"I think you should check out the APEX program," my high school counselor Mrs. Workman suggested.
APEX stood for Area Program Enrichment Exchange, and involved several L.A. area high schools, including Fairfax High. Intended for "advanced" students, the program allowed them to take courses not offered at their home school.
In my case, I had exhausted all of the Spanish courses at Crenshaw High, the predominately black inner-city school I attended. But Fairfax, predominately Jewish, had higher-level courses and would accept me.
"It'll be a way for you to continue your Spanish -- where, I see from your transcript, you excel. I'd suggest you do this," she said.
"How does the program work?"
Each morning, she explained, a school bus would pick up the APEX students -- by definition a group of supposedly "high-level, college-bound kids" -- and bus them to their chosen school. We would attend two classes each morning at the APEX school, after which we would be bused back to Crenshaw.
"Where do I sign?"
Mrs. Workman laughed, "I expect you to do well."
About that I had little doubt. After all, I made mostly A's, and did particularly well in Spanish. I ranked sixth or seventh in a class of 250. Of course I would do well.
But I didn't.
I knew I was in for a ride when I walked into class that first day at Fairfax. The teacher greeted me in Spanish. But I noticed that everyone in the class spoke in Spanish. I don't mean the halting way I spoke, with iffy grammar and conjugation. These kids were fluent! I was shocked.
Despite the stack of Spanish course A's I had piled up since middle school, I never really thought achieving fluency in a class setting was possible -- unless you lived in Mexico or Spain or had Spanish-speaking parents.
But it became clear that from the time these Fairfax kids took their first Spanish course -- and, for that matter, every other course -- teachers demanded far more from students than Crenshaw teachers demanded of us. The Fairfax kids also demanded more of themselves. And they were matter-of-fact about the high expectations their parents had for them.
When I came home from that first day at Fairfax, I cried.
"These A's I'd been getting," I told my mom, "were crap. Probably C's at Fairfax. It's as if I'd been playing Little League baseball -- and now I'm playing against the Dodgers."
"You're right," she said, "it's not fair -- but do your best. You'll rise to the occasion."