The Face of Affirmative Action by Bee Lavender

I had a biopsy this morning. Only a small one; a piece of skin sliced off my face, just below the left eye. The doctor complimented my nice scars - so faded, so flat. We chatted about treatment options and the research studies and the fact that new drugs are often promoted by doctors employed by pharmeceutical companies.
When I was young, I had a standing monthly appointment for this procedure. The doctor had a special knife set aside for my skin. Every four weeks, he cut two dozen cancerous lesions off my torso (and sometimes face). The limit was set at two dozen because that was the extent of my pain threshold. I could handle more now, but the disease has slowed.
After each of those early appointments, I went back to school. I couldn't afford to miss a whole day.
Since 1973 it has been illegal, under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, to discriminate against children with disabilities. We have the right under federal law to free appropriate public education, and access to all programs and services. For me as a child with a severe illness, this should have meant that I received reasonable accomodations such as flexiblility in attendance standards, and at least minimal cooperation from teachers and administrators in establishing a plan by which I could have received the same quality of education as my peers.
Instead, I was punished for poor attendance; my grades were reduced by degree if I missed more than a certain number of days in a trimester. It was not unusual at midterm to receive a grade report saying A/C or worse yet A/F. Translation: perfect work, points off for each missed day.
I was denied access to the elevators in the school even though, because of drastically ill health, I could not cross the campus within the five-minute passing period. Because of my absenteeism and sluggish pace, by district policy, I was considered a truant and thus not allowed to make up missed tests unless a particular teacher was sympathetic to the request.
Notes from my physicians and mother made no difference; the school administration did not recognize the authority of external professionals.
More than one teacher taunted me, refused to believe that the illness was real, said show me your scars then. One day in a flash of anger I did, pulling up my shirt to reveal all the harsh red welts.
Because my grades were arbitrarily suppressed, and in part because of the absenteeism, I was denied entry to the honors programs. At that point stoicism turned to rage and I took a tape recorder to my next advisory meeting. I recorded the guidance counselor as he droned on about my character; he told me I was exagerating, lying, that I was an annoyance and bother.
I said thank you and took the tape to the district superintendent. I offered to play it for him. He blinked and told me that it was illegal to do covert taping. I smiled and handed him a copy of the Rehabilitation Act.
He leaned back in his leather swivel chair and sighed. "What do you want?"
My demands were simple: I wanted to be like the other kids. I wanted to take hard classes and hard tests. I wanted to be allowed to compete.
Oh, and a little bit of revenge; I wanted a different guidance counselor and a disciplinary action against the mean little man who called me a liar. The superintendent nodded. That was my first victory. But I want to be extremely clear: it took the threat of a lawsuit to gain access to the classes I should have been enrolled in automatically. The simple existence of the federal law protecting my rights did not mean that I was safe.
I was a voracious, insatiable student. The honors program was my life; I loved reading and writing and history and debate, independent projects, endless hours of study. I took more AP tests than my peers and scored high enough to convert the tests to a year of college credit.
These were the facts of my daily life: I had two different kinds of cancer and a rare genetic disorder. My immune system was suppressed to the extent that I had bronchitis, pneumonia, and seasonal viruses in tight rotation. I had a host of minor, strange symptoms like a tendency to turn blue and fall over. I had a car accident that thoroughly destroyed the last vestiges of my health, and throughout my senior year, my right arm was in a cast. That didn't stop me from doing anything except tying my own shoes.
I went to school every day I could, took on more work than any of my friends, learned to type and write with my left hand, was even a teachers assistant in the photography lab. For two hours each day I held my injured arm above my head as I mixed chemicals and taught students how to print.
I was a working class kid and my family did not have the resources (either emotional or financial) to fight the district while struggling to pay astronomical medical bills. The fact is, my parents had to work; they couldn't be my legal advocates. It should not have been necessary. I was a good student, a decent and honorable girl with a serious illness. The system should have worked for me instead of against me.
By the end of my senior year I had a substantial resume of achievement, including high test scores and multiple awards for citizenship. I had even started a youth leadership program for my county. Because of these extracurricular activities I was awarded four scholarships: an arts award, a leadership award, a business award, and a full-ride cultural diversity scholarship.
But I never overcame the district policies on attendance, my grade point average was never corrected, and I almost didn't graduate from high school because I missed six days in the final trimester due to pneumonia. As a direct result, I did not qualify to apply for the most competetive colleges.
As I stood on stage the week before graduation accepting my scholarships I waved at the vice-principal. Earlier in the day he had informed me that I would repeat senior year. I knew even then that my future was limited not by lack of motivation, but by the illegal actions of an agency of state government and the petty, narrow-minded prejudice of specific teachers and administrators.
The vice-principal was acting out of a repellent love of power, not a desire to serve the students and school. He glared at me and as I walked off the stage he muttered that he would let me graduate with the class.
I was accepted to a state liberal arts college as an early admission, affirmative action student. I qualified for the affirmative action program not because of the disability, which was not considered protected criteria - but rather because I was a first generation college student, the only person in my family to make that leap. I was also local; the legislature required that state schools give preference to people with residency.
I confronted and lurched over many illegal barriers on my path to higher education; but the critical, fundamental truth is that I would not have been able to achieve my goal if not for affirmative action. Knowing what I do about the challenges for students who live in poverty, and students with disabilities, I have to extrapolate and grasp the fact that other people in different situations face even more severe discrimination. I have the privilege of white skin. English is my first language. I can walk, talk, see, hear, breathe. In other words, I can pass. The hindrances I faced were minor when compared to many of the other people who should enjoy the protection of anti-discrimination policies.
I'm a perfect bootstrap success story. I came from nothing and made something. I finished my undergraduate degree in less than three years, rolled out of graduate school with a masters at age twenty-two (after waging a determined and successful fight to reform campus access policies). I was sickly, impoverished, a teenage mother, and I had a job waiting for me when I finished school.
Realistically, I could have done even more if I had not been distracted by institutional efforts to curb my success.
Some of the criticisms of affirmative action focus on the fact that quota systems are as biased as the problems they attempt to remedy. I think that people who try to debate that point are, honestly, delusional. They willfully ignore the fact that institutional segregation is real; that many students are diverted from success so early, it can take a lifetime to recover; that the playing field is still held by the people who own the horses.
There is at least minor validity in saying that those lucky people who grow up middle-class in good school districts might not need extra help (though I doubt that is verifiably true). But those people do not represent the vast majority: the impoverished youth trying to improve their situation; the refugees who come to this country in hopes of a better life; the students with disabilities who simply ask to sit at the same table as everyone else. Many people protected by anti-discrimination programs wish that those policies were not necessary.
We wish that a true meritocracy would sweep through, ridding the land of the corrupt systems that give most-favored status to the most privileged citizens. But since that is a fantasy, we have to remain committed to those few policies that might make a difference, no matter how small. The fundamental need for affirmative action has not disapeared, and with a looming economic crisis and cuts to education, the situation does not call for optimism.
I had a biopsy on my face today, and thought about the years of struggle and fighting, and wished once again that I had been allowed to retain the grades I earned. That would have been enough for me; all I ever wanted was a fair chance.
Bee Lavender is the publisher of and the author Lessons in Taxidermy. After 33 years of life and activism in the United States she moved to England, where everyone has access to free basic health care. You can read more about her adventures as an immigrant at