A crucial midterm test was coming up that I didn't think I could pass. As I walked back to my dorm, I pictured the disappointment on the faces of my loved ones.
I wondered: How can I avoid this? Then a mental gear shifted: Treat school like tennis.
I would only stop my tennis practice sessions when I was exhausted by the repetition. Convert the classroom to a tennis court, I thought. Study until you're exhausted, build a classroom routine, and no matter what happens, you can say you did your best.
I got an A on the midterm, and I ended up graduating from Howard with honors, getting straight A's during my last three semesters, except for one "B" in an English class. (I'm still upset about that B.)
I put the time in, and I saw results. But I would be lying if I attributed my transformation to a change in attitude alone. It required a change in friends as well.
As I gained more confidence during college, I shed my secret identity. I told friends about my upbringing. They accepted me; some even thought it was cool. Their belief in me helped me to believe in myself.
My college girlfriend, Susan, grew up in Baldwin Hills, California, the daughter of a doctor -- someone who went to private schools in Beverly Hills and attended Stanford before transferring to Howard.
"John," she'd tell me as a big smile spread across her freckled face, "you're just as smart as those students at Stanford."
I was finally learning to be captain of my own ship.
I eventually believed her, but what about those poor but promising students who will be the beneficiaries of economic affirmative action?
I wonder if it will be even more difficult for a poor student to make that leap to college today. It's certainly more expensive.
My tuition was only $1,800 a semester, and that was paid for through academic scholarships I earned each semester and by working. I never had student loans. Will those generous scholarships be there for poor students if the nation transitions to economic affirmative action? Colleges are a business, and many of them have had to cut back in the anemic wake of the Great Recession.
Even in good times, selective colleges didn't aggressively pursue poor students because they don't make money off giving financial aid to needy students, says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University Center of Education and the Workforce.
"They can't afford to do class," he says. "It costs too much money. Poor people need money."
Race-based college admissions are actually easier for many colleges, he said. They tend to recruit more affluent blacks who can pay tuition, and they get to show the world that they care about diversity.
"Minority students are much more obvious on campus," he says. "When you walk across the campus of Georgia, you can't tell which ones are poor."
He says selective colleges are becoming "bastions of privilege." Only the children of the affluent can attend, and there's little outrage over the bleak prospects for poor but gifted black students in reeling communities such as inner-city Detroit because people ignore the poor.
"Because of the social isolation of communities of poor people, it's very easy to disappear them," he says. "That's what we do with all these kids in Detroit. They just disappear."
I almost disappeared as well. When I look back, I see that my transition could have been snuffed out easily at so many junctures. A chance meeting, a crucial friendship, just growing up in a big city near Washington -- those factors all helped.
"I did get the hell out" as my father demanded. But I wonder how many more poor kids with potential will do the same at a time when the gap between the rich and poor is widening?
I wonder if the bridge I crossed is collapsing. And I so want to believe that this nation will commit to a class-based affirmative action that will help poor students of all colors, including whites.
If economic affirmative action is just an educational fad, though, then I fear for our future. My story shouldn't be exceptional. It should be the norm in America. No poor kid should wonder if they're an imposter.
No one like me should worry about becoming one of the disappeared.