When Kymberly Wimberly was just 5-years old, her grandmother would take her to the grocery store and ask her to tabulate the total cost of items in the shopping cart. Kymberly usually got the correct answer most of the time, or was off by a few pennies.
Kymberly made headlines last week when news broke that she was forced to share valedictorian honors with a white student who had a lower GPA. She and her attorneys have sued the McGehee Arkansas school system for taking away her position and for purposefully suppressing the ability of black children to succeed.
Kymberly’s story is unique.
By high school, the Arkansas teen was in a race with all the brightest kids in her class to the top spot. She prevailed and won the coveted Valedictorian spot by split seconds, only a few percentage points ahead of the second place finisher, a girl she had known since second grade.
Then in a reverse decision, her school decided they would not let her have that honor alone. She would have to share it with number 2. In a recent lawsuit, Kymberly’s lawyers said there were racist reasons behind that decision.
She wants the school to reverse the decision after the fact so the history book could reflect the truth. It’s something Kymberly believes she owes to her grandmother, the woman who pushed her all of her life.
“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,” said the now-18 year old who was multiplying and reading at an early age too.
And they expected Kymberly to be the best as well. When Kymberly was 13-years, her grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She told Kymberly she should study to become a brain surgeon so Kymberly could “fix her brain.”
“I’d say but no grandma, I want to be a cardiologist or I’m going to be a Veterinarian or I want to be an Astronomer,” said Kymberly. “I used to look in the sky and was fascinated with what else was out there.”
Kymberly’s grandmother passed away in 2009 from Alzheimer’s disease and Kymberly now wants to fulfill her grandmother’s wish for her.
She hopes to become a neurosurgeon and to earn a doctorate degree to study and hopefully be part of the team that finds a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.
“I want to fix it so that no other kid would have to lose their grandmothers from the disease,” Kymberly said.
She said her grandmother was her best cheerleader and always pushed her to be number one. That is why the day she got the call that she would have to share that top spot with someone with a lower GPA disappointed her.
“My mom called and kept saying, stay calm, don’t get upset,” says Kymberly who was in the middle of a “Praise Dance” rehearsal at her church when she got a call from her mother with the bad news.
“I wanted to cry and to blame everyone,” she recalled. “But I put on a good face even though I was very disappointed.”
It was a long haul to the top.
Kymberly had been a great student all her life.
She and her co-valedictorian were part of a clique oh high achievers, all racing to the top be number one in their class.
They both opted to start the Honor’s track when they started at McGehee Secondary school in the 8th grade. They each enrolled in Algebra 1, instantly giving them an edge on other Honor students who waited until their 9th grade year to take that course.
Kymberly was also an all-star. Not only did she balance a full course load and come home with an A in each class for all of her high school career, except for one B, 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 in high school, she had just learned she made the cheerleading team, and was picked for the basketball team for the second time.
Then she got pregnant.
It was a mistake she says that cast a huge shadow over all of her other accomplishments.
“I thought my world was over,” Kymberly confessed. “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,” she recalled. She expected people to shun her. “Once I had to drop a friend off home who 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,’” Kymberly said.
“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.”
Kymberly weathered months of guilt and isolation. She stayed indoors mainly that summer. Her family stood by her through it all.
“They told me, hey you messed up. We’re all not perfect, and we learn from this and move on.”
After she delivered her daughter, Amiah, in fall of 2009, Kymberly became worried her grades would dip and she would blemish her straight A record.
She remained hopeful , nonetheless, that she could retain her number one rank.
Her mom shuttled assignments to and from school and the hospital in the early days.
“I’d be sitting in the hospital bed doing English homework and my baby would be in the nursery,” Kymberly said. “I knew English would be the most challenging, so in between the two hours I nursed my baby, I’d do my English homework and then work on other subjects.”
After the hospital discharged her, she took merely three weeks off and returned to class.
All the extra effort fell short though. She earned a B in English. The grade demoralized her. She dropped in rank from first to third in the class.
“I thought there would be no way I could make it back to number one, but my mother sat cross legged across from me in my bed and gave me an inspirational talk, urging me to work as hard as I could and to not give up hope,” Kymberly shared.
The pep talk worked and Kymberly got focused and determined to get back on top.
“After that talk I said to myself if I’m coming out of here with all A’s from here on out, I have to really hunker down,” she said.
Kymberly took college Algebra on Saturdays. The course wasn’t weighted and counted as just a regular class but it gave her additional credits more than her peers.
In her senior year, she enrolled in Advanced Placement Biology, Advanced Placement Literature and Advanced Placement Calculus.
And similar to what her suit alleges about discouraging black students from taking advanced classes, a teacher counseled her against taking AP Calculus because an Asian student had struggled through it even though he eventually earned an A.
“I don’t know what went on there,” Kymberly said of the advice, “But I know my capabilities and I had no qualms about enrolling and succeeding in that class.”
She said she would have still taken the class had the school not decided to pull it. She still aced all of her other classes.
She recalled the moment she got the news that she actually won the race to the top.
It was the Tuesday morning on the week of her high school graduation. Kymberly and a few friends were visiting a classmate who had gotten ill and went to the hospital to cheer her up.
Kymberly’s mom, Molly Bratton, called her with news that she had bested all of her classmates and had the highest GPA in the school, a 4.097. A counselor at the school spotted Bratton, who works in the school as a certified media specialist, pulled her aside and told her that she just sent the town newspaper the announcement.
“She told me that one of my teachers wanted to tell me congratulations and I asked for what,” Kymberly recalls. “When she told me the news I kept asking, ‘Are you serious? Are you kidding? You’re dead serious? ”
News spread that Kymberly had become the first black valedictorian at the school since 1989. Friends and well wishers sent text messages and called to congratulate her, including some people who told her they didn’t think the school would permit her to get top honors.
Perhaps they were alluding to the fact that Kymberly had a baby during her junior year or as her lawsuit alleges, because the school has a pervasive system of discouraging black children from achieving while elevating white students.
On the afternoon she got the news, Kymberly went to deliver lunch to her mom at school as she usually does each day and spotted some teachers. “Some gave me hugs and told me ‘I thought they’d try to cheat you out of it; I’m glad they didn’t’’’ Kymberly says. “Some eyed me but kept on walking,”
Kymberly said she didn’t think a lot of people thought she would be able to pull it off.
But Kymberly had tenacity and drive like no other. She credits her grandmother for a lot of it.
Certainly, since the story broke many have indicated they believe a more likely cause for the slight, or at least a secondary one, is the fact that Kymberly was a single teen mom.
After getting the heartbreak that despite having the best GPA, she’d have to share the Valedictorian honor, Kymberly and her now co-Valedictorian had a heart to heart.
Kymberly reflected on the morning of graduation rehearsal.
“We were standing 3 feet away from each other. She was under the impression I was mad at her,” Kymberly said. “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,” she added.
That Friday, the two met up. The co-Val asked her what’s going through her mind. She wanted to know if Kymberly hated her.
“This isn’t me taking this from you,” Kymberly said the Co-Val told her. “It’s an administrative decision.”
The co-Valedictorian then explained how the principal called her twice to tell her the good news to change the speech she was writing as Salutatorian to a Valedictorian speech. The principal called her a second time, but rather than call back, the co-Valedictorian said she threw on shorts, t-shirt and a hat to get the news in person that she would also be sharing the spot with Kymberly.
Kymberly told her she hated the situation, not her and that if the roles were switched they both knew, the result wouldn’t be the same.
Her co-Valedictorian agreed.
On graduation day, traditionally Speakers speak in order of their final GPA, with the person with the highest, usually the Valedictorian, speaking last. Kymberly 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,” Kymberly said. “I kept telling myself that over and over again.”
Kymberly says she plans to leave Arkansas for graduate and medical school to fulfill her grandmother’s wish.
“People say my Grandmom ‘marked’ my daughter because she looks like her”, Kymberly said, adding that she knew her grandmother would have been extremely proud of her to know she was number one in her class.
She is now fighting to make sure the record books reflect that.
The school will file its response to the suit in Mid August.