The article in The New York Times this weekend about Dalton, the Calhoun School, and Trinity, all on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, suggests that minority students’ experiences don’t help make the case that these “elite” schools are good ones. While these schools were apparently interested in recruiting minority students, they weren’t heavily invested in the students’ welfare once they arrived. No one considered how difficult it would be to afford a $1,300 class trip to the Bahamas for some of the schools’ new recruits from low incomes families. No one considered how effective stereotypes of blackness and otherness can be in marginalizing students of color from routine experiences. For example, students of color at these “elite” schools were often imagined as occupants of “bad” neighborhoods and were refused visits by classmates when they extended them invitations to their homes. In addition, one student told a heartbreaking story of feeling estranged from beauty as markers of racial otherness set her outside of the dictates of beauty that saw being “white, skinny, and tall” as its ideal.
I went to a very small, private, all-girls school. I loved it but I recognize its limitations. One of the reasons I was able to thrive there was because there was enough diversity at the school to enable me to find the support that I needed. My needs, though, weren’t very great. One of my classmates, Cheryl, did have significant emotional needs and the school failed her because they relied on stereotypes of blackness to drive their understanding of her behavior. Cheryl’s parents were going through a divorce and it was a devastating experience for her. Teachers and administrators alike read Cheryl’s sadness as hostility and they pulled her aside several times and told her that she needed to “get it together” because they weren’t “going to put up with her attitude.” Cheryl’s mother intervened and explained the difficulty of the divorce on her daughter but administrators were unmoved so Cheryl eventually transferred.
Cheryl’s mother provides me with a model for what I plan to do if a school fails my son in any way similar to how my beloved alma mater failed Cheryl: I will withdraw him. Cheryl’s mother’s move was a radical one in light of my own schooling experiences because I had never known anyone to support their child in that way. I disliked my elementary school, but I was made to endure it from kindergarten through eighth grade because I only seemed to register routine gripes about it. Admittedly, my elementary school experience wasn’t soul crushing so remaining there didn’t cause me great harm. The children who were featured in the Times article seemed crushed, so it’s not very clear to me why they stayed. The article takes for granted that these “elite” schools were “good” schools and so maybe this viewpoint was also taken-up by the parents and the students alike. I’ve certainly known people who described devastating experiences in schools that they went on to describe as “good.” One such student was one of two black people in her school; the other black student was her brother. When she was entering the bus to go on a field trip with her class, her teacher said to her, ” we saved you a seat at the back of the bus where you belong.” Her classmates all laughed, which only added to this girl’s humiliation. This same girl was also humiliated when her teacher called her “Kizzy” when she entered the classroom wearing braids and her class had been reading Alex Haley’s Roots. If I were this girl’s mother, I would have definitely talked to the teacher but I also would have removed my daughter from this school. From what I knew of this child, she was far too fragile to withstand this school’s personality. As far as I was concerned, this girl’s “good” school seemed far too brutal.
In her memoir Project Girl, Janet McDonald describes the consequences of taking for granted a young person’s emotional, psychic, and spiritual needs in failing to size-up schools and the choices students have in making decisions about them:
What I gained in possibilities was nearly outweighed by my loss of grounding. The message I received as a child equated home with failure; fortune could only be found elsewhere, with people unlike me. The contrast between my actual background and the world where I was sent to find role models was brutal.
It was in coming to recognize the constructions of the home that I prized devalued that I came to see the limitations of my high school and thus to recognize its racism in viewing my friend as a black girl with an attitude instead of a wounded, hurt, and sad young girl mourning the loss of her parent’s marriage.
I’m not necessarily thrilled by the way my son’s school seems to imagine him, but he doesn’t seem impacted by it; he enjoys himself at playschool. Going forward, my son’s soul will be the measure of whether or not a school is a “good” one. No school that diminishes a child’s soul seems worthy of the title “elite.”