Sitra, a friend of mine and fellow Chapin alum, learned about the challenges of attending an independent school from a young age, as well as the variability of schools within the system. She graduated from the Grace Church School in eighth grade before going to Chapin for high school. Sitra hails from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and entered Grace in pre-kindergarten when she was four years old. The school accepted several church employees' children and helped to devise suitable financial aid packages for them, so Sitra was acquainted with one other boy whose father worked with on the custodial staff with her own.
Overall, Sitra's time at Grace was positive (in fact, after we became friends at Chapin, her Phoebe-esque phrase, "At Grace, things were so different…" was a familiar refrain), but she occasionally felt singled out or overlooked in ways that were subtly tied to her background. In kindergarten, Sitra told a teacher that she knew how to read, and was "completely brushed off"—but a white student who made the same pronouncement was supported and encouraged. Eventually, another teacher realized the other's error and told Sitra that she would get to read to the entire class. Even at four years old, Sitra knew what had happened.
"I have hated that teacher ever since," she told me, laughing a little. "I knew that I was getting to have this fun experience because someone had screwed up."
Seun and Idris also pick up on the ways that they are different from their peers, and it affects their self-esteem. Seun tries to brush the brown out of his gums so that they will be "pink" like those of his white friends. Idris is penalized for getting into a fight with a white student he says he did not start—then penalized again for "lying" about it.
"If I was white I’d be better off," Idris says to his parents. "Isn't that true?" From behind the camera, Joe and Michèle are speechless.
Like the boys in American Promise, Sitra struggled with her identity at Grace, wanting "badly" to fit in when she was young, but also wanting to have her experience reflected in the curriculum in some way. "We studied immigration in third grade and did a mock Ellis Island, but it was all about white people who immigrated to the United States—or people who count as white now, like Eastern Europeans and the Irish," she recalls. "Looking at my parents who are also immigrants but from the West Indies, it was like, 'What do you mean by immigration, and why don’t we talk about that'?"
A change finally came in sixth grade when an English teacher assigned The House on Mango Street. The book takes place in a different city, Chicago, but the protagonist, Esperanza, is also from a working-class, immigrant family. Sitra read the book excitedly, feeling like she understood the story "on so many levels."
"In some ways, it seemed like her story could be my story," she says. "And that was a turning point for me. I didn't have to be silent about who I am, or ashamed to be different, because there are people who do talk about their differences and are accepted into society. We were reading one of their books in English class."