Sunday, February 13, 2011

A School Where Nobody Has To Pass

One of the benefits of working in an incomparably diverse school is the opportunity it provides for discussions of race and class. Students and teachers at Crossroads College Prep openly talk about how their lives are affected by their skin color, their socio-economic situation, and the way that they view themselves and others view them.

I thought about this recently as I listened to a fascinating speech by Princeton University historian Martha Sandweis on her book Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. In her work of non-fiction, Sandweis traces the double life of Clarence King, a 19th Century scientist, explorer, and friend of Presidents and Secretaries of State. King was a blond haired, blue-blood member of the East Coast intellectual elite who dined with the upper echelons of post-Civil War America; however, unknown to many, King also had a second life existence as an African-American in Brooklyn with a wife and family who thought he was a black Pullman Porter named Clarence Todd. (I have attached a link to a New York Times review of the book below.)

Sandweis uses the story of Clarence King/Todd to explore uniquely American, and even more particularly New York, concepts of race and class. As Sandweis shows, this story could only have happened in New York City at the turn of the century, and while she may have been telling the tale of one man, she is really explaining America’s tortured concepts of race.

I thought about Crossroads College Prep as I listened to Sandweis. In a school that is almost fifty-fifty white/students of color, race and class are concepts that we are constantly thinking about and with which we are grappling. For we know that diversity is really only the first step toward creating the kind of community we want. As the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) says, diversity is merely a quantitative measurement: it shows what the population looks like. To be the school we wish to be, we need to be constantly taking the next step and looking at how to be an even more inclusive community, and that’s why in the Crossroads College Preparatory School Mission Statement, we stress that we are both diverse and inclusive. In St. Louis, we can point out places that are diverse in terms of the types of people present, but the people that are there don’t really interact with each other in a meaningful way. We want our school to be much more than that and to be a refuge from the racial polarization that has characterized our city for far too long.

All too often, adolescents have to hide who they are for a variety of reason ranging from simple peer pressure to feeling like they truly don’t belong in the community. We hope that having young men and young women in a school that is both diverse and inviting allows them to be who they are so they can become who they want to be. If we can provide all of our students with this experience, hopefully, they will never feel like they have to pass for someone else.