Mr. Smolinski

Mr. Smolinski probably doesn’t remember me—which is a shame because he was one of the biggest academic influences in my life.

My seat was in the middle of his afternoon 9th grade World History period. The frames of my glasses were a bit too small for my face, and my wardrobe consisted of All Star converse, jeans, and sweatshirts. I wore my crochet micro braids in a high ponytail that flowed down my back, nearly touching the desk behind me.

My hair was apparently too close to the boy who sat behind me. Almost every time I wore it in that style I remember the boy—Jordan—pulling on my weave, telling me to remove my hair from his desk. I’d roll my eyes before twisting the massive weight into a giant bun on top of my head, which gave my face maturity and accentuated my bone structure.

It worked out in the end, but as a senior recounting this event, what I wish I had done was pull the hair band that confined my hip length, majestic braids and pour my weave onto his desk in a synthetic cascade. The perfect revenge for the annoying boy who pushed his desk unnecessarily close to mine.  

If I had done that, I’m sure I would have been the type of student Mr. Smolinski would remember. But I wasn’t that type of girl.

I was more like a sponge, a silent, smart sponge who had yet to realize her potential.

From fifth grade forward, I was a product of the advanced system. Naturally, the expectations were high: a greater Accelerated Reading quota and more homework. All were based on the assumption of high intellectual ability and capability to learn. These rigorous course requirements were designed to craft a class of critical-thinking students who would become successful high schoolers, who would become successful college graduates, who would become successful, doctorate-wielding, multi-degree-brandishing adults, who in turn might donate hefty sums to the school that shaped our formative years.

Some of us thrived, while others failed and subsequently dropped out.

In middle school, I did my homework on the bus before it rolled into the school parking lot, studied for tests during passing period, and I wrote essays on materials I barely read. As high school rolled around the corner, I imagined repeating these same tactics. I wasn’t taking full advantage of my education to the chagrin of my parents, but since I managed to maintain a high GPA, I saw no reason to change.

And I might not have, if not for Mr. Smolinski’s World History Class.

History before then was about Lewis and Clark and Indiana corn. Very boring. It might have held an interest for me once upon a time, but after five years of repeating the oppression of Africans, the native populations, women, and anyone else who wasn’t a wealthy, white, cis, male, you can imagine I grew tired of looking at the world from the very racist, Westernized bubble.

Oh, and corn. Did you know that corn is an Indiana staple? I do. I remember learning this fact six years in a row. Interestingly, we never learned about the myriad of contributions from people of color.

World History was my introduction to the world outside of the doubly landlocked microcosm of Indiana. The United States was not the focal point, and I learned of a time that predated 1776.  

My slacker core clashed with the budding curiosity blooming within me. Learning about the previously unknown historical figures like Machiavelli, Catherine the Great, and Confucius were my inspiration to do better. I  began to demand more of myself.

 Within weeks, I found myself spending my time reading the giant 700 page textbook. It was not mandatory. I did it for fun. Each section and chapter gave me an introduction to the enterprising influencers who greatly impacted the world.

 I took notes and studied them. I began to invest in my education, realizing my privilege and deciding that getting an A wasn’t enough anymore. I was going to learn something as well. I remember feeling dissatisfaction from missing one question on the final exam. For days, I was upset for not remembering the term used to denote Egyptian hieroglyphics regarding business transactions. I really should have known the right answer. My mistake brought my score down to a 99%, something I never would have cared about in the past.

 History became a narrative: a story of all of us humans in an intersecting loop of cause and effect. I didn’t just confine my fascination to what was written in my textbook. I began to read articles featuring current events in subjects ranging from economics, fashion, race, and politics.

It was the fall of 2013. I was fourteen-years-old.

 Too bad Mr. Smolinski doesn’t remember me. His class changed the trajectory of my life. I’ll take this moment to thank him.

Odera O'Gonuwe