I walked into the room hoping no one would discover my secret.
I feared my accent would betray my identity, so I kept silent. I glanced self-consciously at my cheap clothes, wishing I could afford better. I stared at the photogenic, self-assured students around me as if they were from another planet.
For me, they were from another world.
I was a 17-year-old African-American from an impoverished, inner-city community and had no idea what I was getting into. Next to me in a college freshman orientation class were students who came from private schools and grew up in homes with swimming pools and maids.
But here was the catch: I wasn't an affirmative action enrollee at an elite white university. I was a black student thrust onto the campus of a predominately black university. My hang-up wasn't race; it was class. I was suffering from "class shock." I was on a path to self-destruction because I didn't know how to cross the bridge from poverty into this strange, new world.
I thought about that period in my life after learning last week that the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the use of race in college admissions but had signaled that it may soon abandon that position. People are already preparing for what may come next: Colleges are going to create diversity by using class instead of race. Some call it economic affirmative action.
It is something liberals and conservatives seem to support. That's part of its appeal. Such an approach would create diversity on college campuses without resurrecting the endless wars over race-based affirmative action.
Richard Kahlenberg, dubbed the "intellectual father" of economic affirmative action, says the current approach to affirmative action in higher education does not help many poor black students.
In his paper, "A Better Affirmative Action," Kahlenberg cited research that found 86% of contemporary black students at selective colleges were either middle or upper class.
Class-based affirmative action is something all kinds of Americans -- including conservative justices on the Supreme Court -- could support, he says.
"Even the most right-wing justices, like Clarence Thomas, have said that they support the idea of race-neutral affirmative action for economically disadvantaged students," he says.
Maybe so. But my experience suggests that there is a hidden challenge to such an approach. Placing poor students in top-tier colleges is only half of the battle. There's another psychological battle that some of these students will fight within themselves, and, as I found out, there's no college prep course out there to help.
'There can only be one captain'
I grew up in West Baltimore, about three blocks from a notorious strip of bars, storefront churches and boarded-up homes called North Avenue. My neighborhood was the setting for the popular HBO series "The Wire," a grim look at urban disintegration in a black section of Baltimore.
It's always tempting when you come from such a neighborhood to exaggerate your struggles. People love war stories, and I have my share. But things never felt as if they were falling apart to me. It was normal. It was all I knew.
I came of age in Baltimore during the late 1970s and early '80s. I left for college just as the crack wars began to spread across black communities in America. But my neighborhood didn't need crack to turn dangerous. It was already on its way.
I went to a junior high where I learned to duck, not read. Students rioted and television crews visited our school to report the latest outbreak. I knew friends who were murdered, and some who did the murdering (one of my best friends in high school strangled his girlfriend just to steal her VCR).
There was another type of violence I saw, though, that was more sinister: a strangulation of the spirit that claimed so many smart friends.
We had trouble believing that there was a life for us beyond West Baltimore. We didn't really talk about college, getting a white-collar job in a profession or owning a business. I worked one summer moving boxes in a dingy warehouse, and I thought a menial job like that would be my fate.
This lack of self-belief hung in the air like humidity -- I couldn't see it, but it seeped into my pores. Racial isolation played a role. I hardly ever saw any white people in my neighborhood, and there was only one white student in my high school of 2,000. (We used to stare at her like she was an exotic animal when we saw her in the hallways.) I remember asking myself one day what I would do if I saw a white person walk up my street. Why, I'd have to attack them, I concluded.
It was almost as if there was some magical White World in some faraway land populated by smug people who had all the power and the money. And then there was an embarrassing thought that I would never admit to others. White people were just smarter. I remember declining an invitation to join my high school academic team because I did not want to compete against affluent, white schools. I was too intimidated.
Fortunately, I had plenty of people around me who cared: An aunt who encouraged my love of reading; heroic teachers who nurtured my nascent interest in journalism; and a stern father who, while never caring how I did in school, told me he wasn't going to take care of me forever.
He was a merchant seaman, and he would march around the house shirtless and bellow: "There can only be one captain on a ship. When you turn 17, you're getting the hell out."
I did get the hell out when I turned 17, but I didn't know what the hell I was doing.
I applied to only one college -- Howard University. I picked it because it was in nearby Washington. I didn't know anything about SAT prep courses, and I don't remember meeting with a high school counselor. I just took my SAT without any preparation and scored 830.