A response to the whirlwind surrounding my high school Alma Mater, and the resulting conversation that’s been started in St. Louis. For context, please see one of many relevant articles, including this one from STLToday.
Dear Alma Mater,
I first stumbled through the halls of MICDS as a wide eyed seventh grader. I spent six years with my footsteps echoing through the marble staircases of a college preparatory school that rivaled something out of a CW drama. Every morning my sister and I would wake up at the first sign of sunlight, to make the 45 minute trek from our quiet middle class suburb in North County, through the windy roads of Ladue’s multi-million dollar mansions that eventually lead to the stairs of my alma mater.
Objectively, I loved going there. I loved that most of my teachers had advanced degrees and would let students stick around after class to ask them questions for hours. I loved the way success was not something to strive for, but that excellence was expected just as the sun was expected to rise every morning over the manicured lacrosse fields. I loved that my classes were small, that I never had to raise my hand to leave class to run to the bathroom (“you’re adults, you can leave when you need to leave” was something I heard even as a middle schooler), and that I was free to study and complete work at my own pace. I never felt like a child, but rather a young adult who was granted the freedom to discover myself and navigate through my love of learning.
To my alma mater; I will never regret my six years as a student.
But being black there was not easy, and this is a sentiment that has been expressed by each and every single black classmate that I’ve spoken to. I had to grow up fast. I learned that I needed to defend my hometown because half the student body had never been to North County, let alone knew how to get there, or understood the treacherous journey it took for me to simply attend class on time. I remember the confusion on my face when my classmates asked why my prom date wasn’t black (“won’t your parents be mad or something? I didn’t know black girls could date outside their race”).
I remember feeling frustrated that the “Obama ’08” sticker on my mom’s car was scratched off while I attended class. I learned how to speak up for myself when students would make wild accusations or make off hand comments. I had to brush off the fact that my classmate called another black student “dramatic” when she teared up after seeing vivid photos of black people being lynched in the south during a history class. I grew thick skin and learned how to play the game, because playing the game was what so many of my ancestors had done in the past. I learned to grit my teeth when I needed to, and learned when I should speak up against injustices when the time was right.
To my alma mater; I need you to understand the price that black kids pay to walk down those marble halls. We’re given the best education that the city has to offer. We’re also given the responsibility of being the sole voice of reason when a student says something racist in class and no one will stand with us.
You need to understand that when we leave that 100-acre campus, we are greeted by a city that’s been segregated for 150 years. Understand that there were days I would skip late night play rehearsal because I wouldn’t dare drive around Ladue late at night, alone, with a driver’s license that indicated that I wasn’t from the area and thus “didn’t belong there.” Know that in the context of a segregated city and a racially tense country, the last thing a minority kid needs is to feel unsafe in their own school. Understand that it’s better to be proactive than to only address diversity once a problem has made it to the public eye.
Black students do not experience this school, they endure it. Endure it because most of our parents sacrificed for years in order to afford the tuition. Endure it because we knew, and our parents knew, that the best chance we had to be taken seriously in St. Louis as a black person, was to have a name like MICDS behind us. Ask any minority student why they stayed, and you’ll likely hear it was a method of survival.
Understand that providing a top tier education should include providing resources, support, and yes, even protection. Because when it comes down to the hierarchy of needs, a student’s psychological safety is much more important than any form of reactionary apology. Trying to address an issue after the fact does very little to heal the psychological damage that the student may have already sustained.
I remember feeling a pit in my stomach before I left town for college. Not because I was leaving my hometown or because I was nervous to start my degree. I simply couldn’t imagine leaving my younger sister to attend the school for two more years without me being there to protect her. I needed to know that someone would be there to look out for her, look past her smile and truly see if she was really doing alright. It’s what the older black students did with me, and what I did for all of the younger black students. We created our own system of protection because there was no system already in place to support us.
Since graduating college, I receive countless messages from black parents in St. Louis, asking for my opinion on whether or not they should send their child toMICDS. On every occasion, I tell them the positives first. There’s no better school in the city as far as education, athletics, opportunity, and networking. Though as the years pass and I continue to hear news of intolerance and hate speech, I question whether it’s responsible to point a child in a direction that might ultimately prove to be psychologically harmful to them.
I challenge you, alma mater, to be proactive and set the standard for independent private schools across the country. Show the nation the correct and most impactful method for addressing diversity; clearly denounce racism and any form of intolerance. Show the nation that we not only lead in test scores and success rates, but that we’re paving the way to dismantling segregation and intolerance. I ask you to be proactive in creating and maintaining an environment in which students feel safe. I ask you to be proactive in the admittance process, and ensuring you’re keeping racism and bigotry from entering the school. I challenge you to protect each and every one of your students, before it even becomes a problem. I ask you to be proactive in creating and maintaining an environment in which students feel safe.
I kept this letter brief, because to be quite honest, we are past the point for long emails and written sentiment. At this point, it’s action or nothing.
Class of 2011 alumna