What This Brown Girl Learned From 13 Years of Prep School (and Why I Would Be Hesitant to Send My Brown Kids to One)

We all want the best education for our children– we want them to have the best opportunities, and are often willing to sacrifice for it. For those of you who are like me– who don’t yet have children, but think about these topics often, we think (often too hard) about the impact of these decisions on our future children’s lives. While I cannot truly begin to break down the multifaceted inputs of this decision in its future circumstance, I can begin to dissect my own experiences and target the lessons I’ve learned from that path onto the decision-making process: a pro-con separation process I call whiteboarding. At the end of the day, what I learned from my time as the brown girl at one of the ranked prep schools of the country, however, is that I would never wish my experience on my babies. While every child is different and experiences things differently, some things stay the same. After more than a decade in private schools, I recognized a few things:

1. Kids are cruel. Being different at a prep school really is traumatizing.

I literally cried every day for every year I was in high school, and not only ended up with internal struggles that should have never been an issue (identity because of the juxtaposition between race and perceived wealth, education and race, etc. and between my understanding of race and the failed understandings of my teachers and classmates) due to the daily burden of wearing a mask, but I also ended up internalizing deep-seeded issues with others. Before I knew what white tears were, I was drowning in them, and before I could convert the neat cursive my mother had taught me on the college ruled paper she’d provided in my school bag to the fat-handed print on triple-lined writing paper that my teacher found acceptable, I nearly drowned in the scorn that came from the privilege of my paler classmates. As the only child who was different, without access to teachers who understood or experienced difference, I shouldered the burden of educating my peers and my educators on race, the experiences of the othered, and acceptability (and unacceptability) of their language and behaviors. It didn’t take my spot in my Ivy League college, my funded space in my top-ranking, world-renowned master’s program, or my government- grant supplementing my funded PhD for me to understand what Imposter Syndrome felt like: I understood it on day 3 at my new Kindergarten class when the little blonde girl told me that she, like the rest of my classmates, wasn’t allowed to play with black-skinned girls, so we would never have play dates. Our game of tire swing was pointless. And all of my 4-year-old self understood it better– the things my parents had prepared me for. I’d become numb to it even then, but over the next 12 years, that shell wore away and that ambivalent, or even indignance that I felt in that moment gave way to a who different set of feelings. While prep school is where I learned grit— tenacity, determination, drive— it’s also where I learned a me-against-the-world attitude that came with self-preservation and began to acquire a sincere and prolific distrust of people who didn’t experience the world as other. I wouldn’t wish that isolation on any child: not the hurt, not the anger or bitterness, and not the fear. I wish the resourcefulness, perseverance, and fire– the determination I acquired as a result–to come from a very different place for them, and I pray that they know none of the troubles of not being alone, but *feeling* so alone in a room so constantly full of people in spite of all their efforts.

2. Teachers are not always ready to or are often willing to dig in and teach brown students.

Cultural competence, and really cultural tolerancem is a real and critical aspect of the educational (and developmental) environment. Often, teachers in sheltered environments are “lifers” who initiate their careers in the private school system and intend to conclude it there, and in learning the sheltered system, are unwilling to grow, shift and change (or otherwise participate) in societal growth that may benefit othered children. The microaggressions and outright aggressions children experience from teachers who are supposed to protect and foster growth in early life can be downright damaging. This was the case in my life. While the parents of other brown students, and my parent, did their best to identify and shield students from these behaviors, I would hesitate to believe that it no longer exists, potentially in higher frequency, in these institutions. I am unwilling to submit my child to this unnecessarily. My child will have their entire life to be reminded that they are brown, that some people will not believe that they are as smart or beautiful or simply good enough simply because of that fact, so why would I begin that sooner, or increase the frequency with which they are reminded?

3. Prep school is expensive. Like, paralyzingly expensive. Like, can’t eat expensive. Literally.

My mom often didn’t eat to allow me to get an education. I’d often come home to her picking mold off of bread, making mustard sandwiches, and feigning satisfaction. She’d arrange for me to wake up early to ride into school for breakfast, and pretend not to be able to pick me up until late, asking me to eat dinner on campus. We literally did not have food in my house for years because public school was not an option where I lived, and my mom found education to by my way out. The tuition was just too damn high. Eventually, the school waived my tuition requirements and turned a blind eye to my board, but with elementary school tuition at some private schools reaching more than $40,000 per year, and high school tuition reaching $60,000 per year, private school costs are not only out of reach for most families, but they are flat out absurd. In all, K-12 education (with no tuition increases, books, fees or supplies during this time) would cost more than $575,000 in addition to the general cost of raising and providing for these little people. While financial aid brings this cost down for the majority of students in attendance, it does not wipe the slate clean, and many families come to hardship, suffering to make ends meet under the pressure.

Instead of paying more than half a million dollars for this educational opportunity which the child may or may not appreciate or take advantage of, why not take advantage of the free academics in a good school district and supplement advanced and AP courses with summer enrichment and evening college courses for your teenager at your local university? Your child will not only be able to complete his/her basic education requirements. If you are wondering what courses are most useful for this, start with the basics:

  • An English/Writing course (will help with college applications)
  • Language course
  • Math (calculus I and II at the college level, or statistics I and II)
  • Consider a Quant or Qual Analysis Course in Sociology, Anthro or Public Health
  • Sciences usually have long lab course requirements that meet in the mornings, so these are best taken in the summer or once the student arrives on campus

See if the high school will permit the student to take the courses for credit.

4. Prep schools have obscene bounty. Like, no one really has to pay tuition anymore, ever.

The endowments for these places can be larger than those of some research universities. They don’t need your pennies– they just collect it so that people don’t hear about it on the news without their PR people releasing it first. Because they don’t need the money in order to keep the lights on and endowments are what they are, private schools, and later, private universities (or really, any institution with an endowment) really can give money away. Save the money, help your child go through university without student loans, buy an investment property, and give it to your child as a gift when they graduate school– set them up for success.

5. Your child doesn’t need to go to private school in order to be successful, to get a quality education, or to get into the best schools

Beyond the fact that many students who attend Ivy League universities don’t attend private high schools, one thing I’ve learned is that the high school you attended (while ever relevant in your memories) is completely irrelevant on both your resume and your CV. Further, your institutional pedigree’s level of importance increases with the level of education achieved– your graduate degree is more important than your undergraduate degree, which is more important than your high school.

Further, private school status neither guarantees the quality of education nor precludes a student enrolled in the public school system from obtaining a high-quality education (particularly if they do extra work or attend various programs available to them through local universities in preparation for college). In other words,  in the public school system, being your child’s educational advocate (and ultimately developing solid academic habits and creating new academic standards) becomes an increasingly important part of your duty as a parent.

6. Prep school status can hurt your child’s chances of getting financial aid or scholarships, even if you need them.

This is true at the local and national levels alike, and most commonly, for community most familiar with both you and the prestige of the institution your child attends. I think the latter is the most hurtful, though– that despite what your community does or does not know of your struggles, they view education as a privilege, despite the circumstance, and that those who are unable to afford to pay for an education, should not be able to earn or otherwise obtain one. As such, any need- or merit-based grant offered to a child may preclude further generosity based on need.

One word: optics! It’s hard for a community to address a “need” when their understanding of your fiscal status relies upon stereotypes of wealth and wasted privilege, instead of resting on the laurels of reality. They don’t know of generosity that comes with financial aid, grants, and stipends at the high school level, particularly for families in need. So, despite the actual need, the child wrestles with the image painted inside the head of the grantor, and not with the unbiased numbers on the page of the parent’s fiscal statements.

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