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A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School
By Kendra James
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“[C]harming and surprising. . . The work of Admissions is laying down, with wit and care, the burden James assumed at 15, that she — or any Black student, or all Black students — would manage the failures of a racially illiterate community. . . The best depiction of elite whiteness I’ve read.”—New York Times
A Most Anticipated Book by Vogue.com · Parade · Town & Country · Nylon ·New York Post · Lit Hub · BookRiot · Electric Literature · Glamour · Marie Claire · Publishers Weekly · Bustle · Fodor's Travel· Business Insider · Pop Sugar · InsideHook · SheReads
Early on in Kendra James’ professional life, she began to feel like she was selling a lie. As an admissions officer specializing in diversity recruitment for independent prep schools, she persuaded students and families to embark on the same perilous journey she herself had made—to attend cutthroat and largely white schools similar to The Taft School, where she had been the first African-American legacy student only a few years earlier. Her new job forced her to reflect on her own elite education experience, and to realize how disillusioned she had become with America’s inequitable system.
In ADMISSIONS, Kendra looks back at the three years she spent at Taft, chronicling clashes with her lily-white roommate, how she had to unlearn the respectability politics she'd been raised with, and the fall-out from a horrifying article in the student newspaper that accused Black and Latinx students of being responsible for segregation of campus. Through these stories, some troubling, others hilarious, she deconstructs the lies and half-truths she herself would later tell as an admissions professional, in addition to the myths about boarding schools perpetuated by popular culture.
With its combination of incisive social critique and uproarious depictions of elite nonsense, ADMISSIONS will resonate with anyone who has ever been The Only One in a room, dealt with racial microaggressions, or even just suffered from an extreme case of homesickness.
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closed weekend: A weekend (usually during a campus event like Parents’ Weekend or Hotchkiss Day, or final exams) in which students couldn’t sign out to leave campus; the reason I didn’t get to see Hitch on opening day.
faculty brat (fac brat): A student whose parents teach at the school they attend.
FLIK: The company used by many independent schools to provide three square meals a day. It probably tasted better than I remember, as my palate was less refined than the sugar in the Nerds Ropes I used to eat by the dozens, but who’s to say, really?
grades: Behavioral demerits that could be assigned by faculty for infractions ranging from skipping class or trying to hatch a goose egg under a desk lamp in your dorm room, to leaving a flat iron plugged in for hours after you’ve left for class or wearing the same skirt as your classmate while having a larger ass, thus somehow making it inappropriate.
hall monitors: Student narcs selected by dorm faculty to help ensure that dormitory living runs smoothly.
head monitors: Two seniors—one boy and one girl—voted in by the student body to lead the student government. These students tended to be less narc-y, as they were elected by their peers, not adults.
Honor Code: The Honor Code governs student life at Taft, putting in place standards and consequences specifically for theft and academic infractions. Assignments are signed with “I pledge my honor…” (short for “I pledge my honor that I have neither given nor received aid on this paper,” which we were required to write on all larger term papers and exams). The theft clause allows Taft’s campus to be a rather idyllic community, where backpacks and other personal effects are left lying around the school with a reckless abandon, a habit that students don’t unlearn until they end up getting their wallet stolen from a condiments counter at a New York City Panera because they left it there while they got up to go to the bathroom. Honor Code violations are disciplined by the Honor Committee at Honor Court.
Hotchkiss Day: One day each year, usually in the fall, when Taft plays its rival, Hotchkiss, in as many sports as possible. Taft students spend the week leading up celebrating, which, in my day, culminated in a pep rally in which we would light the name of our own school on fire. I’m not sure why we were burning ourselves in effigy, especially since with two Ts in the word Taft, every picture from one of those rallies looks like it’s a Klan-hosted cross burning.
in loco parentis: Latin meaning “in place of the parents.” If you’re planning on sending your kid to a boarding school, make sure you’re very comfortable with this phrase, because it’s what you’re gonna hear when you ask anything from why the nurse gave your kid Advil instead of Tylenol to why a dorm parent performed a full-on Steve Wilkos search of their dorm room because they thought they smelled something skunky.
the Jig: Short for “the Jigger Shop.” A small campus café where short-order line cooks slung bacon, egg, and cheeses, burgers, and fountain sodas in the afternoon when classes had finished.
legacy: A student whose parent or grandparent also attended and graduated from the same school. There is often, though not always, some sort of generational wealth involved.
lower mid: A boarding school freshman; the incoming year for most new students.
MIA list: The “missing in action” list is the list of students from that year’s senior class who didn’t make it to graduation, for whatever reason. It was printed in the back of the yearbook, and the class of 2006—whose senior shirts read, “I thought it was a good idea at the time!”—was rumored to have one of the longest in school history.
mid: A boarding school sophomore; a handful of new students are introduced to a class at the start of each mid year.
Morning Meeting: A daily gathering in the auditorium in which a classmate, faculty member, or outside speaker gives a speech to the student body.
Non ut sibi ministretur sed ut ministret: Latin meaning “Not to be served, but to serve”; Taft’s school motto.
Old Boy/Girl: An older student assigned to an incoming freshman or sophomore to show them the lay of the land.
postgrad (PG): Contrary to what you might be thinking, this has nothing to do with graduate or doctoral work. There are many ways in which White Male Privilege manifests in the world, but one of my favorites is when a school lets a senior transfer in for a fifth (or sixth) year of high school (and a parent is willing to pay that extra year of tuition) so that they have another chance or two at getting recruited to play a sport professionally or at a D1 school. That said, the admissions professional within me asks that I note that a postgrad year also serves the purpose of simply strengthening an academic record for college admissions in general, and can help students acclimate to living away from home for the first time in a lower-pressure environment. But it also seemed to have a lot to do with hockey. Just saying.
prospies: Prospective students who come to campus for either a tour or an overnight visit.
Screw Crew: A punishment campus work detail assigned to students who racked up too many grades.
sit-down dinner: A formal dining experience, once a week, where students and faculty are expected to dress up and seating is assigned; i.e., the only meal where The Black Table and The Asian Table don’t exist.
TAALSA: The Taft African American Latino Student Alliance; basically a Black and nonwhite Latinx student affinity group.
Ten School Admissions Organization: A group of Northeast boarding schools (Choate Rosemary Hall, Deerfield Academy, the Hill School, Hotchkiss School, Lawrenceville School, Loomis Chaffee School, Phillips Academy Andover, Phillips Exeter Academy, St. Paul’s School, and Taft School) that collaborate in terms of admissions outreach and standards.
upper mid: A boarding school junior; students rarely transfer into a class at the start of an upper-mid year, and the ones who do are usually demonic, running from something, or both.
UTC: United Cultures at Taft; similar to TAALSA, with more Asian students. White kids could join this one too, not that they were banging down the doors to do so.
For three years after graduating college, my Saturday morning routine was set in stone. Instead of sleeping in, I would get up with a 7 a.m. alarm. I pulled on a pair of Kate Spade heels, squeezed into something professional and high-end-looking from my favorite floor at Lord & Taylor, and took the 6 train down to my designated Saturday morning haunt: a school theatre overflowing with parents on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Each week from December to June, as many as 250 mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and responsible almost-adult play-cousins of middle schoolers made their way to one of New York City’s most prestigious and expensive schools by 9 a.m. They arrived to vie for admission to the Scholars Striving 4 Success (S34) program, which—after months of grueling extra academic work—would guarantee their child a spot in an independent school in New York City or a boarding school in New England. Schools built atop precise, sharp-sounding consonants, with single-name recognition, like Spence, Choate, Hackley, Exeter, or Collegiate.
Our program only accepted children of color, and this early in the morning they visibly slumped in their seats.
Their parents’ eyes, on the other hand, grew wider with hope the longer the meeting went on. Some only brought their single young applicant, but many came with two or three children, because the child old enough to watch their younger siblings was the one old enough for our program.
They came to listen to us—all independent school admissions professionals—make them an offer that was a foreign concept to many, in a language that they might not even understand. There were never less than three distinct dialects spoken in that room at once: My Dominican boss would tackle the Spanish speakers, and I would torture Haitian parents with my very basic grasp of high school French and the patois I’d picked up from the bodega clerks and stoop sitters in my Harlem neighborhood, coupled with what was essentially a four-year-old’s pronunciation. Thanks to a few high school and college friends, I could greet Korean speakers respectfully before staring blankly at the stream of language that followed. God help you if you spoke Bengali, or any other language that some Nick Jr. cartoon hadn’t capitalized on yet. Those families relied on their children to do most of the translating. But they still came. Their commitment was palpable, and understandable.
We were selling what essentially amounted to seventy Get Out of Jail Free cards; one of the few golden tickets out of the New York City public school system, a ticket that most in the room believed to be the first step toward a better life for their kids. Even if their child was excelling in their current school, and even if that school was a good one, they believed that we would be able to give them something better. And instead of giving them insights on how to make the most of the public school system or working for an organization that would help improve it, our program opted for surgical student extraction. In our hands, the idea of the American Dream was both a temptress and a cudgel. The schools we offered to their children in turn gifted them access to the highest echelon of society—the status that everyone outside of the wealthy 1 percent has been told they can bootstrap their way into through the bill of goods that comes with the American Dream. I peddled the illusion of ownership, delusions of grandeur, myths of American upward mobility, and the misconception that there is, indeed, a place where everyone can feel like they belong.
Everyone in the room was low income by some definition, whether they were truly surviving below the poverty line, or they existed within that warped sense of “broke” that comes with living in New York City for too long. The “New York Poor” peppered the auditorium each week alongside those who lived paycheck to paycheck or on none at all; people who were making over $250,000 a year, had no debt, and had only one kid, but because they couldn’t keep up with their neighbors and didn’t have an in-unit washer/dryer, they went around telling everyone they lived in abject squalor. This wasn’t a meeting for those people, but it didn’t stop them from trying. Everyone wants to give their child a leg up, and an upper-middle-class Black child often needs just as much of one as their white peer whose family receives government aid.
We weren’t selling meeting attendees on the idea of being rich or New York Poor, but wealthy. Privileged. Well-rounded and well-off. Their children would finally be on a level playing field with the children of executives, movie stars, politicians, and Mike-down-the-street—that one inexplicably well-off neighbor whose great-great-great-grandfather happened to have grabbed a homestead and enslaved three people in Missouri at some especially opportune time in 1843 and they’ve just been wealthy ever since, because America.
“Your kid could be one of them! Well situated! Connected for life! Achieving the American promise that a child will always have the opportunity for an even better life than those who came before them,” we told hopeful parents, once their children had been herded into another room to take the ridiculously outdated test they needed to pass in order to be considered for our program. Being granted access to upward mobility required, in this case, being able to neatly fill in a Scantron sheet, sit still during a three-hour exam, and solve math problems in a booklet copied via a machine that was just as likely to make a + look like a –.
In my nicest clothes, sometimes with the addition of my brightest string of pearls, I would stand in front of them looking every part the perfect graduate of a New England prep school. I smiled at them as I spoke, completing a package that said: This is what your child could look like in ten years. This is what a Black woman with an independent school education and a college degree looks like. This is what she does on her Saturday mornings. This is the pleasing, unaccented American voice they’ll learn. This is the kind of job they’ll have.
I gave the same practiced speech every week.
So, here’s the story I always start off with when I’m trying to explain why an independent school was right for me. The year before I transferred out to Taft, I did my freshman year at a public high school in New Jersey. I barely made it through the freshman Algebra 1 course; it was making me and my teacher miserable. Same with freshman-level biology!
Flash-forward to my sophomore year at Taft. I find out: Not only was I terrible at Algebra 1, but the Algebra 1 course at my public school was behind the same course at Taft. I still had to take it again just to catch up. It was just this constant struggle, once again, between me and my teacher. We both wanted me to get it, but it was quickly becoming apparent that I just wouldn’t.
But that’s what’s so great about independent schools, right? They’re not beholden to state education requirements—that means no arbitrarily required classes, no mandated math and science minimums, and no standardized state exams on those subjects. So, because I was in a boarding school, there came a point where we could just all sit down and say, “Hey. This isn’t working out. Let’s try something else.”
In my case “something else” meant opting out of math classes after I’d done the bare minimum and putting me in more humanities classes. I never made it to physics in high school, but I took screenwriting and adolescent psychology. I can’t balance an equation, but I can hang lights in a theatre and run a sound board. I began to figure out what it meant to really reflect in essays on my behaviors and personal interests, which has led to a fruitful writing career. I bet some of you out there have kids who think they’re the next LeBron James or a budding CC Sabathia too, right? I never took statistics, but one Wednesday after lunch I finally landed my double salchow, because I could use one of my school’s two full-sized ice rinks whenever I wanted.
What would “something else” mean for your child? Think about all the ways an independent school might allow them to follow their own paths and succeed in ways that their current schools won’t.
This isn’t to say that your child won’t be challenged. They will be. The standards at each of the schools we work with are incredibly high, and your child will be asked to meet goals that might seem out of reach now, at age ten. But these schools set the bar high so that your child can walk down the aisle after graduation knowing that the whole world is at their feet. Have you looked around this beautiful theatre? Did you take in the quality of classrooms while you were walking the halls? It’s a short leap from a school like this one to a college like Columbia, Yale…or Harvard.
(Here, I always paused for the approving murmurs that simply hinting at the name “Harvard” brings out in a room full of parents.)
I know that this might feel like a very different environment for some of you and maybe you’re worried that schools like this one might be isolating for your children. It is an adjustment! But it’s a short one, and it’s worth it. What you have to understand is that schools like this one want us there—Black, Latinx, Asian…everyone here. They’re excited to have us, and your kids won’t be treated any differently for who they are or how much money you make as their parents. These schools are for everyone.
One of the huge benefits of an independent school is the class sizes. For instance, I graduated in a class of just under one hundred students. By the time they’re ready to graduate, your kid’s teachers will know your child like the back of their own hand, and that means when it comes to college recommendation letters or references for summer internships you couldn’t ask for a better resource. You won’t find anyone more ready or willing to advocate for your child than a teacher at an independent school.
And the other benefits? When you’re in a class size that small, kids make so many friends, ones that will last for life and ones that will only benefit them later on as they’re starting out professionally. Imagine going to school with Michael Bloomberg’s kids! Your children will be in classrooms with the daughters of politicians, actors, bankers, and executives, and they’re going to learn how to use those connections for their own advantage. For your advantage, even.
I’m still excited every time I go back to Taft. It’s a place I know I’m always welcome. I can walk onto the campus whenever I want and visit old teachers and friends and say hello and just soak in all the good memories of the place. My name is engraved into a brick on the ground there, along with the rest of my graduating class, and all the graduating classes before ours. It makes it feels like all of us—every student—owns a bit of the place. Taft was the first place that ever gave me a feeling of ownership about my surroundings, and I think that’s so important when you’re growing up a person of color in America.
I want that same feeling for your kids as well.
As an admissions counselor at Scholars Striving 4 Success I sold a lie for a living; at least, that’s what it felt like. With my fake smile, pearls, and the rose-colored glasses I’d become accustomed to tinting my own time at Taft with, I lied to a roomful of people every time the word “racism” failed to arise in my speech. Every time the phrase “The Black Table in the dining hall” didn’t come up. Every time I didn’t mention the word “legacy.” Every time I didn’t let myself taste the bile I can still conjure to this day if I think too long and too hard of the name Emma Hunter.
Each year at Scholars Striving 4 Success we filled every one of the seventy slots in our program. Each year our waiting list grew ripe on its summer vine. We were very good at our jobs. I was one of the best.
I’m not going to pretend I know the full history behind the feud Ashley Davis and LaTasia “some people just like to watch the world burn” Ford spent our freshman year nurturing. However, I can say for certain that the straw that broke the camel’s back was most certainly one day in late winter when LaTasia looked Ashley dead in the eye while they both stood at the condiments table in the small pizzeria near our high school, picked up a sticky New Jersey diner–style bottle of ketchup, and proceeded to maintain eye contact while she squirted it directly onto Ashley’s white sneakers.
The ensuing fight made it all the way to the tabletop of the booth where friends and I were sitting, just trying to enjoy our lunch.
The table partially collapsed before all of us could get up, sending me and another friend tumbling to the ground. I landed on her chest, and the thick table edge landed on my leg, leaving my thigh black and blue and my synchronized skating coaches perturbed. It was a minor miracle that none of us were more badly injured.
I internalized that fight, letting it sit with me probably more than I should have—and not just because I had to beg my dad not to go down the street and confront Ashley’s parents, who happened to be our neighbors. My parents had gently laid the groundwork throughout middle school, asking if our local public high school, Columbia, was really the school I wanted to commit this crucial four years of my life to, given that I did have other options. There would be more Ashleys and LaTasias there. More students like Darius, the kid I’d been paired with for our Egg Baby Project in the eighth grade, who’d promptly thrown our hard-boiled child against the white cinder-block classroom wall and told me, “You had an abortion.” It wasn’t that I was worried about being pulled into trouble (that sort of school disciplinary problem wasn’t my ministry) so much as it was that it had been much easier for my friends and me to keep ourselves far away from this sort of conflict in middle school. The idea that high school marked the end of being a casual bystander taking in the free entertainment of other kids going at it was decidedly unappealing, and I didn’t care to be around it for much longer. I iced my bruises and finished up my application to Taft School tout de suite.
A few months later, my mom brought my acceptance letter with her in the car when she came to check on me at the salon after school. Finding me sitting under the dryer, she handed me an envelope that was still sealed, but thick enough that we both knew what lay inside. I opened it while I waited and eagerly went through all the materials my new school had sent.
Pam, the woman who’d been perming my hair for years, walked over to check my progress and immediately asked what “all that” was in my lap loudly enough that the whole shop would be involved in whatever conversation ensued.
“I got into boarding school.” I gestured to the envelope in my lap and allowed myself a moment of smugness.
The palpable silence that immediately fell over the salon was not the reaction that I’d been expecting. The couple fighting on Maury even took the hint, as the woman ran backstage upon finding out that He Is Not the Father and the pandemonium on camera subsided.
I beamed at Pam.
She stared back at me. “Girl…what did you do?”
* * *
I would hear Pam’s question repeated over and over again for the next four years from members of the uninitiated. People for whom “boarding school” conjured up images of oppositional defiant disorder, disciplinary issues, corporal punishment, and days regimented down to the millisecond. “Boarding school” made it sound like my parents had given up on getting me in line and were turning their parenting responsibilities over to God, the military, or both. So when school started in the fall, I was very glad to finally be arriving at Taft, if only because I was so tired of answering the never-ending versions of Pam’s question that I’d encountered that summer.
Hell, I was even getting tired of the Hogwarts and Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters jokes (which a shocking number of people seemed to believe they had thought of for the very first time), even though those fictional places were at least closer approximations of what Taft was: a boarding school for very smart, and/or very athletically gifted, and very privileged children. A $35,000 high school education is not a normal thing, and one must be forgiven, I guess, for not assuming that a parent would spend that kind of money if their child was anything short of the next Chosen One themselves.
I started my sophomore year at Taft in late August. At the wheel of his Nissan Pathfinder, my dad was waved through the campus’s iron gates by an older student from the welcoming committee. Some parents, those less familiar with the campus layout, would accidentally circle through the full driveway that rounded past the school’s main entrance to its oldest building, bricks laid in 1914, where students were greeted by a bust of founder and forty-six-year head of school Horace Dutton Taft (yes, the bathtub president’s brother).
- “[C]harming and surprising. . . The work of Admissions is laying down, with wit and care, the burden James assumed at 15, that she — or any Black student, or all Black students — would manage the failures of a racially illiterate community. . . The best depiction of elite whiteness I’ve read, nailing the belonging derived from institutional affiliation, which is therefore impersonal and false, but manifests value in spite of this. James writes to illuminate her experience as a Black student at Taft. She throws just as much light on the school’s whiteness.”—New York Times
- “The book is, not incidentally, an excellent memoir. James is unsparing and hilarious about her adolescent foibles, her outré fashion choices and insistence on telling everyone about her hobby of writing erotic fan fiction.” —Los Angeles Times
- "With humor, insight, and a near-superhuman depth of grace, James straddles an ever-shifting line as the school’s first Black American legacy. . . The isolation that James captures, the uneasy and unspoken cease-fire she negotiates with whiteness at Taft, becomes an echo of the experiences of so many other students of color at the same schools that make up the world of the American elite. She takes up our repressed feelings and gives voice to the untold tales of neglect and disregard, of camaraderie and solidarity and survival, of those of us who were brought into spaces without anyone considering how we would fit."—The Cut
- “[James] offers sharp-witted insight, incisive reflections and an intense indictment of the cutthroat world of elite prep schools."—Parade
- “Thorough, necessary, and overdue. . . [Admissions] boldly nam[es] the confusion, fear, and trauma that can so often come with being the only person who looks like you in any given room.”—Vogue.com
- “Frank and devastating in its candor, as well as incisive in its critique of elite academia, Admissions is a poignant coming-of-age memoir.”—Esquire.com
- "James's memoir is a thoughtful story about coming-of-age and finding your place in the world; she's a funny, observant writer with a powerful, unforgettable story to tell."—Town & Country
- "[A]n eye-opening examination of race, class, and privilege in America."—Publishers Weekly
- "What an extraordinary, razor-sharp book! Kendra James offers a gimlet-eyed insider’s view of being an outsider, painting the complicated world of elite schooling with such vividness and dark humor. This is a crucial account for our moment—asking and answering the question of how power is held, shifted, and grasped after by even the youngest in our society. I raced through the pages of Admissions, hungry for James’s voice and brilliant insights. The schooling she writes about may have been exclusive, but this book will electrify every reader."—R. Eric Thomas, bestselling author Here For It
- “Through frequent pop culture allusions and a dry sense of humor, Kendra James reveals a world largely unexamined—the life of an American Black girl at a prestigious boarding school. Readers will shake their heads at young Kendra’s nerdy naïveté and frown at her classmates’ bigotry and bullying. As Kendra discovers the fallout of her own parents’ respectability politics and intraracial biases, she also learns more about her own identity and how she wants to navigate her life. Kendra James’ honest reflections as she looks back on what it means to be Not Like the Others will leave readers thinking about their own experiences with privilege and marginalization. Admissions is a captivating memoir, highlighting the complicated notions of upward mobility, belonging, entitlement, and community. Kendra has written a true eye-opener.”—Nichole Perkins, author of Sometimes I Trip on How Happy We Could Be
- "In Admissions, [James] deconstructs the chokehold that whiteness and wealth have on private education. You’ll laugh almost as much as you cringe."—Glamour
- “James’ social commentary and sparkling wit shine throughout this absorbing and insightful coming-of-age memoir."—Booklist
- "With wit and insight, Admissions explores the kind of upper-class education that most Americans have seen only in movies. James analyzes the racist attitudes she had to deal with, tells funny stories of her nerdy ways and fondly recalls the days of AIM chats. People of color who survived mostly white schools are sure to sympathize with James's experiences, but anyone will enjoy her perceptive storytelling."—Shelf Awareness
- "Admissions is a memoir of the highest caliber."—Bitch Media
- "James has crafted a book that is part Bildungsroman, part social indictment and part scorching criticism of elite boarding schools. She meticulously skewers the behavior of her white classmates as alternately clueless and cruel and vividly conveys the captious claustrophobia that thrives in such institutions."—Waterbury Republican American
- “Admissions is an open and honest social critique of race in the US, as well as the coming-of-age story of a Black girl who is getting an education in a predominantly white boarding school.”—Book Reporter
- On Sale
- Jan 18, 2022
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing