I entered my senior year at Boston Latin School (BLS) with a spirit of triumph. I felt like I finally made it. In earnest, I was on the extended plan, having repeated my seventh grade year. BLS was every bit the challenge I was told it would be by then Headmaster Michael Contompasis who said on our first day of school: “Look to your left, look to your right. By graduation time, many of you won’t be here.” I spent most of my years at BLS barely passing most classes. In fact, the end of my sophomore year was the first summer that I did not have to attend summer school. I came back my junior and senior year focused and ready to be a leader at BLS…and that’s when my real education started.
Junior year was when I really began to question my role and experiences being black at BLS. I realized how the complexion of my classes got lighter the more advanced courses I enrolled in such as English Honors. I recalled times where I was disciplined more harshly than white students for the same offenses—an issue plaguing many school districts today. I started to realize that in my entire 7-year experience at BLS, I read one book by a black author—ironically Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I remembered how I would only see pictures of black leaders on the wall during Black History Month. The more frustrated I became with my experiences, the more opportunities I sought to be a leader. By my senior year, I was president of the Afrikan Kulture Society, and I ran for senior class president and student council president. My experience running for senior class president was my final wake up call.
On election day, I entered school and found a great deal of frustration on the part of many black students. I was told that several white students wore white sheets on their heads to protest my candidacy. Many students skipped class that morning to go to the office in protest. I, maybe out of fearlessness or stupidity, went about my day. I had not experienced physical bullying at BLS since the 7th grade and by my senior year, I felt very comfortable defending myself if I needed to. What I remember more about that day than seeing students crying was the inaction on the part of my teachers and administration. As Dr. King said, at the end of the day, we’ll remember the silences of our friends than the words of our enemies. In fact, it was not until maybe second period where one of our European teachers, Mr. Berger, told students to take their hoods off when we they showed up for our French class. I remember asking myself how these students made it through part of the day with those sheets on and today, I ask myself why they were never disciplined and this is at the heart of what I see with the #blackatbls controversy today.
My experiences at BLS are why I have become a diversity educator today, working with schools nationwide including Boston Public Schools on how to create more culturally competent schools. While I am not directly involved in the current issue at BLS, I know what it feels like to be marginalized there. But even with my challenges at BLS, my time there was not all doom and gloom. I lost the senior class president race but won the student council presidency. The senior class presidential team was multiracial, and I definitely graduated BLS college-ready so I can speak to BLS’ great potential to create strong students. I also had some great teachers who were instrumental to my development. I just can’t help but think, however, of all of the other students like me who never felt truly welcomed at BLS and either left the school or just became less engaged.
In full disclosure, I have not stepped foot in BLS in several years and I do not know the current headmaster Dr. Lynne Mooney Teta so I cannot comment on what the school has or has not done recently to promote respect for diversity. What I do know is that I represent many black alumni who, rightly or wrongly, have not fully engaged BLS at the level we should have beyond graduation because we felt as though the school did not care much for us, so like many graduates of color from many majority white high schools, colleges and universities, we left and never looked back. My hope is that the #blackatbls moment can serve as an opportunity for all of us in the BLS community past and present to deepen our commitment to respecting diverse cultures and having courageous conversations so that there will never be a need for a #blackatbls moment in the first place.