At the end of March, I went to see the movie "The Prep School Negro."
I'd wanted to see it for a while, for a couple of different reasons.
One is that I was a white charity kid at a prestigious girls' prep school.
One is that Andre Robert Lee grew up in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia area is where I've lived most of my adult life and which I identify as home. His prep school is in "my" part of town, literally within walking distance of where I most recently lived in Philly. I used to work in the part of town where he grew up, and so did Beloved Wife.
Another is that I have found myself doing a lot of professional work around issues of poor African-Americans and education, and around issues of the "culture" of class. The movie trailer talks both about Lee's "golden ticket," and his sister's sense of losing him to another culture -- powerful stuff, with familiar echoes for me personally and professionally.
Yet another is that I'm now a Quaker, the school that Lee went to is a Quaker school, and I have this "thing" about talking about class issues in Quakerism. Class is present all the time in, and is an important part of, my experience as a Friend; I am determined to keep talking about class issues in our Religious Society; and work we do as Friends about class and race in general is not about "other people" -- it's about us, and it's about me specifically, not just my past life, but my here and now life.
So, there were lots of threads that drew me.
But most of all, what drew me was the intersection of class and race. I knew Lee's experience would have been different from mine. But I also wanted to know what might be the same.
I think I wanted to know, what might I see in Lee's experience that would help me make sense of mine?
I don't talk about my high school much. I don't feel any school pride. Until about a year and a half ago, I kept in touch with exactly one person I'd gone to high school with. I got an excellent education there, and it stood me in good stead, and I'm grateful for that. But I had a horrible time in so many ways, and in so many ways I hated it.
Some of that was about class. Some of that was about homophobia, although I didn't know it then. A lot of it was about girl-on-girl bullying.
So I had hoped that watching Lee's movie would help me figure some stuff out -- about my high school experience, about talking with Friends about class and race and education.
What did I find out?
Yes, there's a lot in this movie that resonates with my teen self. I didn't talk right, either, and I sure didn't dress/look right. I had to figure out where to sit for lunch, in a way completely different from and yet eerily similar to the way the kids of color in this movie did. I was both ashamed of and proud of my parents. I didn't know who the other kids were who might be "like me"/"community scholars." There are other things that were completely different for me, other things that were so much the same.
I realize this was already blindingly obvious, but I never realized it until I saw the PSN and talked with folks there, including Andre Robert Lee: I discovered that I'm ashamed. Ashamed that I went to a privileged prep school, and ashamed that I never fit in there. Both at the same time.
But I also discovered this movie is a lot more tender and gentle, and about a ton less bitter, than I feel about my own experience. Lee, and the other folks in PSN, are a lot more open and honest about how mixed their experience is/was. The good and the bad. Me, I try to hide both.
So what I walked away with is something one of the women there said to Lee during discussion: "We didn't talk about this [then], and this is our experience, and we need to."
We need to talk about it.
I need to talk about high school. I need to talk about being a charity kid going to a prep school. (We didn't have open euphemisms for charity kids like "community scholars"; it was a big secret if you were on financial aid, although you could certainly guess about some of us -- my family's car, for example, was a dead giveaway.) I need to talk about my class background, and about my life as a mixed-class person, and what that's like and how it plays out in my life now. I need to talk more openly about my teenage years and my high school experience.
But here's the big thing:
It's certainly occurred to me a number of times over the years to go back to my high school and talk about homophobia and the particular challenges facing LGBTQ teens.
But never once, until I saw PSN and heard folks talk there, did it occur to me to go back to my high school and talk about class.
I mentioned this to Andre, in part because I was so shocked at myself.
Meeting and talking with Andre was like meeting a long-lost cousin in some ways. We had a brief, but really good, talk. Our experience is not the same, but there's some important stuff we share. And Andre's one of the only people I've ever talked to who I know gets it about my high school experience.
It's really, really important for white kids who went to prep schools on charity to start talking about our experiences. This is part of who we are. The good, the bad, the mixed. The stuff that was horrible. The joys we never would have had otherwise. All of the ordinary, everyday stuff that was neither here nor there.
Race and class are intertwined in US society, but they're not 100% the same. We can't expect our sisters and brothers of color to be the only ones who do the work of unpacking the class issues around this, and we can't ride their coat-tails, either. We can partner with them, and I'm pretty excited about that. And I'm thrilled that Andre thinks it's a good idea for white folks to use "The Prep School Negro" as a springboard to talk about our own experiences with our own "golden tickets."
Lee asked us a couple of things before we saw the film. One was, What did you think when you first heard the title, "The Prep School Negro"? How about now, after? Two was, the same with the content -- what did you see? Third was, what's one word that describes your reaction?
My word: Big-hearted.
If you're not sure you want to see this movie because you think it might make you too uncomfortable, I urge you to go see it. You might laugh, you might cry, you will very likely appreciate it, and I'm 90% sure your heart will be glad you went.
Click here for "The Prep School Negro" website.
Click here for "The Prep School Negro" on Facebook.