Guest Blog – Head of School, Steve Nelson – Ask, Then Listen





One of life’s unheeded principles: If you want to know how people feel, ask them. Then listen.

Since the recent article in the New York Times about the experience of students of color in independent schools, a flurry of commentary ensued, including on the RIISE blog. Many, perhaps most, of the voices have offered a counter-argument to the Times article’s contention that the experience for students of color may not be entirely as it appears. Too many of these somewhat defensive expressions have come from those who have skin in the game, so to speak. To listen to these folks one would believe that kids of color are not only excelling in our schools, but navigate the social milieu with daily serenity as they lead and achieve their way to Harvard. Sorry, I just don’t buy it.

Last month several Calhoun students organized a discussion, prompted by the Times article. It occurred on demonstration day, our version of final exam day. We don’t give many exams, being a progressive (read sane) school. Instead, students demonstrate what they’ve learned through presentations of research, summaries of projects, panel discussions, poster sessions, films, performances . . . you get the idea.

20+ students of color gathered in a classroom joined by several curious white kids and a few teachers (and me). The hour long-conversation was extraordinary, liberating, infuriating, heart wrenching and, most of all, sharply honest. They asked each other and listened to each other. It was safe. Or perhaps I should say safe enough.

Not one among these students described a school experience in which they navigated the “social milieu with daily serenity” as some folks, particularly school leaders, might wish. Now it’s possible, although statistically improbable on the order of a dog suddenly reciting the Gettysburg Address, that Calhoun just happens to have a rare cluster of kids who suffer from the insidious racism in our communities and schools and that it’s different at all other schools. But I don’t think so.

I think it’s more likely that students of color in independent schools have too few “safe enough” environments in which they can speak truth to the power structure they navigate. And even if they do, is anyone really listening?

There’s a lot at stake. I don’t wish to assess blame. That’s not helpful. But it is clear to me that school leaders, including those who assist and support students of color in our schools, have a natural inclination to claim that things are just fine. “Daily serenity” is helpful in fundraising and maintaining the illusion that all is dandy. Creating a “safe enough” place to elicit the real experiences of our students can be uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable.

There’s a lot of risk for everybody. Students of color, understandably, don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. For too many students, I suspect, the unspoken message, echoing silently from adults in school and home is, “You’re lucky to be there. Mind your manners.” For many students of color, vulnerability is hazardous. No one, particularly a teenager, likes to publicly acknowledge emotional or social discomfort. Pride is a good thing – to a point. And, I suppose, many of the extraordinary students of color in independent schools are so accomplished and skillful that they don’t, in fact, suffer from the sharpest barbs that institutionalized racism presents.

The factor that most consistently silences the truth is the pervasive myth that we are living in a post-racial society. Sure. And dogs can talk. But in the soft haze of this mythology, honest talk from students or adults of color can be too easily dismissed as “playing the race card” or being “victims.” Those canards can shut off a conversation in a painful heartbeat.

I have no special right to characterize the experience of students of color. In fact I have to be very careful When Gina invited me to write a piece, I thought more than a few moments about my own privilege. But I do have the right and obligation to report what I’ve learned from listening. And I’ve heard a lot.

What do you think? I’d really appreciate hearing others’ perspectives. Fire away:

Upcoming Calhoun Diversity & Equity Open House Thursday, 11/29, is at capacity . If  you have questions click link below for contact details.

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