As soon as that preposterous photo of President Trump brandishing the bible hit the stratosphere, I intuitively sensed who was behind his pilgrimage from the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church.
“This reeks of the First Daughter,” I shared with a friend. I sat up straight in my chair, threw my shoulders back, thrust out my chin and cheekbones (mine are natural, without benefit of a plastic surgeon’s scalpel) and delivered my best Ivanka.
“Daddy, this is an important moment,” I tittered, lips pursed. “It will be like Moses and the Ten Commandments.”
My friend laughed. “Is she like the girls you attended school with?”
“Oh no! She went to Chapin. Brearley girls are not like that.”
Three decades later, I’m embarrassed to admit it remains etched in my consciousness that Chapin girls are blonde and snooty whereas Brearley girls are brighter, better, more magnanimous.
The truth is much more complicated.
Recently after coming across a flurry of posts on Brearley’s Facebook alumnae page, I was guided to the Instagram account @blackatbrearley. “For all Black folks, past and present, whom The Brearley School never let belong,” reads the account profile.
This was one day after George Floyd was buried alongside his mother in Houston. I sat bereft and inspired, angry and encouraged, throughout the four-hour homegoing celebration of his life.
The Instagram posts are revealing, raw, painful. “A white student once told me the reason my skin was so dark was because I didn’t clean myself,” says one. “In fifth grade, to help kids understand slavery, I was asked to be the slave. A white girl was chosen to be my master.” There are charges that the college advisor steered qualified black applicants away from more challenging schools. In other words, the school exhibited the racist attitudes and behaviors that permeate daily life for most African-Americans that most whites question and deny. That is, until now.
My brother sends me a cartoon by Felipe Bris Abejon spoofing the famous scene with Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch. A hooded character is draped in a Ku Klux Klan robe that billows behind her revealing a police officer’s blue pants, radio, gun and badge. “America’s skirt has been blown up and everything is being exposed.” I text back in response, “Truth!”
It is heartbreaking to see that truth artfully laid out in red and white (Brearley’s colors) on Instagram. I have always been a proud Brearley girl, having attended on a full scholarship from grades six to twelve, or VI to XII. (At Brearley, alma mater of Oona O’Neill, Caroline Kennedy and Tea Leoni, grades are designated by Roman numerals.) My art hung on the walls at Brearley long after I graduated. I have spoken on panels, written the class notes for the alumnae magazine and contributed to a book commemorating the school’s 125th anniversary.
Of course, not all of my experiences were positive. In sixth grade, as I stood next to the elderly music teacher at the piano and sang, she observed, “You have such darling little African ears.” In the seventh grade I wrote a poem with the telltale title “Empty, Black and Lonely.” There was always a deep cultural and economic divide between me and my fellow students. In my family’s apartment building in the South Bronx, the distinctive aroma of collard greens collided with the pungent garlic of our Puerto Rican neighbors’ cooking. This was not my classmates’ world. Brearley girls retreated to second homes or “country houses” on the weekend. Brearley girls wore tiny alligators on their shirts, sailor rope bracelets on their wrists and Top-Sider boat shoes, Frye boots, clogs or Tretorns on their feet. To gussy up the navy pleated tunic uniform, I dressed in psychedelic Polyester prints though I did manage to locate a creamy Fair Isle sweater in the sales rack at Alexander’s department store on 149th Street.
As one Instagram post sharply points out, social dynamics shifted once it came time to date. I was excited to learn that the tall, dark-skinned boy who showed up at a school production attended Collegiate, Brearley’s boys school counterpart. Previously, I had known of only one African-American boy at that school. My dating pool had suddenly increased by one hundred percent. Every December, New York society hosts the Gold and Silver ball for Upper School students of private schools. I knew better than to ask my parents if I could attend. The charity event cost fifty dollars.
Brearley responded to the recent debacle by sending a letter attesting to their commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion” by “actively addressing the institutionalized racism in our school.” A plan is forthcoming, the board president and head declare. I don’t doubt it. The world has glimpsed under Brearley’s tunic. And for many of its black students, the treatment they received there stings more than that slap on the face.
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