By Guest Contributor Kendra James
Andre Robert Lee’s documentary, The Prep School Negro, about the experience of black students at an elite Philadelphia prep school, begins in the West Elm neighborhood of Philadelphia, which he refers to as not the most dangerous neighborhood but still not the safest.
“Everyone says I got a Golden Ticket,” says Lee, narrating the introduction. When he was nine, his father left the family, leaving his mother to raise both him and his sister; his intelligence and penchant for talking and reading rather than fighting or playing sports marked him as different from a young age. Though he would come to receive a free tuition at Germantown Friends, he says, “there was still a great cost. As soon as I set foot in [Germantown Friends] I started to go in a different direction from my family.”
His tends to be the more common experience–or at least what one hears as the common experience–of black students in prep schools. In the world of secondary school education the term diversity always seems to unofficially go hand-in-hand with scholarship and financial aid. There’s an idea that these schools swoop in with money and “save” poor black children by enclosing them inside these centuries-old brick walls. No one talks about what happens after they’re saved, both inside those supposedly protective walls or back home with their families, or the kids who aren’t being ‘saved’ at all. Lee’s film gives an honest look beyond the staged-looking pictures of diversity that these schools present.
“It’s a magical place on many levels, and it’s a difficult place on many different levels.” says one of his former teachers, Joan Countryman, whowas also Germantown’s first black graduate. She describes attending the school as being a “guest in a strange house.” It’s a wonderfully succinct and apt description of being thrown into the prep school world, no matter what your personal or socioeconomic backgrounds are.
“The assimilation process is very, very difficult,” explains 1989 graduate Marcella Travagline. “No one tried to get to know me … I came and felt invisible, and still do, and that’s why no one even remembers I was here.” Lee admits that even with his popularity, he still felt lonely the entire time he attended the school. Despite receiving the same caliber of education and having access to the same resources as other students at the school, the “guest” mentality is still present, and becomes more obvious when you realize that the majority of people you were at school with for three or four years don’t even remember you were there.
Though, while they may not remember you individually, the whole–the splash of melanin in an otherwise white community–is enough to garner notice. The idea that, in some respects, students of color are clumped together in one large amorphous blob is one of the reasons I appreciated listening to the interviews Lee conducted for the film. I remember the feeling during my own prep-school experience, wondering whether or not anyone will remember if you, individually, were at the school. On the other, you know that as a group people certainly remember because the group stuck out. The group was often seen as homogenous: brown kids who all came from the same background and all sat at the same table in the dining hall for meals. However, as Lee shows us throughout Prep School, that isn’t ever the case.
In addition to his own former classmates, Lee also interviews several of Germantown’s current black students, who themselves come from diverse backgrounds which make for divergent experiences within and outside of school.
Brea has attended Germantown her entire life and lives in a wealthier area in Philadelphia, while Alibra and KJ have backgrounds more similar to Lee’s own. Because Germantown is a day school–students leave to go home every night–their interviews reveal issues that come up less at boarding prep schools. While students may be considered equals in school, at the end of the day they all leave that environment for incredibly disparate lives. Evidence of social disparity is easier to see here rather than in a place where everyone retires to the same dorm rooms at nights. This difference lead to an increased pressure felt by the students, not only based upon what the white students would think about them, but also about how the people back in their own neighborhoods would feel.
“I rep North Philly to the fullest … but my friends have never come here,” Alibra admits in her small bedroom. “They’d probably be shocked to see the way I live. I know the way they think a Black person would live … I’m not ready to be the person to show them what it’s really like.” Her neighborhood is a stark contrast to Chestnut Hill, where Brea lives in a large stone home with a giant wrap around porch, high vaulted ceilings, and a baby grand piano in her living room. But despite Brea’s ability and comfort in inviting her friends over to her home to hang out and her claim that she “doesn’t see race” at the school, she still has her own insecurities as a Black student. While she has Black friends, she has fears that the majority of the school’s Black population doesn’t see her as ‘Black enough’ because of her more diverse friend circle, manner of speech, and different socioeconomic status. She also doesn’t sit at the Black table at lunch.
Both girls’ insecurities are relevant and rarely explored in a prep-school backdrop. Beyond having to face the pressures of fitting into a new school, finding friends, and adjusting to a workload that’s often one or two years ahead of a public school curriculum, Alibra and others also end up being representatives of their race to the rest of the student body or feel as if they have to be. Alibra doesn’t want to be the one to lift the veil from other students’ eyes and reveal the extent to which their lives differ. While most high schoolers are attempting to develop an identity for themselves, it feels as if she and KJ are forced to cultivate two different identities: one that’s acceptable at Germantown where they are seen as Black and one for when they leave the school at the end of the day and have to go back to their own neighborhoods where they’re considered “white-black” by their peers because they attend a prep school.
Despite the awkwardness of being a Black student in a white school, it’s hard not to mention the advantages while also talking about the school’s failings. There is a reason, after all, that children and parents are willing to entrust their children to schools that don’t always live up to the expectations their shiny exteriors promise. The working theory tends to be that no matter what you go through, you’ll come out tougher–poised, polished, and cultured, as the attendees of the Miss Porter’s boarding school in Connecticut might put it. But above all, you are expected to come out well-educated.
Beyond the academics, there was something of a social education for black students (and other students of color) as well. For a student of color, the socialization necessary for fitting in at an independent school can cover everything from the retrospectively humorous (learning what the sport of squash is, rather than the vegetable, for instance) to the serious–learning, for instance, how to control the urge to roll your eyes or speak inappropriately when someone says during a history class discussion, “We kicked Indians off land before. We can do it again.” (Congratulations: you’re now prepared to handle the ignorant, know-it-all freshman who somehow gets into your 300-level gender and race studies class.)
Another of Lee’s classmates, Kristin Haskin Simms, tells Lee she was glad to attend her school, “not just because of the education–because I do think it’s a very good education–but also because of the adversity that we faced.” Travagline adds that it was only at Friends that she was first exposed to books by black authors, despite white students in her classes protesting. There’s a lot more you can get away with teaching (not to mention how you teach it) when you’re not answering to the city board of education.
Regardless of what students at Germantown might have felt from other students, teachers expected the same high quality of work from everyone in their classes, even during a frank class discussion on race (always the most awkward days in a prep school, when you’re one of two brown people in a class of fifteen) and white privilege. It’s clear that the discussion is uncomfortable for the white students in the class who seem to be hearing the term white privilege for the first time. While these discussions are important to introduce to the students, KJ says there are limits: “I think the school is doing all it can,” she says. “But it’s up to the kids, you know?”
Prep schools have many flaws that go beyond race, and what Lee presents in Prep School isn’t necessarily juicy by media standards, but it presents an honest viewpoint that needs to be out there. In the face of the typical prep school depictions like Gossip Girl (shot around Manhattan’s Spence School and Marymount School), the typical prep school media darling, and the PoC-student success stories you’ll hear from programs like A Better Chance, Lee’s documentary goes above and beyond in showing not only that there are faces of color in prep schools, but that it’s not necessarily easy to be one of those faces.
In the end most of us will acknowledge that the education was to our advantage. The majority of people we went to school with may not remember us, but we toughed it out, moved on, and might even submit our own kids to the same process. That said, to have someone acknowledge and talk about the variety of experiences toughed out by black students is welcome and appreciated.
The Prep School Negro will screen at the Phillip Brooks House on Harvard Yard at Harvard University on September 19th.