I graduated from the top boarding school in the country. On full scholarship.
That’s not an easy feat for a brown girl, from the South Bronx, growing up in foster care.
I remember applying to Phillips Exeter Academy in junior high school. I was full of hope and certainty that I would get in. I also remember Ms. Soler pulling me to the side, reminding me it was one of the toughest schools to get into and I should probably focus my energies on gaining entrance into Madeira, a much smaller much less notable all girls schools in Virginia.
“Fuck her” I thought. “I got this.”
And I did. The moment I got that acceptance letter in the mail was the proudest moment of my 14 year old life.
I went from a foster kid to joining the upper echelons of Rockefellers, Kennedys, and Lincoln.
I wasn’t going to let the doubt of a white woman who decided to dedicate her life to teaching poor black kids without actually understanding poor black children defeat my sense of self. So, off I went.
I love Exeter. I love Ms. Cahalane for being the best mom I ever had. I love Ms. Watkins for keeping me grounded. I appreciate Reverend Thompson and his wife for taking me into their home my lower year and allowing me to take refuge in their basement for three weeks as I totally lost it after I was forced to testify against a man that had raped me when I was 12.
I’m saddened as I read articles demonizing Rev. Thompson for his part in a sexual assault reporting case. I’m not surprised though. At Exeter, racism is an ad hoc affair, often accepted against brown people and rarely condemned.
I remember black and latino kids being kicked out of Exeter for the same transgressions white kids were forgiven for.
History has a way of rewriting itself to fit even the most false of narratives. It’s no surprise that a black man has taken the hardest fall through these controversies for a failure to report than the actual predators who had sex with their own students but are still regarded as good men who made mistakes.
This is what white privilege looks like.
Imagine being the only black kid around a Harkness table at one of the most elite boarding schools in the country while Ms. Farnham teaches that the Holocaust was worse than slavery.
I wasn’t offended that one of my classmates would ask which was worse. I was, however, mortified of her response.
“Of course the Holocaust was worse” she said. “People were put in ovens and separated from their families”.
I was the only minority in the class and I felt minimized, silenced and embarrassed as my classmates looked at me then her. I knew slaves were tarred and feathered, mutilated, shot, hanged, sold, raped, and separated from their families for centuries. It was Ms. Farnham’s responsibility to create a safe space for engagement, not to isolate the only brown kid in the class by diminishing my history to favor the importance of another group that she was more sympathetic towards.
For every positive thing I could say about Exeter, I could reveal something else overwhelmingly negative.
There was that time in another history class where a white classmate made a “Planet of the Apes” joke and, coincidentally, only the black kids heard it. Ms. Schwartz was completely oblivious and assured us our classmate meant no harm after we reported it.
There were no consequences for that student. But there should have been.
Every week I read articles about sexual improprieties at Exeter between teachers and students and I wonder how Rev. Thompson has more press for failing to report than the actual pedophiles who touched their students.
Everything isn’t about race but this is America and racism is woven into the very fabric of what this country is made of. Exeter serves as a microcosm for how this country operates. Exeter houses the brightest students and teachers and despite the Ivy League degrees and billions of dollars that passes through the Academy, Exeter continues to fail its students by not only failing to protect them from pedophiles but also intellectualized racism and deep rooted micro aggressions that impact students for a lifetime.
The discourse around sexual assault and reporting has been an important discussion in the boarding school circle over the last couple of years. I applaud every journalist for finally covering a topic that should have been addressed decades ago.
I hope this piece reaches Ms. Farnham and she reads every word. I want her to know that in my thirties, I never forgot her words or her actions. In that moment, she made me feel isolated and silenced. It was a scarring moment for me when it could have been a teachable moment for everyone.
Teachers who promote racist rhetoric are as toxic as the pedophiles that Exeter protected and I am happy that I have a platform to tell my story.