The Support to Fly: Two Stories of Risk and Its Reward

Posted on Mar 23, 2012

The Support to Fly: Two Stories of Risk and Its Reward

Starting anything new is at least partly scary. When the people in your new setting look mostly like you, you make some assumptions, consciously or not, about shared experiences. Knowing that you share common ground makes opening up, or making friends, a bit easier.

When Ronnell Wilson ’93 and Nafeesah Allen ’02 arrived in Class IV, the School looked much less like the face of America than it does now. Today, 45 percent of our new students self-identify as students of color. Still, most students of color, as well as our international students, come to Milton from schools where they have been the majority group. When they arrive here, the comfort of being in the majority disappears.

Although their Milton years are nearly a decade apart, a cornerstone for both Ronnell and Nafeesah was the Transition Program for students of color and international students. The Program connects our students with each other, and it helps make the Milton terrain feel more familiar, just before they jump with both feet into the life of the School.

Nafeesah Allen ’02 is a Foreign Service Officer serving at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi; Ronnell Wilson ’93 is an assistant U.S. attorney in Newark. These are their Milton stories, as told to Cathy Everett, about finding friends, and evolving their friendships over time.

Ronnell Wilson ’93

I lived in North St. Louis, Missouri, alternating between my grandmother’s and my aunt’s houses. The students in my elementary schools were all black American. In sixth grade I was bused to a public magnet school; it was diverse—both in terms of students and teachers, except there were no Latino students or teachers. The school was economically diverse, but certainly didn’t represent the entire economic spectrum. In general, the black and Asian students were poor, bused from inner-city communities. The white students ranged from poor to solidly middle class; they lived in various city neighborhoods and in adjacent, more affluent counties. As a magnet school, the academic program was atypically strong.

North St. Louis was a tough neighborhood. It had the pitfalls and distractions of any city where jobs are scarce and the educational system lacks resources and consistency. In eighth grade, I didn’t know boarding school existed. However, Hotchkiss and Exeter gave recruiting presentations at my school early that year. Because it meant getting out of class, I went to those presentations, but the prospects of wearing a suit jacket every day, and going to class on Saturday, were nonstarters. Later, after two teens in a passing car pulled over and pointed a shotgun at me for wearing “the wrong color,” suit jackets didn’t seem like the worst option.

My mom, who lived in Brooklyn, New 
York, learned from a friend at work about boarding schools and about the ABC (A Better Chance) program. She made sure I applied. Once ABC accepted you, the program sent your profile and SSAT scores to prep schools they believed were the best fit. Schools would follow up if you represented a match. Several schools sent me acceptance letters, but Milton’s admission brochure stood out. I found a picture of a girl reading a book under a desk lamp. She appeared to have the room to herself. I loved to read and had never had a room to myself. The idea that you could go to a school in a safe environment, and read a book in a room that you called your own, resonated. It struck me that at Milton, I could be a student and not be chastised simply for wanting to learn.

My mom liked other things about Milton: the safety, the structure, the supervision (the blue card system), the location in a suburb but near a city, and the educational opportunity. Moms usually want their children close by, but my mother was used to my being far away. I was not outgoing, so she thought that Milton’s size would be about my speed. My mom accepted Milton’s admission offer before we had the opportunity to visit the campus. After looking through the brochure and having a brief conversation with Neville Lake (an admission officer), she was confident that Milton was the right place for me.

I was not as confident. Milton didn’t have much in common with North St. Louis and all that I had known. I was a Missourian: I dressed differently; I spoke with a different accent. Thanks to St. Louis’s magnet program and my education at home, I fit in academically. However, socially and economically I was, for lack of a better word, lost. The cars and homes that were part of the Milton scene were completely outside my experience. The unmistakable wealth and opportunity made for a foreign environment. I did what comes instinctively when surrounded by the unknown: looked around and clutched tightly to anyone and anything that seemed remotely familiar. Milton’s Minority Orientation program was a godsend. It afforded me a brief, essential window for getting my bearings and recalibrating my inner compass. After Orientation, Milton opened the year with a tea in the library for everyone in the class and their families, along with faculty. Making my way in and out of the crowd, I felt as if I were drowning. I was overwhelmed. To talk with someone and keep myself afloat, I looked around desperately. Thank goodness Sheldon Ison’s head appeared above the throng: a buoy for me at that moment. I knew him from the Orientation Program and he was a fellow midwesterner. I’m not sure how I would have made it without Orientation. It connected me with a base of friends, and with a number of Milton adults, including Mr. Hardy and Mr. Hilgendorf. After school started, my support system shifted to people in my dorm, which quickly became my primary base. To this day, the core group of friends I met in Orientation are close friends.

They played a crucial role in my transition. I was a focused student and never really struggled with academics. My struggles were on the social side. I’m a socially introverted guy; it’s just my nature. Coping with an unfamiliar environment is tough, and tougher if you’re inclined to steer clear of new people and things. Large rooms filled with people made me uncomfortable; school dances frightened me. I didn’t even like people showing up to watch my football games. I was comfortable only in Milton’s small classrooms (in which we were working, not technically socializing) and in the dorm. My core group of friends, including Doug Chavez, Sheldon Ison, Steven Clarke, Juan Fernandez, Kem Poston, Julian Cowart, Joseph Golden, and a handful of others, helped me break out of that shell. If I didn’t want to go to a dance, they applied that light pressure that got me to stop by for just a few minutes. If I didn’t want to hang out in Harvard Square, my friends who lived in Boston invited me to their homes for dinner with their families, smaller and quieter settings. Once I concluded that they were looking out for my best interest, I caved in more and more, attended an increasingly larger array of social events, and in the process, uncovered aspects of my personality that I would never have developed.

Still, my thoughts and loyalties were focused on home in North St. Louis and friends there. At Milton, I found myself wondering why I was given this opportunity while other smart kids had to stay home and deal with the perils of living there. My sense of guilt for being at Milton got so severe that I packed my suitcase, called my mom and told her I was coming home. She asked, “Why?” I didn’t tell her that I was homesick, or felt guilty. Instead, in my adolescent confusion and indignation, I told her that I felt disconnected from the “real world,” and no longer had any idea of what was going on back in St. Louis. My mom simply said, “If you want to know what’s happening in the real world, then buy a newspaper.” She hung up the phone. I unpacked and figured that I had to give Milton a go. Turning to my friends, I began the long, difficult process of learning to open up and expand.

My friends’ constant nudging felt like a lot of pressure initially. One particular spring Saturday I actually crawled under my bed and hid out to avoid the “pressure.” My friends were going to a School dance, and I didn’t feel like going. I never felt like going. Just as I was starting to doze off, Doug Chavez and Sheldon came into the room to convince me to join them. Remaining quiet in my hiding place, I heard Doug say, “I’m trying to convince Ronnell to come. I think he’d really enjoy himself.” I then understood that they wished me no ill. What felt like pressure was simply their trying to get me to try new things. Eventually, I rolled out from under the bed, found my friends and went to the dance. I was learning to trust and rely upon them, a feeling that would grow over the years. When they suggested a dance or School play, I usually went. When they suggested I dance with them in a talent show, I did. When they suggested I run for head monitor, I did. When my good friend Bill Moore (my French teacher) suggested I sign up for the French exchange, I did. Left to my own devices, I would not have done any of those things. They forced me to push my limits and become more well rounded.

As my Milton career drew to a close, I decided not to apply to the colleges I knew my friends wanted to attend. I was unsure whether the social growth I had experienced was really me, or whether I had simply responded to others’ expectations. To find out, I needed to walk alone for a bit, and see where the road led. Realizing that my growth at Milton was indeed real did not take long. It took even less time for me to realize that my life’s road would repeatedly intersect with the roads of my friends. Our paths cross often and intentionally. We have networked and helped one another professionally and personally. We have careers, interests, families and the friendships that have evolved naturally, over time. I have never had to walk alone long. I received an invaluable education at Milton, both inside and outside the classroom.

Nafeesah Allen ’02

I’m from Newark, New Jersey: a complicated city with a religious, riotous past. I went to an Islamic preschool and kindergarten and then to one of the best public schools in the city, thanks to my mom. For several years, the Peck School, in Morristown, New Jersey, had hand-selected the four top students from my school for their sixth to eighth grades. After another of my mom’s executive decisions, I left my elementary school friends behind to go to Peck. Of the 30 students who graduated with me, four of the five black students were classmates from my old school.

The economic gap between families in my new school and my old school made me feel like I was in two worlds. That wasn’t a big problem; I bonded with the students I wanted to. Issues of race and class did play out silently in our classrooms, however. One key memory was a teacher’s mishandling of Huck Finn. How many times can you read or say the “N-word” without acknowledging its impact on people of the time, or students in the room?

At Peck, I learned from a project about our family histories how diverse white people are. I could identify more than five generations of African Americans on both sides of my family. Four generations were alive through my elementary school years. But I found that my American experience was unique. Even my black friends’ families had immigrated—from Barbados or Jamaica. For the first time, I was really hanging out on my own, separated even from other blacks. That shifted the paradigm for me. I realized that I had to value my own story, even if it was less common, and learn to think about all elements of heritage, not just race.

Everyone at Peck was applying to boarding schools, so wanting to do that was not pushing the envelope. Chukwuka Nwabuzor (’01) headed off to Milton the previous year, so I was comfortable following in his path. Milton was visibly more diverse than other schools I considered. I didn’t feel that I’d be the only black girl—the personification of diversity. The whole philosophy felt right: Milton wants people to be comfortable in their own skin. I felt that, and I could see myself there.

At Milton, everyone had a place. Every-body’s story was valid. The discussion was dynamic. Questions about culture and privilege were always coming up, even if nobody had an easy answer to the hard questions. The elephant in the room was on the table, and everyone was talking about it.
I’m a huge supporter of the Transition Program. Milton acknowledged and tried to address the fears and needs that students of color had, struggling with what it means to join a majority white school. Even my parents took comfort in the fact that this institution, where their 13-year-old would live, would take on such a bold parenting role.

Feeling comfortable at Milton was pretty simple for me. People had already chosen me, it seemed. I’m a freshman, and apparently these Robbins House girls have already decided they’re my friends. Eventually, community service brought me into Boston, where I could be part of a larger community. I finally had access to a city, one as complicated as home. I needed this escape from the Milton bubble at this point. Although I treated my friends at Milton like family, I also took them a little for granted. I assumed they’d always be there, like siblings would. I didn’t think ahead to the day they might forge their own paths.
Sr. Ryan, my Spanish teacher and dorm parent, suggested that I apply for School Year Abroad, and I was restless enough to want another challenge. My family is tight-knit and everyone—grandparents, cousins—lives within a 20- to 30-block area. They could not understand why I would go so far from home and from them. Why learn Spanish in Spain when Jersey City is 30 minutes away? At 15, I needed to answer for my family, and myself, what my set of decisions said about them. Once again, like at Peck, I was being misunderstood because of an experience that seemed normal to me. Further, living with a family that year in Zaragoza, Spain, meant questioning what it means to be an American once again. How does a black girl from New Jersey who left Boston to go to Spain explain that she’s American, though she’s of African descent, clearly she’s not white, but has never been to Africa? I was grilled about how it was possible for George Bush to win the 2000 election and I wasn’t even old enough to vote.

Senior year, back at Milton, I felt prepared for anything. I’d struggled with identity. I’d lived abroad. Once the worst Spanish student in the group, I’d passed the AP exams with the highest grade achievable. “Who’s going to stop me now?” I thought. On the other hand, I really appreciated people more—in particular, those who’d made an effort to stay connected, even when I was an ocean away.

At Barnard, I was pretty convinced that all things Milton were part of the past. “I’m moving on,” I thought. Then, I realized that the friendly faces of people I saw who had gone to Milton were not just nagging reminders of my past. They were really smart people who had shared a unique experience with me, people I could call on for help, and I did. I only passed Calculus 1 by teaming up with Jennifer Cohen (’02) to share notes and study. Still, years would pass before I learned to credit these bonds 
to my Milton experience.

In junior year, not stressed by the issues that typically worry most college students, I wondered if I’d reached a plateau. I visited my Robbins House roommate, Anna Asare ’02, at Penn. She related to my experience, feeling equally out of step with our peers’ angst. It was still not clear to me that I was reaping the benefits from the years of sowing at Milton.

After college, reality sets in. Your loans come due. You eat ramen noodles every night because that’s what you can afford. You send résumés to people’s friends and then don’t hear anything back. I luckily found myself working for a small, New York City agency revamping how the city communicates with the public about disasters and emergencies. In Spanish, I gave presentations that would begin, “When most people think of emergencies they think of 9/11. Do you know where I was that day?” I was in Algebra; two of the planes had left from my hometown and the other two from the town I called home. I remember the fear, then relief, when I discovered my friends and family were safe. I remember the comfort of the Milton community during a time of trauma for many of us. During those work presentations, before an audience of perfect strangers, I drew on that sense of community and comfort to try to convey ideas of preparedness and resilience.

During another restless college moment, I visited Tanya Everett ’02 in London for a few days. We applied for and got into a program that allowed us to go to Ghana for ten days. When I was wondering whether the malaria medicine was going to make me hallucinate, I called Anna whose family is from Ghana. When I graduated from college and needed a place to stay in New York, I stayed for a year in Chloe Walters-Wallace’s (’03) mom’s basement apartment in Harlem. When I finally got that job in New York, a Milton alum who was working at Brooklyn Borough Hall helped me launch events that would bring some of my programs to life.

These lessons from Milton kept building up in my toolkit without my realizing where they began and how they affected me. Then I moved to D.C.—the town of hard-nosed politicos, budget cutting, streets closed in the middle of the day for security. It wasn’t the New York City I loved. When it became clear that I would be in D.C. longer than I’d anticipated, I knew that to survive the transition I needed to take inventory of my support system. That was the “aha” moment: When I looked around, my best friends were my Milton friends.

These folks are my rock. I did not have to justify to them, during the Bush era, why I wanted to be part of the State Department. They relate to my choices, my need for challenges, my desire to travel. We share so much. Our conversations have substance, and they’re organic.

I’ve had ten years to think about my Milton experiences—the support, the advocates, the laughter—and I’m proud. My perspective has shifted back and forth along the way. I’ve realized that’s a crucial part of being a critical thinker and a discerning individual.

This community can be demanding and it can be rigorous, but it generates people who are socially conscious, globally minded, forward thinking and bonded for life. We’re dynamic and mobile. We are diverse, and not just because of our skin color. We lead lives that change lives. This is our charge and our inheritance, our Milton legacy.