Reminded of Reality

Art By Molly Busis | BCC

By Justin Hill | Gonzaga

I have a love-hate relationship with the sport of swimming. After a long day of school, the last thing I want to do is force myself into a cold pool and exert energy that I no longer have; and still, I drag myself to practice everyday. I often wonder why I do it.

After a vigorous practice, despite every inch of my body longing to be reunited with my bed and my stomach’s ravenous growls of hunger, there is something that brings me back the next day. While the physical vitality may get beaten out of me, at the end of practice, my psychological and emotional states are re-energized. I escape the stresses of school and the looming tasks that await me as they dissolve in the chlorinated water. I feel myself inching closer and closer to my goals. We swimmers refer to this elevated state, in spite of the pains of fatigue, as a swimmer’s high. The sensation is very difficult to explain to non-swimmers, but the feeling is so profound that it motivates us through such discomfort on a daily basis.

Even more than that, I have a bond with my teammates I have found in few other places. At a school where many students don’t share my experience, that of a black kid from Bowie, Maryland, it is often hard to see eye to eye. I find myself in heated political debates where no one seems to understand my perspective. At swim practice, it is different. We often have similar political stances, and we have more to relate to on a communal level. They understand my experience; or so I thought.

One day, after a particularly long day of school, an intense practice was much needed. After the workout, my teammates and I stood, wrapped in our towels, panting. Ironically, in our euphoric post-workout states, we discussed our much-dreaded abundance of homework. The conversation then morphed into the stresses of our near future - college. Mentions of test scores, school visits, applications, and deciding what regions interested us each evoked a new pang of fear. Then the most frightful unknown was posed - acceptance. Quickly, this quite harmless conversation illuminating the urgency of preparation took an injurious turn.

One of my teammates anticipated how difficult it would be for him to get into college. He felt he would have been seen as just another number in the pool of applicants. I, on the other hand, he proceeded, would have a breeze getting admitted to a plethora of colleges because of affirmative action. This comment bothered me to an unshakable degree. According to him, I would not get into college as a result of my good grades and test scores or the attributes I developed in order to be well-rounded; I would get in because I fill a quota. I would be accepted solely because I am black, and it would take less work than that of my non-minority counterparts. In my head, I heard him say, “You’re going to take my spot and you don’t deserve it.”

Offended, I painted a picture for him. I told him to imagine if all of our accomplishments had been stripped from us, and our profiles only displayed our identities. Between him and me, a college would take him first in a heartbeat; a well-to-do white male would be chosen over a black male 7 days a week. If we re-applied our accomplishments and talents, my hard work would be what sets me apart. Perhaps being black allows me to stand out in some capacity, but I refuse to accept it as the sole factor of my desirability.

I was taught from a young age that in order to succeed as a black person in America, I have to dedicate 200% of my efforts to receive half of what others will. I felt that this supposed friend had invalidated my hard work, my qualifications, my competence rather than examining his own capabilities to secure a place at a college.

This conversation bluntly reminded of a fact briefly erased from my mind by the swimmer’s high - I am the only black male on my club swim team. The pool is one of the few places where my differences do not play any role. What hurt me most was that he pointed out my difference in the single place that I never think about it. I remembered that even though I was with my swim-family, people who I count on and find comfort in, we still have a much different experience.

All this is not to victimize myself or claim that I am never understood by others, but I feel it is important to stand up, voice my truth, and assert my worth in situations like this one.