We spoke with Kendra James, the author of “Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School.”
Amelia Nierenberg and
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When some people meet Kendra James, they have a hard time believing she really went to boarding school. She was a rarity: In 2003, James became the first Black legacy student at the Taft School, an elite preparatory academy in Connecticut. And in “Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School,” James gives readers a firsthand account of what it was like to stick out.
When James first arrived as a freshman, she was determined to make friends with white students — but nothing really worked out. She was the girl who was all but ignored by her white roommate. She was the girl who never got a “crush can,” a school tradition, from an admirer. It didn’t matter that her father also went to Taft, James couldn’t seem to fit in.
Over time, she was able to make friends with other students of color, who became her allies.
Taft’s administration, which said it was “proud whenever a graduate authors a successful book,” is still contending with its history and practices, decades later. The school “has changed and improved significantly over the past 16 years,” a spokeswoman said. “Our work never ends.”
James spoke to Giulia Heyward, a reporter who frequently covers education, about her experiences as a student — and whether she’d ever send a child of her own to boarding school.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You went to Taft back in the early 2000s. But a pivotal moment for you took place at a reunion, after a former classmate of yours, another Black student, died. How did that play into your motivations for writing the memoir?
I was having a conversation with a kid from my class, and we got to talking about the people who weren’t there.
It was just really weird to realize that he didn’t know that this classmate had died. A lot of them didn’t know that he had passed away. And that incident propelled me to continue thinking about the legacy of memory that students of color need at Taft. Not only how we, the students of color, remember Taft, but how our classmates remember us, and whether or not they do really remember us.
We obviously stood out while we were there, because it was hard not to. But how much did they really remember about us? Our personalities? What we were experiencing while we were there?
There are so many hard-to-read moments in this book. I remember the classmate who accused you of stealing $20. But I also found myself laughing at so many parts in the book! Why did you write about these moments with so much humor?
The idea that I had gone to a boarding school was kind of so outlandish to some people, that that’s just sort of how I started telling those stories. I would always tell them in this sort of “Aha! That’s how that happened” way, in order to mask the insidiousness of what was really going on.
At some point in my senior year, the boys in one of the dorms decided to start peeing in bottles and dumping it out the dorm windows. I just remember one day, during English class, we all ran over to the window, because I think one of the bottles had landed on someone, or very close to someone, on the sidewalk.
So stories like that, I would tell with humor. And it kind of makes those stories a little bit more palatable for outsiders, and for people who aren’t used to these things.
After you graduated from Taft, you started working at an organization that helped students of color go to boarding schools. How do you feel about that now? Do you think Taft, and other schools like it, have changed?
I think that they have changed. They now know the word microaggression. That said, I do think that the incidents in schools are very cyclical. Because they happen, the school has to mount a very large response, but then it sort of all dies down. Those same incidents then happen again, a few years later.
I think that there is more of a desire, at a place like Taft, to want to do better. It’s just a matter of making sure that the work is ongoing and continuous.
So much of this book is really a coming-of-age story. And I’m curious, what do you think your life would look like had you not gone to Taft but to your local high school in Maplewood, N.J.?
I know that my life would have gone in a completely different direction. First of all, I would not have gone to Oberlin College, and like that’s just a numbers game, right there. Our local high school was known for sending several kids to Oberlin every year, but between my grades, and everything else, I would have been lost in the numbers. That would have been a huge change for me, personality-wise.
I think some of the realities of being a Black person in America would not have come to me so quickly. Maplewood is a very affluent and diverse town. It would have taken me a lot longer to leave that bubble. It would have taken me some time to come to terms with some pretty hard truths.
In “Admissions,” you write that you have no intention of sending your children to Taft. Do you still feel that same way?
For so long, I thought I would send my kids to Taft, before I was even married or had a significant other. My attitude has very much changed.
I am open to independent school. My wallet might not be open to independent school.
I just would never send my child away to a place that I cannot get to within 15 to 20 minutes. When you send your kid to a boarding school, you’re buying into in loco parentis, which is in place of the parents. And so you are putting your trust in these faculty and staff that they will parent your child for you.
How can a white adult be in loco parentis to a Black child if that white adult does not have the tools, or the instincts, that are often necessary when it comes to being the parent of a Black child in America? That just stays with me. That’s simply something that you can’t change.
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Utah will allow state workers to take time off from their day jobs to help staff schools.
“It’s like on and off, on and off,” Reyes Pineda-Rothstein, an eighth grader in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., told The Times about remote school. “It’s just stressful.”
Opinion: School mask mandates in liberal states“have kept kids masked in communities where otherwise the public-health regime has little purchase,” Ross Douthat, the Times columnist, argues.
Opinion: “Mandatory school masking should end when coronavirus rates return to pre-Omicron levels,” the Times columnist Michelle Goldberg argues.
A good read: A new study found that personalized tutoring is both an effective way to make up for missed learning, but hard to scale to all students who need extra help, The 74 reports.
Book bans and curriculum oversight
Some parents, lawmakers and school officials in the U.S. are trying to ban books. A school board in Tennessee voted unanimously to remove “Maus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, because it contained inappropriate curse words and a depiction of a naked character.
China’s government sentenced a man to death for creating a textbook with information about historical resistance movements. The man is a Uyghur official who headed the Xinjiang’s education department.
Teachers in Utah are fighting a bill that would allow parents to review curriculum materials in advance of lessons.
At least 17 historically Black colleges and universities said they have received bomb threats in recent days, though no explosives have been found. The University of California, Los Angeles, switched to remote classes on Tuesday after threats.
Georgetown University’s law school suspended Ilya Shapiro, a lecturer who criticized President Biden’s vow to nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court.
Two universities in Michigan — Oakland University and Central Michigan University — mistakenly told students that they had won scholarships.
A 20-year-old student at the State University of New York at Oneonta died after he was found unconscious off campus.
President Biden’s pledge to cancel some student debt has stalled, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Several women filed a lawsuit against the University of Michigan and a former lecturer, claiming sexual assault, psychological torture and university negligence.
And the rest …
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Lawyers for the teenager charged in the Oxford High School shooting said he would pursue an insanity defense.
Private companies are offering teachers more pay to leave the classroom, The Wall Street Journal reports. A January poll from the National Education Association found that 55 percent of teachers were planning to leave the profession sooner than expected.
Some baby formulas are out of stock in parts of the country. Understandably, caregivers are worried about how they will feed their infants. Infants can be picky, and it can be stressful to not have guaranteed access to their preferred brand. A few tips:
Standard formula: Call local stores, check online or turn to social media for local parent groups.
Special formulas: Try your pediatrician. They might have samples of hypoallergenic formulations or others meant for specific health concerns.
If you need to switch: First check the top ingredients. It’s best to buy a new formula whose top ingredients match those listed in your usual formula.
Importantly, never dilute formula or use one intended for a different age group. Instead, look for a generic version. Your baby may be a little gassier or fussier than normal, but their food will still be safe: The F.D.A. regulates all infant formulas.
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