The Price of Admission
In addition to being excited as parents, our inner filmmaker was thrilled, too. Wouldn't it be fascinating to film a documentary about diversity in this elite, historically white environment, we thought? It could be a longitudinal film similar to the Up series, which had checked in with fourteen British children every seven years beginning in 1964 (the most recent film in the series was 56 Up, which was released in the United States in 2013). Perhaps we could follow a diverse group of kids through their twelve-year journey at Dalton.
We asked Seun's parents Tony and Stacey as well as the parents of two other students of diverse backgrounds—a white girl and a mixed Latina-Greek girl—and the school leadership at Dalton if they would be involved. They all agreed. We started filming at school, in our homes, and at various events in each student's life (recitals, birthday parties, and the like) for a few days each month. We had high hopes that our film would capture the possibilities that diversity and a great education offered. But had we known then what we would document, we might never have picked up a camera.
Everything at Dalton started off well. In the beginning we shot the footage ourselves, which meant that we were in the classroom relatively often (the older the boys became, the more they resisted having us behind the camera). We were excited to see Dalton's imaginative approach and access to resources on display in the early grades, like when Idris learned about reproduction in kindergarten by studying, incubating, and raising baby chicks in the classroom. But it didn't take long for us to have some concerns. Just two weeks into 1st grade, Idris's teacher claimed that he was behind in his reading. The school wanted him to participate in special supportive reading sessions that would pull him out of the classroom. We were shocked! They had decided this based on observing him and without getting to know anything about Idris or his abilities. He had come in reading at a very high level and had continued reading at a high level. We thought they were awfully quick and just a little too comfortable in reaching that conclusion—especially when they offered nothing concrete as evidence. When we pushed back, they told us that we had not quite understood—if this had been public school Idris would be fine, but at Dalton his skills wouldn't cut it.
It is still painful to remember how humiliating and poorly managed those early conversations were—and how naive we were in our belief that Dalton was prepared to educate our son. Coming from humble beginnings, neither of us were (or are) quick to throw our credentials around, but did the teacher know that we both were Ivy League graduates with graduate degrees? (In addition to being filmmakers, Joe is a Harvard-educated psychiatrist; Michèle is a Columbia educated lawyer.) Did the school realize how much time we spent with our son? Did they know how much we read to him? Did they see how verbal Idris was (and is)? What if he had just not been feeling well on test day? The reading support had begun right away, but we insisted to the head of the lower school that he not be removed from the classroom. We also asked that they reconsider their assessment. They realized that he didn't need reading support after all. This was one of several early incidents that were all somewhat ambiguous—we didn't yet understand their common roots in racial bias—but created enough of a pattern to make us feel defensive.
As if these sorts of incidents weren't bothersome enough, Idris and Seun were becoming unsettled emotionally. Some of Idris's classmates had interrogated him about whether his parents were rich or poor, which made him very uncomfortable. He decided that he didn't like the name Idris and wanted to change it to John or Tom. Apparently Seun had begun criticizing things at home that related to black people. One night he had brushed his gums until they bled—he wanted pink gums like the white kids' gums, not brown gums like his own. Add academic stresses on top of that. The level of rigor and learning was tremendous. Our sons were competing with the children of millionaires. On one occasion Seun vomited when the teacher called him to the front of the class. In 2nd grade Seun and in 3rd grade Idris began to struggle scholastically. Both sets of parents were surprised, since the boys' test scores up to that point had been very high. Idris now had trouble focusing. He would forget to bring home his homework; when he did his homework, he would forget to turn it in, or he would do well on his homework but get low grades on his tests. None of this made sense, given how hard he was trying. The school suggested that we have him tested for ADD. We didn't buy it. We were convinced that he was going through normal "boy stuff." We had heard many white parents talking about boys forgetting, getting distracted, or struggling with being organized—the same issues we were experiencing with Idris. We worried that he was getting picked on because he was black. In the end, it turned out to be more complicated than that—but we'll get to that story later.
Our concerns about Dalton's ability to handle the needs of a black boy continued to mount. When Idris was in 4th grade, the school had suspended him for two days for hitting another student, a boy who had also hit Idris but had not been punished. Adding insult to injury, the school had suspended our son for an additional day for allegedly lying about not hitting the boy. Idris insisted that he was telling the truth, and knowing a lot about how our son behaved when he lied, we believed him. Was Idris suspended because he was black and the other boy was white? Because the other kid's parents were among Dalton's benefactors and we weren't? For some other reason? There was no way to know. But our Spidey senses were tingling.
By 6th grade Dalton was sending us warnings that Idris was not performing up to the standard the school expected at his grade level. Our constant interventions—from homework help to assisting him to stay organized—helped him keep up,—barely. Seun fell behind and was put on academic watch. The school suggested that Seun and Idris take advantage of tutoring that they offered to students on financial aid, which we did. Only later did we learn that the only two kids in the 6th grade seeing the tutor also happened to be the only two black boys. At first we were insulted. But then the school told us that they offered the free tutoring to help level the playing field—apparently our sons' classmates had been getting private tutoring all along; we just hadn't known about it. And not only had they been getting tutored for years, they had been getting tutored to the tune of $20,000 to $30,000 a year.
We were flabbergasted! Were they really telling us that a $25,000-a-year education wasn't enough?! No wonder our sons couldn't keep up! We had stumbled across the inner workings of the educational-industrial complex, a world where private tutors and test-prep classes help middle-class and (especially) affluent families customize their children's educational experiences, increase their children's study time, and maximize the children's academic capacities. Back then people were paying $250 an hour for some of these private tutors. We couldn't afford that. (Today, we understand, the range is between $400 and $500 an hour. Imagine . . . .) Ultimately these tutoring sessions weren't enough, though. Both Idris and Seun needed more.
The emotional wear and tear on the boys was extremely hard to stomach. Idris was scoring in the 97th percentile nationally on 6th grade tests, but when he went to school, he felt like a failure. Seun hated school.
Idris was also struggling with identity issues. From time to time he would question us about how he fit into the stereotypes that our society spins about black males—that they are dumb, criminal, violent, dangerous, and naturally gifted athletes and performers. It shocked us to learn that at times even Idris felt more capable of playing in the NBA than being a scientist, the latter of which was far more likely. As he moved back and forth between his predominately white educational environment and his predominately black community at home, we watched him struggle to code-switch—change his speech patterns and dialect as he navigated back and forth across cultures. One of his white basketball teammates at Dalton was picking on him, but so were some of the kids on the mostly black team he played with on weekends, who had been bullying him and telling him he talked "white."
Culturally, emotionally, and socially, Idris was struggling, and it was starting to look as though his spirit might break. We'd known that Dalton would exact an emotional price, but we were starting to think maybe that price was too high. Of course, we could always have pulled him out of Dalton, but we hoped not to have to do that. We had gotten him into this mess, and it was our responsibility to help him figure it out. In the meantime, one by one the families in our diversity film had dropped out of the project, except the Summerses. But Tony and Stacey were concerned about exposing Seun's difficulties. We kept filming even though we no longer knew what our film would be about. Increasingly, the cameras were capturing the struggles, tears, frustration, and yelling that were becoming more common in our homes—and the less picture-perfect side of Dalton.
From Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and in Life, by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard, © 2014 by Joe Brewster, M.D., and Michèle Stephenson with Hilary Beard. Reprinted with permission from the author and Spiegel & Grau. www.randomhouse.com