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Will The Same High School Student Do Better In Life As 'Johnny' Or 'Amari'?

Dean Rutz
The Seattle Times
Garfield High School English teacher Andrea Soroko speaks during a storytelling event called "Why I Teach." The Seattle Times hosted the event at the University of Washington in partnership with KPLU.

Editor's note: Andrea Soroko teaches English at Seattle's Garfield High School. This post has been adapted from a story she told during a recent Seattle Times storytelling event, "Why I Teach." The Seattle Times' Education Lab project put on the event in partnership with KPLU and the UW College of Education. The names of the students Soroko mentions have been changed. A correction has also been appended (see below).

I have a student named "Johnny."

"Johnny" does well in school. "Johnny" completes his homework on time. "Johnny" is a good football player. My student, "Johnny," has a dream. It's a dream many of us share — the American Dream. He dreams of a family, a house, a car. The world is his oyster and Johnny is not afraid to dream big.

But the problem is my student's name isn't really "Johnny." It's Amari.

Amari's homework is sometimes missing. He has to sit in the back of the room or by his window seat. Even though he has meaningful things to say in our Honors English class, he rarely raises his hand. When Amari's group is asked to present, he shrinks away, trying to make himself invisible.

But when he does present, he blows us away.

We work to empower students — the next generation — to think critically about how to change society. But what if it's too late?

One day, Amari came to get help on an essay after school. I noticed the name "Johnny" was written at the top of his paper. When I asked him why, Amari sighed, "Johnny is everything I'm not."

He explained that "Johnny" motivates himself to do his homework, get good grades, try harder on the football field. He told me he has dreams at night — literal dreams — where he visualizes "Johnny's" success.

"Why do you need to call yourself 'Johnny?'" I asked. "Why can't Amari be successful?"

He froze.

"I don't know," he said. "I mean, you wouldn't expect someone named 'Johnny' to look like me."

Perhaps our African-American students subconsciously know the results of a National Bureau of Economic Research study entitled, "Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?" It highlights discrimination in job applications. Applicants with a "white-sounding names" receive 50 percent more callbacks than applicants with an "African-American-sounding names."

Maybe this is why "Johnny's" friends "Jack" and "Ed," are really Kendrick and DeAndre. They talk in exaggerated, elevated, academic voices with gusto. They do this for comedic effect, but there is a grain of truth in their joking. By performing "white," they push back against this pressure to bracket who they are. But Amari has taken his performance to a whole new level and convinced himself that being "Johnny" will allow him to achieve his dreams.

Society's problems seem to be mirrored in the microcosm of high school classrooms. We work to empower students — the next generation — to think critically about how to change society. But what if it's too late? What if they've already internalized the need to create what they deem a "socially-acceptable" alter-ego from a privileged background to motivate themselves to be successful?

I feel like I've been failing Amari. We've been failing Amari.

Still, teachers are tasked with getting students to believe in themselves in a society that might not believe in them. It doesn't help that we, as teachers, often don't reflect the diverse backgrounds of our students.

So much of teaching happens in between lessons. So much is about the relationships you develop with students. This isn't something that a textbook or a standardized test can teach. This is why I'm a teacher and it's been a privilege being Amari's teacher.

Now, at least, in my class, Amari's name appears on all his papers — even, sometimes, "ya boy Mari." But I still hear "Johnny" surface from time to time.

That afternoon, though, helping him with his essay, I shared my dream with him. I said, "I hope one day, you don't need Johnny to be successful. I hope one day you believe Amari can be successful."


Andrea Soroko has been a teacher for seven years in both California and Washington and recently became National Board Certified. She spoke at a recent storytelling event put on by The Seattle Times' Education Lab project in partnership with KPLU and the UW College of Education.

Photo above is Copyright © 2015, The Seattle Times Company. Used with permission.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post contained a transcription error that mischaracterized the results of the National Bureau of Economic Research study. The reporter adapting Soroko's speech wrote that applicants with "white-sounding" names received 50 percent "fewer" callbacks, inverting the actual findings of the study. Soroko's original speech correctly noted that applicants with "African-American-sounding" names were less likely to receive a callback. KPLU regrets the error.