Back in middle school, Kenny West remembers riding home on the bus and people calling him and his friends “white.”
“People would call us white because we had subject-verb agreement when we talked,” he says. Even the bus driver called him that.
The comparison, which Kenny doesn’t hear much anymore at Richmond Community High School, makes him bristle. “I’ll say, ‘What is acting white?’”
“It’s like crabs in a barrel,” he adds. “When one crawls up, the other ones pull him down.”
The youngest child of three children, Kenny says his friends always teased him for liking school.
“When I was younger, you couldn’t convince me there was anything better,” says the youth, who has a wisp of a moustache on his upper lip. In a way, he was following in the footsteps of his older brother and sister, both of whom attended college.
“All my children had years of perfect attendance,” says Kenny’s mother, Theresa West, who is a clerk in an electronics store.
Before Richmond, where he’ll be a junior this fall, Kenny spent two years in a private Christian school and attended a public middle school in nearby Henrico County.
The friends he made over those years have gone in markedly different directions. One went to Exeter, the well-known private school in New Hampshire, and another went to the Governor’s School, a state-funded magnet school for gifted students in Richmond. Others have become pregnant or spent some time in juvenile detention.
Theresa West, who is separated from Kenny’s father, says she kept her son from going down the wrong path by monitoring him closely.
“I kind of watch who he’s with, and I always tried to keep my children busy and involved in some type of plan or summer school,” she says.
But Kenny, she adds, also has a lot of drive of his own. Last year, he wangled himself a job as a page in the state House and he’s trying to land a similar position in the U.S. Capitol. When the school year was in full gear, he worked as a dining aide at a nursing home in the afternoons, arriving home, exhausted, by bus around 8:15 p.m.
“Kenny,” his mother says, “tends to go in a lot of different directions.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week