I was Black at Benilde, and it saved my life

I’ve been struggling for a whole week on whether or not I should post this. After a conversation with my mom today, and listening to her share experiences she had with people within the Benilde-St. Margaret’s community, that I wasn’t aware of, was confirmation for me that I need to speak up.

My prayer is that this post is seen as another perspective and shared experience and not as a retort, insensitivity or discounting the experiences of others. I am posting this out of my own conviction. Not because anyone asked me to.

With that said, I am a Black alum and former administrator at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School. I attended BSM from 1999-2003, and I was the assistant principal at BSM from 2016-18. I hope that my former and recent experiences, in two very different capacities, within the BSM community hold some weight with many who read this post and have read the recent article about BSM that is circulating social media.

There was an article written by City Pages regarding the Black at Benilde Instagram account. This account was designed for students, alumni, and staff of color to share their experiences of racism, during their time at BSM, in order to promote change within the BSM community.

I am a strong believer that if it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. For that reason, I applaud the Black at Benilde instagram account and their ultimate goal being to challenge the leaders at BSM to make BSM a better and safer place for all students. 

I am writing you to say that I was a Black student and staff at BSM and I DO highly recommend BSM. Did I experience racism as a student at BSM? Yes. Do I remember some uncomfortable conversations in classrooms regarding race, or the class looking for me to speak for a whole race because I was the only Black kid in the class? Yes. Stay with me..

Up until I was 17 years old (my mom remarried when I was 17 and things changed for us), my mom was a single mother who worked extremely hard to make ends meet and attended grad school. She raised my brother and me on her own. I won’t go into detail about all the obstacles young Black men whose fathers aren’t in their lives face, so let it suffice to say we were very impressionable and high-risk boys. We were poor, or a better term may be “low wealth”.

We weren’t homeless. We had a roof over our heads, food to eat, and clothes on our backs due to the perseverance and hustle of my mom, but I have vivid memories of a winter with no hot water. We had to boil water in a pot on the stove, take it to the bathtub and use it to bathe. Clearly this was before the MN Cold Weather laws were put in place to protect families who couldn’t afford to pay their bills. This was while I attended BSM, by the way.

The summer after my brother’s 8th grade year, my mom sat us down and told us she was sending us to Benilde-St. Margaret’s. I thought it was a joke. Only rich people can go to Benilde-St. Margaret’s and there was no way we wanted to attend school there. We were on our way to a high school in district 281. I didn’t know it then, but I can tell you right now, that I wouldn’t be where I am today had I gone to that high school.

I’m not speaking against public schools. I think many teenagers can thrive in any environment, but I know I was not one of those teenagers. There is no way I could sit here today and say to you that I am an alum of an elite private school without the love and kind hearts of so many within the BSM community. I wasn’t aware of how financial aid worked when I was in high school, but my eyes opened to how it all works when I became a school administrator at a private school.

I know what you may be thinking, classic case of poor Black boy who was good at basketball, so received financial aid to attend a private school so he is just grateful for that experience. Hear me out:  As a student, I was blessed to have a white man who was my basketball coach who cared about me and my family. He challenged me to be better not only on the basketball court, but as a person. He gave me grace when I failed, but disciplined me. He taught me that being a good basketball player doesn’t exempt me from needing to be a good citizen, a good student, a good human, etc. And I know that sounds like a weird statement, but you’d be surprised at how many teenage athletes need to hear that more often.

My experience with him was the first time I felt loved by another male other than my brother. He was a white man. My relationship with him has only grown even after graduation. He attended my college games, he was at my wedding, and my family loves and adores him because they know what he has meant to me. There was a teacher, a white female, who showed me so much patience, love, support, and care that I wish I could find her today and thank her. I wasn’t the best student academically at BSM and this teacher had a way of making me feel comfortable telling her that I didn’t get it and she worked with me until I did, no matter how long that took.

There was a janitor at the school that looked out for my brother and me. He made us feel like we belonged. He was intentional about seeking us out to check in on us. He was a white male. Our assistant principal during my time as a student gave me so much grace, I can’t even begin to explain it. It wasn’t that she gave me grace when I made a mistake, it was that I knew she cared more about helping me grow than she did about punishing me for my mistakes. I later had the pleasure to work alongside her.

Which leads me to share my next experience in my return to BSM in a leadership role. I can go on and on about staff, students, and other parents of the BSM community that positively impacted my life while I was a student there, but I digress. As a staff member, I was blown away at the amount of love and care all the teachers had for all students at BSM. I sat in on meetings with the principal and president while we discussed ways in which we could improve in areas we fell short. The most amazing thing I experienced was the love that was poured out through the giving at annual fund raising events by families within the community. While the amounts that were given were impressive, I was more impressed and moved by the people behind the dollars. They truly had a heart to make BSM possible for all students. They truly cared about the community, but more so, the students that walked the hallways.

What happens too many times in articles and social media is only one perspective is shared, and that perspective comes with such a strong force because it’s coming from a place of pain, hurt, and in many cases, anger. The impact that has prevents others who have a different experience from speaking up. As a result, we have, in my opinion, the misuse of Cancel Culture. I share these experiences because our culture tends to magnify the haters and forget about the lovers. I experienced far more love than hate at BSM. You can’t tell your true story if you leave that out. I know this isn’t the experience of all, but this is my story and this is my truth about a school and community that changed my life. I know many other Black alumni of BSM share the same experience as me, so I encourage them to speak up.

BSM has areas they need to grow, their post after the murder of George Floyd was tone deaf, there are some students who say and do really insensitive and hateful things. Name a school that doesn’t have them in the hallways? I know the hearts of the administration and the faculty and staff. They are working. They may be unaware due to being a product of an environment, but unawareness does not equal racism. Too many times we confuse the two. You can’t get anywhere with a racist, but you can make huge strides in helping people be more aware of the experiences others have in our world and all of our racial bias.

BSM is a school that saved my life. BSM is a school that will give students of color the opportunity to attend prestigious universities such as Columbia. I am a Black alum and former administrator at BSM and I love the community of people there and the positive impact the school is making on the lives of so many students.

Once a Red Knight, always a Red Knight.

This letter originally appeared on Meghan Joy Yancy’s blog.

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