as counted in America, which was any at all), poor (the exchange rate of 125 JMD to US$1 was causing prices of basic goods to rise rapidly, riots against the Jamaica Labour Party’s refusal to subsidise said goods, and a middle-class outcry against IMF-directed austerity policies, but was very good for college scholarship application purposes), and, above all, Jamaican (which meant many things for college admissions faculty, but mostly reggae music and Usain Bolt).
Of course, no matter how particularly disadvantaged the students would appear to be when in the United States, their parents had still made enough money in the Jamaican context to send their children to ballet lessons and piano classes (Keisha’s biggest piano successes had involved achieving “satisfactory” grades for five straight years on the Royal Schools of Music piano exam, yet it certainly made for an impressive extracurricular statement on Keisha’s common app, i.e. did they even have pianos in Jamaica?), have them volunteer at the University of the West Indies’ teaching hospital and work for their parents’ friends’ investment banking firms and intern under government officials. Keisha had even filed papers for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the summer after she finished her Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) exams (also known as the summer she threw up for three hours; straight after Georgie had invited everyone over to his house to make “weed milkshakes,” which tasted disgusting, but did the job in that she’d finally gotten high—before the vomiting she’d been singing the entirety of Frank Ocean’s discography to herself, and not thinking about just what exactly her parents would think of her now).
So when she put Harvard University on her application, knowing that it would make her parents happy but that there was no way she’d end up there, not only feeling as if she was mediocre but knowing she was, Keisha didn’t at all expect to actually go.
Two years later, as she takes two of the white pills marked HW (meaning Homework, cleverly) from Jacob, the ethnically Jewish but also ethnically black Chemistry major in her Physics 103 class, she wonders what would have happened if she’d told Jash that she hadn’t been ready to go to college. She hadn’t wanted to be an engineer; though her parents had said it was the only way she could receive a work visa as an all-Jamaican, no US-citizenship international student. She had wished that her parents (and herself) hadn’t bought into the American dream, and that she wouldn’t be there now paying for her non-prescription Adderall with the money she made washing other students’ plates in the dining hall. Now she wonders what could’ve been if she had stayed in Jamaica and gone to UWI; her parents would have bought her a car, and she would’ve been able to smoke weed (really, no more weed milkshakes) like everyone else without feeling as if she was slotting into her own neatly carved out stereotype.
When Jacob had first asked her where she was from, she’d told him that she was from Kingston, Jamaica, and had gone to public school there. His eyes had opened, wide, but then he’d nodded his afro-cum-Jewfro vociferously anyway.
“Right on, dude.” He’d said.
“Totally.” She’d replied.
He was now, for all intents and purposes, her best friend. She hadn’t ended up sleeping with him, mostly because she’d never slept with anybody. She did a good job of acting mesmerised when her girlfriends mentioned their various sexual exploits, and she would put a finger down in games of Never Have I Ever when they did, even though she was always lying.
As for why she still hadn’t slept with anyone yet, whenever Keisha thought about it, she saw the look on her parents’ face when they found out Leti was having sex, made worse by the fact that the whole thing had come out because Leti got pregnant.
“Her poor parents,” Keisha’s mom had said, exchanging a look with Keisha’s dad. The fact that that was their problem, thank the Lord that they didn’t have to deal with that with their daughter was left barely unsaid. Never mind that Leti was 18 when it had happened and she’d ended up getting rid of it anyway, the summer before she was meant to go to college and still ended up matriculating at Florida International University. To Keisha’s parents, the fact that Leti was a fornicator, a sex-before-marriage-haver, a girl who didn’t know how to use condoms “in this day and age!” was enough. Keisha, for her part, also felt superior because she was going to Harvard. She didn’t need to screw boys like Kemar, who had told Leti that he didn’t like condoms because it just didn’t feel as good. She was going to meet beautiful (white) boys who read philosophy and poetry. Boys who could do math problems in their sleep, had memorised calculus proofs in addition to varying amorphous positions in the Kama Sutra (or whatever was the new wave equivalent Keisha had certainly never Googled in the middle of her 8:30 am Mol Bio lecture). Instead, two years later, Keisha still hadn’t had the sex, but at least she also hadn’t had the abortion.
As for why she hadn’t slept with Jacob specifically, the answer to that was easy. She was definitely in love with him. She also knew that he wasn’t right for someone like her. She imagined how her parents’ eyes would go unnaturally wide if they were to meet Jacob and ask, “And where exactly did you say your parents were from?” meaning more specifically, with a last name like Goldberg what are you doing with hair like a Javaun’s? She thought of what Leti would say to her as soon as he’d turn his back, “Yow Keisha, what’s his dick like?” or how Jash would shake his head if he saw Jacob’s transcripts, with more Bs (with Harvard’s grade inflation policy, this was akin to academic probation) than Keisha’s own.
And what was worse, when Keisha caught Jacob slip out of his well-maintained Valley Boy California twang into the harsher, clipped, Brooklyn accent, she felt embarrassment for him, and shame. She had made an effort to train herself out of her own uptown Jamaican accent, transform her watas into wadders, her rownds into ray-ownds. Now, she couldn’t properly bring it back even when she visited her parents over Winter (emphatically not Christmas) break, and Leti howled with laughter whenever she spoke. It was worth it, though, to be understood in this new world she’d chosen for herself. Worth it not to stumble and trip over her vowels as Jacob did. Now, the words came as easily as spoonfuls of condensed milk on her tongue on Sunday mornings, after the chalky residue of ground-up Panadol tablets her parents used to make her eat when she was sick, and as easily as sucking mango juice from her fingers on Sunday mornings. Simple and sweet.
Anya Lewis-Meeks is a Guest Writer for Panorama.
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