Kymberly Wimberly: The McGehee valedictorian tells her story

In an interview with Politics of Raising Children, Kymberly Wimberly gives her perspective on the controversy around her Photo: Oberazzi (Flickr)

WASHINGTON, August 12, 2011 — Two advocacy groups have assembled and delivered 130,000 signatures to Arkansas’ McGehee school district in support of a black teenager who was forced to share valedictory honors with a student who received a lower grade point average.

The Executive Director of Color of Change, the group responsible for the Glen Beck boycott a few years ago, said they want the school system to reverse its decision. “It’s an opportunity for the school district to stand up and do something here,” Rashad Robinson told Politics of Raising Children. “Any silence from the school district will send another message to black students and the students in the school that racism is acceptable.”

The two groups included a letter with their signatures which reads in part:

“More than 130,000 people - members of ColorOfChange.org and Change.org – have signed a petition calling on you to recognize Kymberly Wimberly as her class’s sole valedictorian. The ColorOfChange.org community, which makes up the nation’s largest African-American online political organization, also asks that you explain the actions you plan to take to support Black student achievement in the McGehee School District.”

Bee Levendar, founder of Girl-Mom, a nonprofit that that offers peer support for young women who face the challenge of balancing work, life, family, and education says that Kymberly’s story inspired her. “When I became a mother in my teens, everyone told me to give up, drop out of school, forfeit my college scholarships, abandon all of my hopes for a professional career,”  she shared. “I had to fight for my education, to create a better life my children, and the institutional barriers I faced were daunting.”

“Yes, I was young. But I was a good mother, and a good student,” she added. “I never asked for special privileges - I just wanted the grades I earned, and the chance I deserved.”

Few who have read of Kymberly’s story have heard it told from her perspective. Politics of Raising Children

Kymberly Wimberly, McGehee valedictorian, 2011.

Kymberly Wimberly, McGehee valedictorian, 2011.

 

had a chance to chat with her recently about the incident.

It was a long haul to the top for Kymberly Wimberly.

Kymberly had been a great student all her life. She and her co-valedictorian had known each other since 2nd grade. The two were part of a clique of high achievers, all racing to the top to be number one in their class.

Both opted to enter the Honor’s track when they started at McGehee Secondary school in the 8th grade. They enrolled in Algebra 1, instantly giving them an edge over other honor students who waited until the 9th grade to take that course.

Kymberly was also an all-star. Not only did she balance a full course load and come home with A’s in every class except one, but she was also on the basketball team, she played an instrument in the band, ran track, and was active in several clubs.

Towards the end of her sophomore year she learned she made the cheerleading team and was picked for the basketball team for the second time.

Then she got pregnant.

Politics of Raising Children: How did you feel about that then?

Kymberly: I thought my world was over.  I was embarrassed, really depressed, ashamed for myself and felt I was giving my family a bad name. I weeded out my true friends because some didn’t want to be seen with me. Once I had to drop a friend off home that had no other transportation. I knew her mother didn’t want her to be around me so I dropped her off at the corner and watched her walk to her house to make sure she was safe.

How do you say, ‘well mom, Kym is the only person who could give me a ride?  I didn’t want to get her in trouble or get blamed for my circumstance and my bad judgment. I knew I had to deal with the circumstances of my behavior. That wasn’t her fault. I wasn’t mad at her. It was summer time and I didn’t go out much at all.

Politics of Raising Children: It sounds like you were pretty isolated and shunned. How did your family handle the news and support you?

Kymberly: They told me, hey you messed up, we’re all not perfect, and we learn from this and move on.  They were very supportive.

Politics of Raising Children: You were able to keep up your grades anyway while pregnant. What were your secrets?

Kymberly: My mom worked at the school so she would bring homework to me.

Right after having my daughter, Amiah, I used to be sitting in the hospital bed doing English homework and my baby would be in the nursery.  

In between the two hours I nursed my baby, I’d do my English homework and then  when I finished that subject, which was a little more challenging, I’d get to the other subjects.

Politics of Raising Children: You took only three weeks maternity leave and worked hard but ended up getting a B. Did you give up hopes of still being Valedictorian then, or did you still think you had a chance after your rank dropped from first to third?

Kymberly:  I didn’t think I could do it, to be honest.  I remember my mom came in my room and gave me a pep talk. She sat across from me on my bed, cross-legged, and told me not to give up hope, that if that is what I really wanted I should go after it.  After that talk, I got inspired and I told myself if I’m coming out of here with all A’s from here on out, I have to really hunker down.

Politics of Raising Children: How did you do it? Get back up top?

Kymberly:  I took college Algebra on Saturdays. It wasn’t weighted but counted towards my total credits.  In my senior year, I enrolled in Advanced Placement Biology, Advanced Placement Literature and Advanced Placement Calculus.

A calculus teacher tried to convince me not to take AP Calculus because this Asian boy had taken it and struggled through it, even though he eventually got an A. I don’t know what went on there. But I know my capabilities and I had no qualms about enrolling and succeeding in that class.

They ended up not offering it anyway, but I still would have still taken the class.  He clearly didn’t know me.

Politics of Raising Children: Tell us about when you got the news that you had actually won the race to the top and had the highest GPA in your senior class?

Kymberly:  I was at the hospital visiting a friend and I got a call from my mom. She told me that one of my teachers wanted to tell me congratulations and I asked for what. She said you got Valedictorian.  When she told me the news I kept asking, ‘Are you serious? Are you kidding? You’re dead serious?

I kept getting text messages and calls. They told me, you know you made history in McGehee too? There hadn’t been a black valedictorian since 1989?  

Later that day, when I went to deliver lunch to my mom like I always do, I saw a few teachers. Some of them gave me hugs and told me they were proud of me. Some said ‘I thought, they’d try to cheat you out of it; I’m glad they didn’t.’”  

Some saw me and eyed me but kept on walking. I don’t think a lot of people thought I could pull it off.

Politics of Raising Children: Who do you credit with your drive to strive to become the first in your class in the first place?

Kymberly:  My entire family had the mentality that no matter what you do, you have to get an education because that is the key to success in life.

I give a lot of credit to my grandmother. She is my inspiration and biggest cheerleader. When I was like 5 or 6, she’d take me shopping with her to the grocery store and make me add up all the stuff in the cart. I’d get it right pretty much most of the time.

She caught Alzheimer’s disease when I was about 13 and she’d tell me she wanted me to become a brain surgeon. She’d say, “Kymberly, when you grow up, you’re going to fix my brain.”

I’d tell her, but no grandma, I want to be a cardiologist or I’m going to be a veterinarian or I want to be an astronomer. I used to look in the sky and was fascinated with what else was out there.”

Now that she’s gone - she died in October 2009, right before I had my daughter - I want to become a neurosurgeon and do some research. Now, I do want to fix it so that no other kid would have to lose their grandmoms from the disease.

Politics of Raising Children: Have you and your co-valedictorian spoken since you learned you had to share the spot? Tell us about that.

Kymberly:  We were standing 3 feet away from each other. She was under the impression I was mad at her. So rather than walk up and talk, she texted me and asked if I wanted to get together and have a drink at Sonic. I agreed but told her it would just be me and her. No friends. This had to be between me and her.  

On Friday, we met.

She told me “This isn’t me taking this from you. It’s an administrative decision.

I told her I hated the situation, not her, and that if the roles were switched she knew the outcome wouldn’t be the same and she said yes. I just wanted to make sure we were on the same page.

I had known her since second grade. We were cool.

Politics of Raising Children: Tell us the actual graduation day when you got to give the valedictory speech along with your co-valedictorian.

Kymberly:  On graduation day, usually what happens is speakers speak in order of their final GPA. It goes in the order of the lowest to the highest. So it’s usually the Salutatorian and then the Valedictorian. Since we had two I ended up speaking last. Since I had the highest GPA, it makes sense that I spoke last.

My friends were upset that I went last, because they didn’t understand, but I was fine with it, because that meant I would be the last person they’d hear at graduation. I kept telling myself that over and over again.

***** 

Kymberly says her grandmother must have ‘marked’ her daughter, an old saying about an ancestor leaving a visible mark or blemish on a yet-to-be-born descendant. She says her daughter Amiah looks like her. She adds that she knew her grandmother would have been extremely proud of her, proud to know that she was first in her class.  

So now Kymberly is fighting to make sure the record books reflect that.

In the school district’s defense, Superintendant Thomas Gathen has gone on record saying that the school handbook states that a student won’t be punished for taking extra classes.

Gathen told CNN that Kymberly’s co-valedictorian had half a credit more than Kymberly and the difference in the students’ GPAs was .03 or .05. For that reason, he said, he permitted the school to award the student with the lower GPA the co-valedictorian slot.

Robinson said he doesn’t buy the school’s explanation of the rule. “[The rule] creates a huge opportunity for bias because it isn’t clear, ” he said. “In these situations, arbitrary rules that allow for this type of scrutiny are dangerous, especially in Arkansas and in a school known for racial bias. The school should correct this rule.

“All we have to go on is the math, and the math is clear here.”

The school will file its response to  Kymberly’s lawsuit in mid-August.

 


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site Politic365.com while authoring her own influential blog JenebaSpeaks.com which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. JenebaSpeaks.com focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
 
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
 
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
 
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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