The Black students at the Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts, picked a memoir about a Black student’s time at a white boarding school for the summer of 2022 book. Here is my review.
ADMISSIONS: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James (she/her) is a memoir by the first African-American legacy student to graduate from one of the world’s most elite prep schools.
James, an adolescent Black nerdy (Blerd) whose father was a graduate of the Taft School, a very elite, predominantly white private boarding school in Connecticut, discovered that Taft was not built with Black people or any people of color in mind.
The book starts as “coming of age” biography. Who was wearing what? Who had money? Who didn’t? Who was wearing their hair how? Who came from where? Pretty much all the same stuff any teenager would worry about. And Legacy or no, the narrator realizes she is not part of the elite.
The second half of the book delves a bit more into issues such as racism by other students, daily verbal insults, everyday microaggressions, otherings, racial segregation, and derogatory or harmful attitudes towards students of color. While James doesn’t romanticize the exclusivity or elitism of having an experience only 1% of American students get to have, she only scratched on the surface of how lonely and cold a place these school are for black students (and employees!)
While working as an admissions officer as an adult, she reflected back on her own time at an independent prep school and felt as though she was selling a lie.
This is the best line in the book: “Like many Black people, the life I dreamed of was paid for with the American currency of a minor trauma.” (page 111)
Those contradictory feelings of hating the social element of her private school experience and feeling as though the administration of the school was not on her side but her still benefiting from the academic experiences would an interesting discussion to add depth to her book. James illustrates that it’s not enough to simply have marginalized people at an institution. The institution needs to demonstrably change to be truly inclusive and to protect newcomers from bigotry and hate. Diversity work should be more than just a statistical quotient or a brochure opportunity.
I finished the book wondering how James came to be working for independent schools as a recruitor of students of color and affiliate programs after college despite her feelings of nonacceptance during her time at Taft and her unwillingness to send her own children to a boarding school?
Being a person of color at PWI is a special kind of trauma and truly impacts how you see yourself and navigate the world. If you don’t fit the high achieving, white and wealthy demographic your journey through these schools is lonely one.
These things reminded me of the independent school where I work:
•Self-segregation / black-only tables at lunch (except for that one misfit white kid)
•The Black kid each year who manages to cross over into the mainstream, white prep culture of the school by completely ignoring the rest of students of color (occasionally two, if you added a white-passing Latinx to the mix.)
•Nerdy students of color shunned by other students of color
•White students assume that all students of color are on financial aid and are recruited athletes
•Being good at sports was simply a Black male stereotype white people expected, and when Black boys fulfilled that stereotype it made the white people around them more comfortable; it was a supposed ‘norm’ they could work with and eventually accept.
•Female and nonbinary students of color are rarely assimilated
• “friends by circumstance”, where in a school so small and so white that students of color end up friends with other students of color whom they do not have a lot in common with except that you have even less in common with those other people. This small pool of people, who realistically you would not be speaking to in the real world, is now your friend group because there’s literally no one else.
•The bad behavior of the rich white kids, the rules-don’t-apply-to-me attitudes, and the entitlement is familiar, as is the administration’s willingness to look the other way for certain students and not others.
•The casual and overt racism of both other students and teachers – as well as in the curriculum – is rampant.
•The gossip mill works overtime
•The school administrators regularly ignore, downplay or whitewash racial incidents under the guise of inclusiveness
•School does an okay job admitting students of color and an awful time keeping them – they are kicked out, left back, or decide to leave, while white students get an unending stream of “second chances.”
•The institutions champions and certainly favors the straight white male athletes with Jesus-like reverence.
•The dynamics of respectability and perception of “the other” create pressures to perform differently for students of color than it did for the white students. I see this double-standard expressed itself in the student of color experience where I work.
Trigger warnings: bullying, racism, racial slurs, microaggressions, misogynoir, sexual harassment, false accusation of theft, discussion of officer-involved shootings, homophobia (not toward or by author), homophobic slur, sexism, body commentary, death of classmates post-graduation (including murder-suicide and car accident), bierasure/biphobia (author states her only option at school as a straight Black girl was straight Black or Latinx boys), teacher convicted of possessing child pornography (post-graduation), author stole a goose egg from its nest and it did not hatch, vomit (food poisoning), underage drinking, inebriation, hangover, drug references, cigarettes, brother is adopted, witchcraft, STD stigma (not countered), conversation about an actor/character being “dickless”, gendered pejoratives, gender essentialist language, ableist language, frequent Harry Potter references, hyperbolic language around suicide, mention of teachers who had inappropriate relationships with students, mention of school that covered up sexual assault incidents for decades, mention of fatshaming (author’s friend), brief reference to disordered eating (not author), references to parents’ divorce (post-HS), reference to mom’s past miscarriage, reference to infidelity in movie