Andre Robert Lee is a talented filmmaker who also happens to be my high school classmate. So I sat down to watch his documentary, The Prep School Negro, with respect and pride, but also a bit of fear. This is our prep school at the center of the film: Germantown Friends School, a K–12 Quaker school in Philadelphia. Andre came in ninth grade as a scholarship student. I remember him as funny and outgoing and academically and socially successful. But what if he looked back on it all as misery? What would it be like to revisit those years through Andre’s eyes?
The answer is: moving and instructive. Prep schools play a tantalizing role in our education system, even if they don’t always realize their promise. The schools are a gateway to college, rewarding and well-paid jobs, and to power. Though they’re often thought of as places where the already wealthy and powerful groom the next generation, today most prep schools are committed to diversity, and that includes some number of low-income kids. Bringing in scholarship students is supposed to offer those kids a ticket to social mobility, and offer their more privileged peers the opportunity to learn alongside people different from themselves. Diversity benefits everyone, is the hope.
And yet all kinds of fumbling and fallout come with being “a guest in a strange house,” as one of the first black graduates of Germantown Friends, Joan Countryman, puts it. (Countryman is herself a distinguished educator.) Andre’s movie is about the prickly feeling that comes with being that guest. You should see the film because its subject—what it’s like to be a minority or poor in an elite institution—is one we don’t talk about nearly enough. (The movie has aired on PBS, and you can stream it here, or tune in for an online screening on Thursday at 7 p.m. Eastern that will include a Q-and-A with Andre and Countryman.)*
Andre crossed a divide each day on his trolley ride to school. On one side lay his poor black neighborhood in West Oak Lane, where he lived with his mother and sister. On the other lay GFS, a place filled mostly with students who took their privilege for granted. I don’t mean that GFS was a snobby or fancy place—Quakers are neither, and the families drawn to their educational ethos tend to be pretty open-minded, in my experience. Also, the school sits in a down-at-the-heels part of Philadelphia, not ritzy suburbia. There are no lush grounds or rolling hills.
But one of our classmates owned the factory where Andre’s mother did piecework. I didn’t know that growing up, but Andre did, and so did his mom, and it intimidated both of them. When Andre talked about her job, he hoped other kids would hear “peace worker.” His older sister, who did not go to GFS, says in the film that she felt like the school took Andre away from her. Andre too sees the distance he tried to put between himself and his family, and how it was laced with shame. “I remember we turned 16, it was time for cars, and [one of our classmates] turned the corner in the biggest Mercedes I saw in my life, and we didn’t have a family car,” he told me over the phone. “My mistake was to think, ‘their families are right, and mine is wrong, and I have to turn my back on my family and be like these folks.’ ”
A black teacher tried to talk Andre out of that feeling. “But at 16, you’re not going to listen,” he says. In a graduating class of 65, there were six “community scholars,” as they’re called. GFS started the program in 1965. Andre says it was the first of its kind in the country, and a model for others like A Better Chance and Prep for Prep. In our day, GFS identified candidates by talking to public school counselors and through a basketball and reading clinic. Today, the school also looks for kids at summer and afterschool programs like Breakthrough. Some kids get full scholarships and some get partial ones, based on financial need. (All told, 35 percent of GFS students now receive tuition assistance.) The community scholars program extends to the elementary school, and is funded by an endowment of about $6.6 million that GFS has raised.