My initial plan for my next eight essays/stories was to try to write and present them in chronological order - connecting back to this moment. However, this past Monday I helped facilitate an emotionally draining and amazingly cathartic three and a half hour Zoom meeting dealing with the most impactful place of my life: Pomfret School. Sharing, but more importantly, hearing the stories of fellow alumni, classmates, and most devastatingly, kids who were in my care at Pomfret moved me to this essay.
Pomfret, for me, has been like the father whom I have always unconditionally loved but who never quite loved me back in the way that I needed to be loved; he never fully saw me for who I was. He helped me grow and demanded that I strive to be great in a manner of how he saw greatness. I use father, rather than parent, because I believe that part of the problem with our world is that so many other institutions of power (schools, churches, police), see leadership as mostly masculine and patriarchal. I am not speaking of the sex or gender of the leader, I am male and I believe that my best leadership skills are feminine, I am speaking about how we lead. We have unfortunately taught so many of our girls and young women, as well as our boys and men, that leadership looks masculine; therefore, you either can’t be a leader, or you must adopt, use, and succumb to traits of assertiveness, ambition, aggressiveness, etc., in order to compete and lead. And when women do master or learn to mimic those traits, we criticize them for not being “feminine enough.” I will revisit this in a separate essay.
Please do not misunderstand me, I loved and I still love Pomfret. I love the friends I made at Pomfret when I was 14, and when I was 45. The sum of my time there was overwhelmingly good, but it doesn’t mean that I haven’t been hurt. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have some emotional scars that upon reflection still smolder in the light. I spent 24 of my 46 years living, loving, leading, and learning on that campus. It’s where I fell in love for the first time and it's where I fell in love for the last time. It is so much a part of my foundation that I can’t imagine where I would be without that opportunity. I was recently listening to NPR and a writer was talking about an interview that she (or he) had done with the musician, Prince. She said that they were talking about all the hurt, trauma, and disappointment of his childhood and she asked him, “Is there anything from your youth that you would change?” He thought for a second and replied, “No. If you take one brick out of the foundation, the whole building collapses.”
Pomfret is a massive brick in my foundation.
I do not remember the exact date, but I remember the day like it was yesterday. My parents, six of my siblings, my grandmother and I loaded up my stuff into a borrowed church van and headed thirty-seven miles northwest to Pomfret Connecticut. The van was a bright white, with a gold crucifix and the words Trinity United Methodist Church, stenciled across the side. At the time, I thought nothing of it; I was blindly proud of my Christian faith and psyched that my entire nuclear family would be accompanying me on the start of this adventure. My brother was going to Hope High School, one of the worst high schools in the city, and I was lucky enough to be going to one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. Pomfret was only thirty-seven miles in distance from my home in Providence but light-years away from anything I had ever known. My three other older siblings had gone to a public high school that boasted a graduation rate well under fifty percent. And at this point, no one in my family had ever had the opportunity to attend college, never mind the means to make it happen. Here I was being given (mostly through the grace of unknown benefactors) the ultimate privilege to attend a prestigious boarding school where, though it meant nothing to me at the time, one hundred percent of the students went to four-year colleges; I was all but guaranteed success. All I had to do was survive this place; a place where I didn’t fully understand the cadence or the “language;” a place where I was a true minority for the first time in my life.
As we pulled into the entrance, the famed “front circle,” we were directed to pull up in front of Plant Dormitory (Upper III) to unload. I got out of the van and immediately realized how different I was. Most people were unloading their stuff from BMW’s, Audis, and sleek new SUVs. This was the late 80’s so SUV’s were rare, but not on that day. The other families unloaded computers (another huge deal at that time), leather desk chairs, stereos, comforters, etc. I seemed to just unload family members; three brothers, three sisters, a grandmother, and my mom and dad. In fact, “my stuff” consisted of one faux-leather suitcase, which was filled with an old blanket, two sets of sheets, and a wardrobe that consisted of a cornucopia of hand-me-downs and thrift shop specials, that my mother had lovingly put together. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I had ever had, and I appreciated it greatly until my friends put me through a much harsher reality version of “Prep Eye for the Poor Guy.” The dress code for boys back in 1988 was essentially a fashion show for the rich and famous, with a heavy and intentional leaning towards four stores I had never heard of Brooks Brothers, LL Bean, J-Crew, and Sperry Topsiders. I owned no khakis, just suit-pants, my only blazer was brown, and because I hadn’t mastered the art of tying ties, several of my ties were clip-ons. From day one, through jokes, innuendoes, and sometimes just straight criticism and direct comments, they let me know that I didn’t belong.
My first roommate was a relatively rich kid from New York City; he had awesome stuff. Stuff that wasn’t mine; stuff that he rarely ever let me touch. One day he asked me to borrow my iron and then had the audacity to offer me money to iron his shirts. Though I sincerely considered it for a moment, I literally had no money, I declined. We weren’t friends, but we had one thing in common; we were both pretty unpopular early in our Pomfret careers. I was a poorly dressed, unsophisticated black kid with a chip on my shoulder and he was a chubby kid, with a snobby edge, who often picked his nose and we joked, “ate the findings.” By Thanksgiving break, we were allowed to find new roommates; no one picked me. He moved in with a kid who had lost his roommate due to a bad decision and I inherited a completely unfurnished single. It was a huge room and I should have been happy, but every night at lights out I would stare blankly at the moonlit bare walls and feel sorry for myself. I was angry and sad, but most of all I was lonely. Was Pomfret the right place for me? I was one of two black boys in the freshman class and the other was a slightly “odder” day-boy with an exaggerated lisp, who was so much more ostracized than I was, that even I made fun of him. That fall a white classmate (now a friend) derogatorily called me a “fucking moulie” and another (still not a friend) called me a “nigger” and spit in my face because he said I spit when I talked. (He earned one of the few punches that I have ever thrown with real anger in my heart). These were just some of the macro-aggressions of the first semester.
As I struggled to fit into the culture of the school, mainly for survival, some of the older black kids called me names like “oreo” and “Uncle Tom.” I talked to the Dean of students about leaving but never mustered the courage to discuss it with my parents. I didn’t want to disappoint them; at that point, I had never failed at anything in my life. Thankfully, the winter season came, and I discovered a small passion for and some hidden talent in basketball, and I made some friends in the process. I had finally found some common ground with some of my peers; I decided to stay. Leaving would have meant failure. It would have meant a lesser opportunity. It would have meant turning in the keys to what was a much clearer path to “success.” Staying meant, as a 14-year old, attempting to assimilate without fully losing myself. It meant learning to appreciate and thrive in the “diversity” of the intended inhabitants while always feeling like a visitor. It meant unintentionally disappearing into a “whiteness,” an upper-class, male-centered, blinding whiteness where even the wealthy white kids were being unknowingly and irrevocably hurt. We were all kids, breathing the same elitist and invisible, soul-poisoning smog, but for some of them, it was just oxygen. I was rarely mad at them; how could I be? They were going to be the masters of the universe, and they for the most part let me into the club. My disappointment is with the adults that couldn’t or wouldn’t see or smell the smog. My disappointment is with my older self who knew that the smog was there but didn’t do enough to help clean it up. I know at times I tried hard, but I could have done more; as adults, we all could have done more. We still can.
Schools like Pomfret, great schools with mainly good intentions, had a reckoning with sexual abuse because of a “few bad apples.” They are now reckoning with their complicity in the system that helps make them great. As alums of private schools and private colleges, we benefit immensely from this system whether we are white or of color, whether we are rich or poor. The benefits are just a little easier to attain and maintain if blending in always means being yourself.
If you have read this far, you are hopefully a believer that we can be better -- do better as individuals, as institutions, and as a nation. Don’t be paralyzed by the enormity of the past, learn about it, talk about it, and learn from it.
The Zoom meeting reminded me of my favorite thing to say to my students when bad things happened or if they made poor decisions, “We can’t control what’s already happened, but we can control what happens next.”
Your next step is the most important. Stand Up! Dig down, dig in, and resolve to BE different! Do Something! See the smog. See the smog in your neighborhoods; see the smog in your temples, mosques or churches; see the smog in your family gatherings; see the smog in your schools, public or private. See the smog and then become an environmentalist for equity and justice. Show others where it is and volunteer to help clean it up. If you give money to any institution, demand that it goes towards cleaning up the mostly invisible or visually-suppressed “gunk” that in the end makes us all lesser. If you can’t (or won’t) give money, give your time to make sure that the air of your organization is safe to breathe, safe for everyone who truly values all lives.
With Love, and Hope for Greater Connection,