Being Black + Private School = A Lifetime of Depression
I attended two separate Private Schools on Long Island, NY. From First to Fifth grade I attended Portledge School, a very small school with maybe thirty to fifty kids in each graduating class. I actually liked Portledge, everyone was kind for the most part and I felt like certain teachers actually had my best interest at heart. By Sixth grade, my parents transferred me to Friends Academy which ironically was right down the street.
I remember my first day at Friends Academy. I felt like an alien. It was huge, I didn’t know anyone and it didn’t really seem like anyone wanted to get to know me either. I entered at the same time as a lot of other new students, but it seemed like they all flocked to the ones that looked more like them. If you guessed white, you win the cash prize! I obviously wasn’t going to tell my parents this, because anyone who has attended a private school knows that you’re supposed to treat this opportunity as an “honor”. The notion is that I should be grateful that I was even admitted to this ~prestigious~ school. And when your parents are paying $25k per kid, you keep those opinions to yourself. Honestly Friends Academy is the worst thing that could’ve happened in my life.
For starters, when I looked around there was nobody else that looked like me in my class. Sure there were like two kids who were half black, but being mixed gives you an “in” with the white kids. I am black. Always have been, I was black before I was born and I’ll be black after I’m gone. The white kids weren’t going to let me forget that either. Once they built the courage to speak to me, I got asked all sorts of stupid questions about my hair, what my parents do, if I was related to another student in the school who looked nothing like me… you name it. Constant microagressions from teachers and students alike. Just like my girl Jodie from Daria said; “At home, I’m Jodie – I can say or do whatever feels right. But at school I’m the Queen of the Negros”.
After a while you get tired of feeling being gawked at 24/7 so you try your best to fit in. You get perms to straighten your hair. Once that breaks all of your hair off, you wear weaves for years, which also destroys your hair. But honestly you’d rather DIE than let anyone see your hair in it’s natural state. Today at 25, my go-to style is box braids past my butt (yes, she’s got inchesssss baby!), but I would not have had the confidence to wear a black hairstyle back then. Regardless of my comfort level, according to our schools handbook it wasn’t even allowed.
Not only was I insecure about my hair, but I grew insecure about my body. I’ve had huge boobs and a big butt since I was twelve, just like all of the women in my family. It’s in my genetics. When I would get undressed in the locker room I would feel embarrassed that I was larger than the fully grown yet grossly underweight ninety pound girls in my class. It got to the point that I would either get there before everyone else to change alone or change in the bathroom stall in order to spare myself from feeling “fat” for ten minutes. For all four years of high school, one of the librarians would call me some other black girls name EVERY TIME I would go to check out a book, to the point that I felt uncomfortable even going there. It was almost like she thought it was some sort of fun guessing game. Might I add that the only black students that looked alike were the ones who were ACTUALLY related, hell my own brother and I don’t even look alike. Basically what she was telling me was that “you all look alike and I don’t need to bother learning your name”.
No matter what I would do I would still feel like an outcast. I lost weight, and entered my junior year thinking “NOW, they’ll like me”. However nothing was enough, because the one thing they disliked about me, I would never be able to change. The only thing that seemed interesting about me to these people was that my dad was in the music business, because they couldn’t relate to me on any other level. Also, they couldn’t quite grasp the fact that a black family could obtain more wealth than them. I knew when random parents called me by my first name, it meant that they looked my family up in the school directory and more than likely googled my dad. So many parents of kids who I had no relationship with would contact my dad and attempt to relive their childhood dreams of being a singer.
What people don’t realize is that when the media, your classmates, and even your teachers are constantly telling you’re not good enough, your self esteem is pretty much nonexistent. Teacher’s would call home and insinuate my depressive nature was due to something happening at home… rather than the toxic environment that the school upheld. They were fully aware and did nothing to change the situation, because it wasn’t effecting them. And because it wasn’t happening to them, it must be a “personal” problem.
The six years I spent at that school were easily the worst years of my life. And I spent 2 years trying to narrow down whether or not I had a cancerous tumor growing in my face, so that says a lot. Years of teachers singling you out and discrediting your abilities will make you feel like you’re stupid. Years of rejection from crushes on white boys and six different prom dates will make you feel like you’re ugly. Years of trying to fit into certain clothes and abide by the “dress code” will make you feel like you’re fat. The only message I got from this school was that I was basically worthless.
To this day, I still fight to not believe these things about myself. Some days I battle my own thoughts because I wonder why I was subjected to that type of experience. But I know it was made to make me stronger. SO many students have come forward with similar stories. It hurts that so many black students were suffering, but I’m relieved that I wasn’t alone in my experience. Now that we’ve all graduated, social media has played a big part in us all reconnecting and sharing our stories of trauma and supporting one another in our post graduate endeavors.
The best thing I’ve done for myself is move across the country and leave all my memories of that place behind. While I know moving to a place like Los Angeles isn’t exactly a tangible solution for most people, living your truth comes at no cost. Though I still feel a sense of self doubt on occasion, it’s pretty awesome to finally be the person who I’ve always wanted to be. I wear my natural hair without any judgement. I wear my glasses proudly, and don’t risk my eyesight with painful contacts. I even got the tattoos that I always wanted! For years I was brainwashed into thinking that if I didn’t fit into this certain mold, I might as well be invisible. Since moving, I’ve been able to make friends of all different backgrounds who actually like me for me. Sure life gets me down once in a while, but I can look at myself and say I am glad I’m no longer struggling to change myself to fit into a society that’ll never accept me.
When I think about all the good memories in my life, they either happened before or after I attended that school. At my graduation I didn’t shed a single tear, I was relieved that I would never see that place or those people again. Friends Academy is a huge factor of my anxiety and depression, and for years I felt like I was crazy putting the blame all on a stupid private school who’s mascot was the Quaker Oatmeal man (yes, really). Private schools or “college preparatory” schools are meant to do just that, prepare you for college. But it didn’t even pay off at the end because many of us didn’t even get into the schools of our dreams. If I had to do it all over again, I would have told my parents how horrible my experience was early on, and save myself from the years of trauma I experienced at Friends Academy.