Purpose. Identity. Resilience. Success.
The first time anyone ever called me a nigga was the first day of middle school. There I was, walking in between the Lower School and the Gymnasium. I don’t recall what I was doing or why but I do remember the unsolicited words from an eleven year old white boy. “What’s up my nigga?” rolled off his tongue as if he were sitting in front of a TV watching a hip hop music video. The Rush Hour movie wasn’t released until later that year.
“Uh, nothing…” were the only coherent words to leave my mouth. As he walked away I looked across campus that echoed the green and yellow school colors and thought, “welcome to private school!”
I never wanted to go to private school. I never wanted to be looked at as different. I didn’t have a choice whatsoever and for that, I attribute my current success to my adolescent misfortune. A fate that only my parents foresaw twenty years ago.
Montclair Academy sits snuggled into a converted Air Force Base that is surrounded by modern homes, expensive living, and an allure of middle-upper class stature. When I attended, the school laid neck and neck with abandoned buildings and empty plots of land that made my twin brother and I side eye my father as he dropped us off the first day of school. All our friends were going to neighboring public schools that taunted my wants and intimidated me at the same time. What were we getting ourselves into? Time and time again we were reminded that we were not going to school to socialize. In fact, that was the only reason given to us as to why private school was the path set forth. Per my father, school was there to teach us what we needed to know academically. Learning who we were, where we came from, was a curriculum to be taught in the comfort of our homes and community.
The following can be deemed simply as a glimpse into the experiences of a black male in the structure of private school education. This is neither guide nor “one size fits all”. In fact, this snapshot of a memoir specifically is intended for an audience interested in what students of color (specifically African-Americans) may or may not go through when placed in a private, college prep institution where they are in the minority. This is for those students who sit in a classroom as the only or one of the few that looks like them. This is for the parents who cringe at the idea of placing their child in the hands of a predominantly white school in fear of what journey this will lead their baby on. This is for the teacher preparing lesson plans and the educational leaders creating policies. This is for people wanting insight into an experience of critical racial identity development. One voice. One perspective. Many faces. Many memories. Let’s start from the beginning.
I awoke to arguing. This was nothing new. Our small brick two-bedroom duplex illuminated with light and fury that Monday morning. My twin brother and I were unaware as to what school we would be attending. It had always been an uphill battle between our parents since Bromwell’s 5th grade continuation. A battle in which our father would eventually win. He and our step mom did not back down at the idea of sending us to private school. All parties involved were reared in the public school system all their lives. Ours hung in the balance.
“They are going to Hill, Jeff!” my mother bellowed outside our bedroom window as our father stood firm by the cast iron front door. “No they are not,” he shot back with confidence. Hill Middle School was the place to be! It was that or Hamilton. Those two schools were the hype that all 5th graders spoke of upon discussing post continuation plans. We were no different. All of us talked about how cool it was going to be when we went to the same middle school. Behind the scenes our voices were drowned by conversations about attending Graland Country Day or Montclair Academy.
I don’t remember much of sixth grade. What I do recall is so vivid that it probably ousted many other recollections of the 1998–1999 school year. On the first day of sixth grade, Aaron and I were dropped off at Montclair. We pulled up in our father’s burgundy Cadillac Catera and were greeted by smiling faces as we walked down the vast hallway that stretched from one end to the other. Kindergarteners in the front and eighth graders in the back. The layout of Montclair consisted of only two buildings at the time: one building used for a gym and the other for classrooms. The renovated Air Force hanger was long and a tight squeeze that housed us private school kids.
They separated us. My heart raced as we looked at each other with unease and excitement. Two black boys. Two different classrooms. We made friends easily but there had always been a separation between us and them. Nothing direct but rather a transparent experience that had them daydreaming in our reality. Such a daydream had me toe to toe with Max that cool afternoon outside the playground between the Lower School and the Gymnasium.
The sky was clear. The grass was green. The sun ricocheted off the gravel road that rivered through Lowry. I was walking alongside the grass where it met the sidewalk when I was held up in a call-and-response type dialogue. For a moment I thought I was the only one besides the birds in that area just catching some air. Max was a stocky lacrosse built sixth grader who had short black hair and was well versed in the language of Abercrombie & Fitch. He was the popular kid. Max side swiped my time with fresh air and entered my memory for years to come. If my periphery wasn’t in check I wouldn’t have noticed him. He was behind me and to the right. The five syllabic conversation he stirred was the only one in which I recalled. Time stood still, yet I kept walking.
With a smile on his face and a naive childlike tone he spit the lines: “What’s up my nigga?” My mind gave a cock-eyed look but my expression was blank. I was not upset, nor did I expose any sort of emotion. My confusion lied only in one simple question. What told him that it was okay to talk to me like that? He must have zero black friends. My kind of face was only seen on a MTV music video that could be controlled by a remote or a mouse click. He, among the sea of my majority white student body, was engaging in unchartered territory. As was I.
I did not stop nor did I seem phased. I knew who I was and in actuality questioned if he was talking to me. I was as invisible to him as the Invisible Man who dwelled in a hole amongst 1,369 lights. In my state of confusion I simply responded coyly, “huh, nothing!” At that moment my mind became coherent and I asked myself why did I even respond. Why did I give up my power? See, We were taught that it wasn’t what you were called that defines you, what defines you is what you answer to. By answering, I gave him the remote that he may or may not have known existed. My nonchalant response silently allowed my peer a subconscious peeric victory. One battle I regret losing.
The conversation ended just as quickly as it had started. Separate ways, we went. Does Max recall this interaction? Two decades have passed and it feels like only yesterday it happened. It is not a wound nor cherished memory. Simply a footprint.
My brother and I were enrolled in two college prep schools that stinted from 1998 to 2005. Those seven defining middle and high school years molded and shaped the men that we are today. Through challenges both academically and socially we transcended stereotypes, obstacles and growing pains. Not only did we thrive, we excelled. Through the lens of a black boy, journey with me as I retrace my steps among the halls of private school education, its triumphs and its failures. Bear with me.
“black boy white schools” is a multi-dimensional project that explores how students of color, specifically African Americans, can be resilient and successful while maintaining their racial identity and sense of purpose in predominantly white spaces. The first book installment is coming soon.