(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

The toxic culture at Lowell needs to change — for the good of all students

By Debbie Lee

There has been much debate, feedback and opinions about the decision regarding Lowell High School’s admissions policy. Recently, a good friend and colleague of mine revealed she was torn about the decision. On the one hand, it was good to change the policy to tackle racism, but on the other hand, she didn’t seem to think that a “good” public school would be an option for children living in San Francisco. She did not go to Lowell, and it is in this spirit that I told her that I was an alumna of Lowell High School and that I share my story and experience with Lowell.

First, let me set the background. I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants who do not speak English very well and I grew up in the heart of Chinatown in San Francisco for the first nine years of my life. My family moved to the inner Richmond district when I was 9 years old. Although both of my parents had very little educational opportunities since they were in China during Japanese occupation, they felt strongly that my siblings and I get a good education. They viewed education as the way to get ahead in life.

From elementary school to middle school, my favorite subject was math. In fact, in the sixth grade, when my social studies teacher asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, I chose to be a mathematician. (She couldn’t find mathematician as an occupation and so she changed it to statistician.) I enjoyed school, was a model student and excelled in my math classes. My grades and achievement scores were high enough for me to be accepted into Lowell High School. I was not just happy, but I was also relieved to find out that I had been accepted.

My freshman year at Lowell went off without a hitch and I was put into the honors math class, but things started to derail for me during my sophomore year. I wasn’t doing well in my math classes and didn’t understand the math concepts. Reading and writing were never my strongest subjects, but I began losing confidence in my ability to write. I was still passing my classes, but my GPA was declining.

My mom would see my report cards, but being an immigrant with little educational experience, she didn’t know how to help me other than tell me to study harder. I didn’t have any siblings who could help me. I didn’t know where to go to get help at Lowell. Nobody ever told me. I remember asking my English teacher why I got a “C” grade on my essay and how I could improve my writing. He looked over my paper and said, “oh, actually it’s a B”, which didn’t answer the question. One of my math teachers told me to just stop taking honors math classes.

Nothing had changed in my life. I had close friends, I attended class daily with a positive attitude and did my homework. But, I didn’t understand why I wasn’t doing as well in school anymore and I was no longer sure I should become a mathematician. I didn’t take the SAT exam because I had already decided that I should go to a community college and take that time to find a different major. Without knowing what my future plans were, several of my friends and classmates told me that community college was for “losers” and were upset when their counselor mentioned it as an option.

I wish that I had known other kids were struggling with their classes also. I thought I was the only one. In four years, I went from being a self-assured kid to one who constantly doubted myself. In hindsight, I think I just missed the signs. Cheating was rampant at Lowell. I knew of a kid who broke into the foreign language lab over a weekend to steal a Spanish final exam. Once, during an exam, a kid snatched my test when the teacher wasn’t looking and proceeded to copy it. Another time, I saw a group of kids exchanging answers to a math exam in the hallway.

It wasn’t till after I graduated from high school that I realized just how toxic the culture at Lowell is. Although I was struggling and wanted to get help, nobody reached out to me. I do not blame the teachers, my parents, my classmates, or the administration. However, I do blame the culture. The culture at Lowell is based on the stereotype of Asian Americans as the model minority. My fellow Asian American students and I put pressure on ourselves to meet this stereotype. In the process, we tried to live up to an oftentimes unrealistic set of expectations. The result was a loss of self-confidence, anxiety and depression. And, teachers tend to overlook us because they think that all Asian Americans are model students and don’t need any help.

Although San Francisco prides itself on being multicultural and multi-ethnic, the city is highly segregated racially and Lowell is no different. Mainly white kids and jocks hang out at the courtyard, Asian American kids in the hallways and Black kids in the cafeteria.

It wasn’t until I went to community college that I regained my self-confidence and started healing from my high school years. This was also when I learned I wasn’t the only kid who was traumatized by my experience at Lowell. Many of us enrolled in classes at City College of San Francisco and found that we had similar experiences.

It wasn’t until I attended San Francisco State University that I was able to put to words the internalized turmoil I experienced. Without a doubt, Lowell needs a change to the vicious culture that has created such anxiety and trauma to the many students that have attended that school.

I write this piece to speak up and share my experience so that others can understand what it was like for me and many of my fellow Lowellites.

I write with hope and faith that San Francisco can find a way to embrace our children and provide positive educational experiences for them.

Debbie Lee was born and raised in San Francisco and graduated from Lowell in 1988. She is now a math instructor and acting dean at Foothill College.

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