Originally published May 15, 2017


I sent this letter via email to senior high school students I teach in Camden, NJ, earlier this month. If it suits you, consider it Monday Motivation. What can you conquer today?

Dear Students,


I took one AP exam when I was in high school. I walked with the rest of my class to a building on the campus of the college across the street from our high school. I don’t remember what was said during the walk, but I was terrified. My hands shake when I’m nervous, and that day, you would’ve thought I had advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease.
The pressure felt intense. I was the only black person in my AP class, and I felt I always had something to prove. I studied hard. I had gotten As on all the exams we had taken in class, but the day we did kind of a Jeopardy game as test prep, I was stomped in the competition, and my classmates were shocked but also delighted. Low-key delighted, but I could tell. The hate was real.
I was embarrassed, but I couldn’t take that into the exam with me. I prepped. I read. I did flash cards. I found that studying about an hour before going to sleep–not studying myself to sleep–worked well for me. I retained more information that way. I got a good night’s rest the night before the exam. I was shaking during the test. I was shaking after. When I met up with my classmates after the exam, though, and they were all talking about what they were sure they got wrong, I couldn’t remember a single question that had stumped me. When my score arrived by mail a few weeks (or whenever it was) later, I had received a 5. And just like that, three college credits were taken care of.
When people doubt me, I work harder.
You live in Camden. People who have never even seen you doubt you.
I am not one of those people. I’ve been around “gifted and talented” students since I was in the second grade. All of you fit that description.
You are facing pressure right now. Let it drive you. Learn to manage it. You’re focused on the score, but this management of life and time is the lesson you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life–and it’s more important than the number because you’ll need that knowledge all the time. Adulthood is not easy, especially for people like each of you, who want a lot out of life. I know that’s you; you wouldn’t be taking AP classes if it weren’t.
So be you. Want more. And get it.
I leave you with my favorite words from poet Lucille Clifton:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Let this test be another thing that tries to kill you. And fails.
Ms. Williams