There’s been a strong, visceral response to this series of posts including within the Sidwell network. Which is interesting. To catch up,  read Part I, Part II and Part III. Attending Sidwell Friends School is a complicated, multi-layered experience for everyone involved. I’ve heard from a lot of people for whom these posts have struck a nerve. I recently heard from another perspective — the Black Sidwell Parent. She’d prefer to remain anonymous so I’m excerpting her story and our conversation over email. I think this typifies the black response to the Sidwell education. Like the famous option in Facebook, our relationship with Sidwell is perhaps best described as “It’s Complicated.”

My initial response to her included: You are a supermom. Yeah, it’s complicated, being black at Sidwell. I know what you mean about the economic diversity among the black students — I felt the same way. I’d never been around so many black kids that weren’t related to me before I went to Sidwell ironically! Back in the burbs, all the kids had been middle class and I was frequently the only black kid in class and often the only black kid in my local Montgomery County’s “gifted and talented” programs as they were called. And I too feel extremely fortunate to still have many close friendships from my Sidwell days. There’s something about the school’s culture that successfully engenders lifelong friendships and a lifelong connection to that extended community. I also agree that Sidwell is great at teaching critical and independent thinking.

Mystery Supermom is a successful professional parent who’s a little older than Baratunde and myself with children therefore younger than us but now just about grown. So her son, as described below, attended Sidwell more recently than Baratunde and me. As a black Sidwell parent, she probably has more in common with Barack and Michelle Obama than we do, come to think of it. Here’s her story:

Judging from your graduation years, I’m guessing that I fall right between your parents’ generation and your own. I graduated from high school in the early 1970’s after attending (then) highly-ranked suburban public schools. I grew up with white kids, walked home with them, played at their houses after school, had sleep-overs with my mixed classmates. It was a rare 50/50 racial mix. And because the black parents who moved into my neighborhood tended to be multi-degreed professionals, I never felt any inferiority to my white classmates. Unlike my older siblings, who were in junior high school by the time my family moved to the suburbs, I had no particular interest to attend an HBCU.

Fast forward a few years. I wanted to buy a house in the District, but my husband was adamant. The schools are too bad in DC, he said. He wanted our kids to have the same kind of education I’d had. So we bought our first house in Montgomery County.

In short order we were blessed with two wonderful children; a boy and a girl. They were (are) bright and beautiful, although with different personalities. My son taught himself to read at the age of three. His transition from preschool to kindergarten was pretty seamless. We moved further west into Montgomery County to make sure we were in a school cluster with higher test scores. By second grade our son had been tracked into the gifted and talented program.
But it wasn’t right. Unlike the easy racial mixing I’d experienced in elementary school, our neighborhood was overwhelmingly white. Because he attended a magnet school, our son’s regular class had racial, ethnic and religious diversity. But when asked about his special gifted and talented classes, we were told “I’m the only black boy there.”
I knew where this could go. I’d spent too much of my life surpassing white people’s lowered expectations, receiving the unspoken “compliment” that somehow, I wasn’t like “other” black people. I knew that message would come at our son and that we had to do something to prevent him from absorbing it.

So we investigated Sidwell Friends. I found the classrooms to be more diverse than our public school, and with more diversity in the types of black families enrolled. Yes, there were the scholarship students. But there also were middle-to-upper middle class black folks who were doing far better than we were. Along with the obvious superior classroom instruction, the children at Sidwell were exposed to all kinds of black folks. And that was as important an element of the educational environment as anything else.

Our son started as Sidwell in third grade. He missed his old friends, but made new ones and frankly, it was a more diverse group. The smaller classes and teaching style were a better fit for my son’s more introspective personality. It was a big financial hit, but we thought it was worth it.

My husband died suddenly right before the end of fourth grade. And that’s when the Sidwell community really distinguished itself. From fourth grade graduation, through the transition to Middle School and all though the unbelievably horrible personal experience of my son’s fifth grade year, Sidwell linked its arms around my baby until he could try to stand up on his own again.

Sidwell was far from perfect in dealing with middle-school aged black men. I remember my son wrote a long history paper to prove his thesis that Middle Ages Africa had civilizations like Timbuktu that far surpassed many European cultures His eighth grade history teacher gave him a B, saying that although the paper was well-written, he had not proven his point. My son’s tutor, a Jewish woman, called the teacher a racist.

By eighth grade, we began to realize that perhaps Sidwell was not the best fit for my son’s high school experience. The relentlessly competitive academic environment you describe so well was going to be too much to balance on top of the other baggage he already carried. So he transferred out at the end of Middle School.

Yet, here’s the thing. My son continues to have strong, close relationships with his Sidwell “friends.” They’re in college now, all benefiting from that foundation of critical thinking that they got at Sidwell. He’s a political junkie, thinking about grad school.

A number of the black boys in my son’s class ended up leaving Sidwell before graduation [Note from Jill: I’ve deleted the actual year, but to place in context, it’s within the past five years]. We parents used to whisper about the dirty little secret of the great liberal bastion. However, I still am grateful for the quality of the education my son received, and how it taught him to be such a critical thinker. He knows his own mind, and cannot be swayed by fad or fashion.

So I guess what I want to say is that it’s complicated, this school thing. As individual as each child and each set of parents. Just so you know: my daughter did not attend Sidwell. For a variety of reasons, a single sex environment turned out to be the best thing for her.

Like I said. It’s all so complicated.

Thanks for your time. I hope these thoughts provide some additional context for your discussions.

No, thank you, Mystery SuperMom! What’s great is that thanks to the internet, we Black Sidwellians now have a way to share our own experiences with each other and the world. Send in your stories!

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