by Victoria Van Amson
I was truly a rarity at my first debate tournament. As a sophomore, I was one of the youngest competing. I was also the lone African American and contended against all white males. The prep room was cold and concrete, from the walls to students being addressed by their assigned numbers. I sat alone at my table but took note of students who blatantly stared in my direction, presumably because I was the only female in the room. Who knows? Who cares? I was prepared to compete because of the conditioning from two cultures--one of which, Jack and Jill, was probably unknown to my competitors.
Since kindergarten, I have been a student at Nightingale Bamford, an Upper East Side all girls school. Since I was three-years-old, I have been a member of Jack and Jill, an organization of African American families. Both the cultures of Nightingale and Jack and Jill shaped my character. They gave me the confidence to lead. At Jack and Jill meetings, I debated black males about misogyny in hip-hop. At Nightingale, I defended diversity programs at the school in a controversial article in the school paper blasting my classmates' refusal to welcome a speaker promoting racial tolerance. They thought they were more than tolerant already. Both Jack and Jill and Nightingale created many growing pains that strengthened me. So why would I would become a damsel in distress at a debate tournament? I see my ascension in debate as only natural. I became captain of the debate team in my junior year.
Those two corners of my life--Jack and Jill and Nightingale--have a lot in common. Adults--largely mothers-drive the engines of both and create separate villages to provide the best educational and cultural exposure for their children. Both comprise a bit of elitism, welcome a lot of intellectual curiosity, and shape my moral compass through passionate commitments to community service. Yet they are separated by the social construct of race. One corner is barely integrated racially as I am one of three African Americans in my grade. The other one is fully segregated.
I remember when it hit me that Jack and Jill was an African American organization. I was seven years old when I entered a room of people in which I was not the minority. Lost in a sea of dark features, I was more than just the majority; everyone was African American. It was overwhelmingly beautiful but frightening at the same time. I wanted to leave. My mother refused to take me home. This is my first memory of Jack and Jill.
For years, Jack and Jill produced a classic mother-daughter battle. I objected to attending the Jack and Jill events my mother so loved. In middle school I asked her if it was racist for a national organization to exclusively invite African American families to join. I was outraged when my best friend, who is white, came with me to a basketball game sponsored by Jack and Jill. Many other teenagers and parents looked at me as if I didn't belong because there was a Caucasian with me. My friend felt uncomfortable as people stared and I was ashamed.
Yet ironically, Jack and Jill provided the roots of my engaging experience at Nightingale. So often, our society looks at being black as a disadvantage. But my involvement in Jack and Jill shows the strength that comes from the black experience that can ultimately sharpen performance. For example, when I was a freshman, I ran against three seniors to lead Nightingale's Social Events Board. At the time, a first term senator strove to shatter over 200 years of American history by becoming President of the United States. So why couldn't a first semester freshmen make some difference as a leader at Nightingale.
I won the election and my victory is largely rooted in the lessons of a Jack and Jill meeting. The Friday before I was to deliver a campaign speech for the position, my mother coerced me into attending a strange gathering of teenagers at her friends' brownstone--a Jack and Jill teen meeting. I remember my anger as she picked me up after school and I had to miss my dance practice. When we arrived at the woman's house, there were twelve other African American boys and girls seated in a circle. A friend of mine in the group nominated me as the event coordinator. On the spot, I spoke extemporaneously on why I thought I was qualified for the position. I won. More importantly, after the vote, we went around the room and shared critiques of each other's speeches. I was instructed to articulate my ideas more clearly and to make more eye contact. This advice stayed with me the following week when I delivered the speech for the social events board at school. Teachers noted I was the first freshman in memory to ever beat that many seniors. Without the exposure to Jack and Jill, I may have lost that election.
Both Jack and Jill and Nightingale challenge me in everyday life. That does not leave me bitter. I have grown to appreciate what I learn and gain from each environment and how that knowledge compliments my participation in the two worlds. Both communities give me the tools to explore my identity in ways that benefit the search for the elimination of walls that separate us all. My dual identity grows from these separate communities that have allowed me to witness the ways we are all more alike than we think. This realization was the source of my strength to be comfortable and unafraid of standing out at my first debate tournament. I knew every student in the room shared the common goal of analyzing the same topics. The duality in my life has given me a perspective that can help others eliminate fears of difference. This emboldens my mission to bridge some of the divides that do not serve to embody the true values of American democracy and culture.
Victoria Van Amson is a sophomore at Columbia University. She is a 2011 graduate of The Nightingale Bamford School in New York, NY.