Affirmative Action Saved Me

Kristal Brent Zook
9 min readJul 2, 2023

Adapted from The Girl in the Yellow Poncho (Duke University Press, August 2023)

It was late afternoon, long after the three o’clock dismissal bell had rung in my journalism classroom. But I wouldn’t be going home any time soon. I was co-editor of The Sheik Press and we were on deadline, hunched over sloping architectural desks, carving out typeset print with an X-Acto knife. I stood tall, stretched my legs, and glanced at the clock.

“Going to McDonalds,” I called out to the others, reaching for my purse. “Be right back.”

My journalism teacher, Gijai Spann, flagged me down from her desk, waving dollar bills. “Bring me back some fries, baby.” She called everyone “baby,” but it still felt special when she said it to me. The hippest and coolest of my teachers at Hollywood High School, she wore blue jeans to class and rarely gave lectures. The one time I remember her writing on the blackboard it was to explain the inverted pyramid structure of news writing. The occasion seemed momentous so I whipped out my notebook and committed every word to memory. Gijai (she let us call her by her first name) had a boyfriend who played trumpet with Earth, Wind and Fire, if I remember right, which only added to her coolness factor.

“Oh . . . and don’t forget.” She tapped my arm lightly. “We still need to fill out that college application.”

I hadn’t forgotten. Gijai had promised to read the all-important personal essay I’d written for admission to the University of California Santa Barbara. It was a heartfelt outpouring in which I confessed to not having the perfect grades, or the most outstanding SAT scores. I had struggled with math and lowered my hard-earned GPA with a couple of C’s. Instead of focusing on grades in the essay, I made a case for myself as a someone who was driven and ambitious, contributing what I could to our household of single Black women and helping my mother and grandmother, who raised both me and my cousin, Lisa.

I’d held down jobs in babysitting since the age of twelve, I wrote. At fourteen, I filled out an application for a job at a tourist T-shirt shop on Hollywood Blvd. Determined to work, I’d lied about my age on the form, claiming to be 16, and somehow gotten away with it. On weekends I worked the 4 p.m. to midnight shift, carefully inching past a row of Harley-Davidson bikers who hung out at the nearby bar.



Kristal Brent Zook

Award-winning journalist/professor; race, women, justice. My latest book is #1 in New Releases for Mixed Race/Multiracial! Order @