What it's like to be a black student at an elite boarding school

Being black in a boarding school When some people meet Kendra James, they find it hard to believe that she really went to boarding scho...

When some people meet Kendra James, they find it hard to believe that she really went to boarding school. She was a rarity: In 2003, James became the first black heritage student at Taft School, an elite preparatory academy in Connecticut. And in “Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School,” James gives readers a first-hand account what it was like to stand out.

When James first arrived in first grade, she was determined to befriend white students – but nothing really worked. She was the girl who was almost ignored by her white roommate. She was the girl who had never received a “crush”, a school tradition, from a fan. It didn’t matter that his father also went to Taft, James didn’t seem to fit in.

Over time, she was able to befriend other students of color, who became her allies.

Taft’s administration, which has called itself “proud every time a graduate writes a bestselling book,” is still in contention with its history and practices, decades later. The school “has changed and improved dramatically over the past 16 years,” a spokeswoman said. “Our work never ends.”

James spoke to Giulia Heyward, a journalist who frequently covers education, about her experiences as a student – and whether she would ever send a child of her own to boarding school.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You went to Taft in the early 2000s. But a pivotal moment for you came at a reunion, after the death of one of your former classmates, another black student. How did that play into your motivations for writing the memoirs?

I was having a conversation with a kid in my class, and we started talking about people who weren’t there.

It was really weird to realize that he didn’t know that this classmate was dead. Many of them did not know that he had died. And that incident made me keep thinking about the memory legacy that students of color need at Taft. Not only how do we students of color remember Taft, but how our classmates remember us, and whether they really remember us or not.

We obviously stood out during our stay, because it was hard not to. But what did they really remember about us? Our personalities? What did we experience while we were there?

There are so many difficult moments to read in this book. I remember the classmate who accused you of stealing $20. But I also found myself laughing at so many passages in the book! Why did you write these moments with so much humor?

The idea that I had gone to boarding school was kind of so weird to some people, that’s how I started telling these stories. I always said to them in this kind of “Aha! That’s how it happened,” to mask the insidiousness of what was really going on.

At some point in my senior year, the boys in one of the dorms decided to start peeing in bottles and throwing it out the dorm windows. I just remember one day during an English lesson we all ran for the window because I think one of the bottles had landed on someone, or very close to someone, on the sidewalk .

So stories like that, I would tell them with humor. And that makes these stories a little more palatable to outsiders and to people who aren’t used to these things.

After graduating from Taft, you started working at an organization that helped students of color go to boarding schools. How do you feel about it now? Do you think Taft and other similar schools have changed?

I think they have changed. They now know the word microaggression. That said, I think incidents in schools are very cyclical. Because they happen, the school has to organize a very important response, but then everything dies down. These same incidents then recur, a few years later.

I think there’s more of an urge in a place like Taft to want to do better. It’s just a matter of making sure the work is continuous and ongoing.

Much of this book is really a coming of age story. And I’m curious, what do you think your life would be like if you hadn’t gone to Taft but to your local high school in Maplewood, NJ?

I know that my life would have taken a completely different direction. First of all, I wouldn’t have gone to Oberlin College, and like that, it’s just a numbers game, right there. Our local high school was known to send several kids to Oberlin each year, but between my grades and everything else, I would have been lost in the numbers. It would have been a huge change for me, personality-wise.

I think some of the realities of being a black person in America wouldn’t have come to me so quickly. Maplewood is a very wealthy and diverse city. It would have taken me much longer to leave this bubble. It would have taken me a while to accept some pretty hard truths.

In “Admissions” you write that you do not intend to send your children to Taft. Do you still feel the same?

For so long I thought I would send my children to Taft, even before I got married or had a significant other. My attitude has changed a lot.

I am open to independent school. My portfolio may not be open to independent school.

I would never send my child somewhere I can’t get to in 15-20 minutes. When you send your child to boarding school, you are buying in loco parentis, which is in the place of the parents. And so you trust those teachers and staff to raise your child for you.

How can a white adult be in loco parentis for a black child if that white adult doesn’t have the tools, or the instincts, that are often needed when it comes to parenting a black child in America ? It stays with me. It’s just something you can’t change.

  • Pfizer asked the FDA to to allow a two-dose regimen of its vaccine for children under 5 years of age.

  • Public health officials focus on increase strokes for kids ages 5-11whose vaccination rates are even lower than most experts feared.

  • Some schools have doubts about “test to stay“Strategies.

  • New Orleans has implemented a vaccine mandate for children aged 5 and over, which came into effect on Tuesday.

  • Utah will allow state workers to take time off from their daily work to help staff schools.

  • “It’s like back and forth, back and forth,” Reyes Pineda-Rothstein, an eighth-grade student in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., told The Times of distance school. “It’s just stressful.”

  • Opinion: School mask mandates in liberal states “have kept children masked in communities where the public health regime otherwise has little sway,” Times columnist Ross Douthat argue.

  • Opinion: “Mandatory school masking should end when coronavirus rates return to pre-Omicron levels,” Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argue.

  • A good read: A new study has found that personalized tutoring is both an effective way to catch up on missed learning, but difficult to adapt to all students who need additional help, The 74 reports.

Book Bans and Program Monitoring

  • Some parents, lawmakers and school officials in the United States are trying to ban books. A Tennessee school board voted unanimously to remove “Mausthe Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust because it contained inappropriate swearing and the depiction of a naked character.

  • chinese government sentenced to death a man for creating a manual with information on historical resistance movements. The man is a Uighur official who headed Xinjiang’s education department.

  • Utah teachers are fighting a bill that would allow parents to review teaching materials Before the classes.


  • At least 17 historically black colleges and universities said they had received bomb threats days, although no explosives were found. The University of California, Los Angeles switched to distance learning on Tuesday after threats.

  • Georgetown University Law School has suspended Ilya Shapiro, a lecturer who criticized President Biden’s vow to name a black woman to the Supreme Court.

  • Two Michigan universities — Oakland University and Central Michigan University — mistakenly told students that they had won scholarships.

  • A 20-year-old student from the State University of New York at Oneonta has died after being found unconscious off campus.

  • President Biden’s promise to cancel some student debt has stalled, The Wall Street Journal reports.

  • Several women have filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan and a former lecturer, claiming sexual assaultpsychological torture and academic neglect.

And the rest …

  • Residents of Cambridge, a predominantly white town in upstate New York, are battling a state decision to withdraw their native american mascot and team name: “Indians”.

  • Lawyers for the accused teenager in the Oxford High School shooting said he would pursue an insanity defense.

  • Private companies offer teachers a better salary for leave the class, reports the Wall Street Journal. A January National Education Association poll found that 55% of teachers were planning to leave the profession sooner than expected.

Some infant formulas are Out of stock in some parts of the country. Understandably, caregivers worry about how they will feed their infants. Babies can be picky and it can be stressful not having guaranteed access to their favorite brand. Some advice :

  • Standard formula: Call local stores, check online or turn to social media for local parent groups.

  • Special formulas: Try your pediatrician. They might have samples of hypoallergenic formulations or others aimed at specific health conditions.

  • If you need to change: Check the main ingredients first. It’s best to buy a new formula that matches the main ingredients listed in your regular formula.

It is important to never dilute the formula or use one intended for a different age group. Instead, look for a generic version. Your baby may be a little gassier or more restless than normal, but their food will still be safe: the FDA regulates all infant formula.

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What it's like to be a black student at an elite boarding school
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