By Terri Cunningham
I grew up in Ellenwood, Georgia. I lived in this predominantly, if not entirely, black community for twelve years. I was raised at Skyline Daycare Center on Bouldercrest Road, attended Cedar Grove Elementary, cheered as a Gresham Rattler, and sat in the pew at Beulah Baptist Church every (other) Sunday.
My development was cemented there, but, when my mother was offered a position as a teacher in Lawrenceville, GA, come third grade year, I was now a Bulldog at Cedar Hill Elementary. I went from being a student in an entirely black school to being one of three black students in my class.
I tried to recreate that sense of community but over time, I began to feel as if I did not fit in with the larger black student body.
The most prominent reason is that, as a consequence of transitioning to a new school, I had also gained a large amount of weight. Formerly, at Cedar Grove, if the cafeteria was serving okra, you ate okra. If you didn’t like okra, you did not eat.
At Cedar Hill, lunch was a buffet of pizza and tater tots. You served your own portions. You were allowed to buy an extra chocolate milk, and an ice cream for fifty cents.
Compounded by a diet that consisted mostly of fast food due to an hour-long, daily commute between Gwinnett and Dekalb, I was obese by the fifth grade.
By seventh grade, I was 5 foot 7 at age thirteen, thirty pounds overweight, wore wire-rimmed glasses, and I was an easy target for bullying, mostly, if not entirely, from black students. Unfortunately, this trend continued all the way to my senior year at Central Gwinnett High School.
Being enrolled in the gifted program and taking several Advanced Placement courses further alienated me from the black population. Although my middle and high schools were predominantly black, unfortunately, the upper level classes were not.
The only time that I experienced a chiefly black classroom was when I took elective courses and even then, I did all I could not be seen so I wouldn’t be mocked.
Ironically, my primary friend group has always consisted of black people. I made friends with the white students in my classes, but I still did not fit in with them. The angst inherent with growing up black in America, of becoming aware of your position in the hierarchy set in and I wavered between extreme pride and insecurity.
In one ear, the white students were triumphantly telling me that I did not act black and in the other ear, the black students were telling me that I acted White.
I walked the fine line between these two polar groups, finding communion with other the black students who also felt like they were on the outskirts.
In the December of my senior year, I got the first call from a member of Georgia Daze, informing me of a program that allows black students to spend time on the campus, to congregate with other admitted minority students, and to meet the people that would form their family before enrollment.
I did not attend. I couldn’t. I was not ready. I still needed to lose twenty pounds. I needed to get rid of my glasses. I needed to figure out what to do with my hair. I needed a new wardrobe, or otherwise, college would be a continuation of middle and high school.
When I first came to UGA, the day that I my parents dropped me off, I was not ready to be here.
I was insecure, unstable, and sensitive, with gaping holes in my self-esteem and I projected my insecurities and fear of rejection onto the black student population.
I was ready to meet black students individually, gradually building a network of friends but there is something about UGA that facilitates an auto-segregation along racial and ethnic lines.
It was intimidating, and reminiscent of high school, to walk into a large group of black students, who had already made friends and developed loyalties, congregated in Tate and I was not eager to relive my adolescent years.
My reasons for avoiding Tate Time have evolved over the course my college experience. Freshman year, I walked around, behind, and anywhere else but through Tate between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm for fear of being teased because of my height, or weight, or general appearance.
These days, I avoid Tate Time out of shame, guilt, and regret for having misjudged such a dynamic, diverse, and beautiful community of students.
I regret holding the same presumptions about BUGA that I resented many of my non-black peers for expressing.
I regret allowing my past experiences to interfere with my relationship with this community. If I had been, three years ago, who I am today, I hope that I would have made a greater effort to involve myself.
BUGA is a family of students who share their faults and insecurities, who rely on each other’s strengths to compensate for where he or she may fall short, and who accomplish so much more together than they would alone.