How Prep School, as a Black Male, Set Me Up for Life
I remember it like yesterday when my mom sat me down to discuss my academic trajectory and what I wanted to do in life in middle school. While I don’t recollect what my specific thoughts and responses were to her questions, what I do recall is a mixed reaction to the prospect of attending preparatory school.
I couldn’t fathom why she wanted a change. I felt comfortable in my environment. I felt at home in my middle-class upbringing and demographic. I felt really good about the friendships and alliances that I have made. I felt that what I had was... enough.
Yet, my mother and stepfather had a different vision for me. They wanted me to be challenged academically, socially and emotionally because they knew that my environment was not ripe enough for that maturation. They wanted me to level up and experience a new set of friends and teachers that would invite rigor, competition and access to powerful networks. They desired for a change of scenery that would prepare me more for the global world. As all good parents, they strived to put me in position to, one day, be a better parent and person.
Humbly, I was accepted into all of the preparatory schools that I applied to and had my choice of which schools to attend. It was a proud moment for my parents as well as my aunt, who was one of the few Black female leaders at IBM height before retiring. Admittedly, I wasn’t too excited initially about this life change, but as I went through the application, interview and selection process, I began to warm up to this new frontier.
During my time as a Black male at a predominantly white institution, I learned some invaluable lessons that would serve as the foundation for how I viewed life and business as an adult. So, without further adieu, let’s examine some things that I have learned personally and professionally from this experience.
“Whoa,... There Is Black Excellence Here, Too!”
To me, I was raised in almost perfect circumstances as it relates to time. I played outside a lot, read print books and encyclopedias, learned the proper nuances of written and verbal communication as well as being on the first wave of the Internet, instant messaging and the advent of mobile phones. Categorized as a Millennial, I also had a “woke,” biological brother seven years older than me that was my direct link to the golden era of hip-hop, Black entertainment and consciousness. Movies and shows like Martin, Malcolm X, Higher Learning, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, American History X and a Different World had an unassailable impact on my cognitive, social and emotional development. Books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Makes Me Wanna Holler, The Spook Who Sat By the Door and The Destruction of the Black Civilization made me even prouder to be Black young man, especially one equipped to handle life’s current and upcoming hardships.
In respect to this context, I was initially shocked to know that the man with the decision to admit me into such an esteemed preparatory school was also a Black man. In his last year as Director of Admissions, not only did he give me a chance as one of the few Black and Latinx enrollees, he also served as an exemplar of how to move around successfully in a room full of people that didn’t look, feel or talk the way that we do as a people. Secondly, I learned that Blacks were not a monolith; we all come from different paths, experiences, socio-economic status and beliefs, even if we share the same skin color. After meeting some of my friends’ parents, it was comforting to know that no matter how high they were in Corporate America, the majority of them never ignored their humble beginnings and their rise around obstacles to success. They were balanced with a sense of ancestral reverence and a yearning for competing at the highest level so their professional worth was never in question. Lastly, I met some of the most brilliant minds and deep souls during my time in prep school. Black and Latinx teachers and students bonded over their shared underdog experience and were collectively motivated to leverage their school tenure into bigger opportunities and platforms of exposure.
“Not All White People Are Out to Get Me!”
All of my close friends knew that I had academic and personal frustrations with a particular English teacher during my time in prep school. Since primary school, people frequently remarked about how natural my writing ability was. Teachers, students and family members felt that my written communication was superb. However, this teacher was notoriously hard on me and unrelenting with his feedback. Constantly, he told me that “my writing wasn’t good enough” and that I “needed to try harder to justify my admittance.” My ego was bruised and I couldn’t accept the fact that the very thing that everyone said I was good at wasn’t good enough for this teacher. Because I knew that being Black meant being twice as good for the same recognition, I pondered if his comments were racially-related or pure fact. After speaking to my academic advisor and my parents, I decided to finally have a heart-to-heart conversation about his comments. During this exchange, it was revealed that he was only hard on me because he personally felt that I was one of his most talented writers in his class, but he also believed that I didn’t try hard enough to capitalize on this innate skill. He framed his message to me in his own way, but ,nonetheless, I had a full understanding of how he was trying to propel me to my highest level.
Then, it hit me - not all white people are out to get me. Back in high school, my friends of the same hue shared a joke when things suddenly went wrong. For example, if we were late to class, we would joke that “the White man held me back,” so we couldn’t get up in time. If we had a bad game, we would humorously joke that “the White man messed me up today.” There is a lot of truth that’s said in jest, so these jokes were merely half-truths. Even though we knew that some White people in society did not care about Black well-being and advancement, our minds were equally open to the fact that there were white faculty members that were genuinely interested in our academic, social, emotional, behavioral and cognitive development. They took a stake of investment in our lives to shape our minds to see the bigger picture and to prepare us adequately for the next steps ahead.
“Dang, That’s a Different Mindset!”
I met my best friend, Brie-El, during football training camp about a month before school started in the summer of 1998. We roomed together during this time and eventually became roommates at our boarding school. Instantly, we bonded over our similar experiences and mindsets, so we looked forward to discussing how we could use prep school to our advantage. Together, we were shocked to learn about some “foreign” concepts that positively rocked our nurtured way of thinking.
Starting a Business v. Working a 2nd Job
One of the biggest lessons I learned in prep school was the financial approach of well-to-do students and school stakeholders. Consistently, I noticed that people spoke fondly about starting their own business, building systems and employing the right people to enhance business operations. From my upbringing, I always thought and witnessed that the way to make additional money was through a second job. Yet, in prep school, I learned that prep school families focused their energy on investments and business ownership while my family and friends focused more on employment and self-employment. One of my White prep school classmates put me on Rich Dad Poor Dad book by Robert Kiyosaki and the message transformed my mode of thinking.
Family Style Dinners
Omitting my admissions interview, the first time that I wore a blazer, tie, khakis and oxfords were for my required rotation as a server during our weekly family style dinners. What is a family style dinner? These dinners were formal, sit-down meals in the dining hall where students, faculty members and stakeholders would bond while students learned the nuances of fine dining serving and etiquette. In the future, his experience provided a level of comfort when I attended balls, black tie events, galas and other high-society functions.
“Show Your Work and Compete”
From the outset, I noticed that the intellect, critical thinking, analysis, decision-making and reasoning skills among preparatory scholars were top-tier. Competition was fierce as everyone had plans to attend Ivy League institutions or prestigious universities in the UK. Education was the great equalizer in a school where the socioeconomic status was highly stratified. Yet, it was difficult to ignore that flight or fight response within me knowing that I was no longer the most intelligent person in the classroom. Self-doubt can be a mental jail cell that locks away the key to overcome challenges. For a while, I misplaced my key.
Nevertheless, with persuasive and positive encouragement from friends, I was reminded of the why behind the reason I was here in the first place. In addition, I thought about different motivators to reignite my fervor for excellence. My parents worked multiple jobs to provide a better opportunity for me. My ancestors set a foundation of greatness even if they had to sacrifice for the advancement of their people. The Director of Admissions put his reputation on the line by believing in me to exceed expectations.
In all, I learned a worthwhile lesson - life is a scorecard where you must compete and show your work. If people don’t know you, they will judge you on your work. If people know you, they want to know what you have done. People were watching me, but it really wasn’t about the competition with my fellow classmates. Rather, it was more about setting standards and goals to compete against what excellence meant to me. This inner drive would naturally produce the results needed to be a contender while separating myself from being a pretender.
“Your Network is Your Net Worth”
When I relocated to Doha, Qatar in 2017, I was working as an international consultant for an American financial services company. I enjoyed my time in this human resources role, but after some time, I became disenchanted with the fact that working for an American company in Qatar left me on the outside-looking-in when it came to building more relationships within the country. So, one day, my prep schoolmate contacted me to let me know that she was moving to Doha to work at an American private school. After catching-up and reminiscing about old times, she mentioned that there were open job vacancies at her school if I wanted to get back into the education management sector. Several interviews later, I was hired for the role that I still occupy to this day.
Furthermore, my preparatory school network also supported my passion as a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW). For example, in the span of the last 12 months, my last 6 clients have been former classmates. They have referred prospective customers from their network to become a patron of my services, too.
Collectively, I have been able to reconnect and bolster my network through these interactions. The age-old adage - “your network is your net worth” - is more meaningful than ever. As I am getting older, I am noticing how more opportunities appear as I endeavor to actively connect and keep engaging relationships through phone, email, social media and LinkedIn. Look no further than my expatriation to Qatar; the fortuity of interpersonal investment has manifested itself in my employment and business ventures.At 14 years of age, I had no idea about the power and promise of preparatory school. Boy, I was fortunate to have parents with the foresight and the commitment to expose me to another level of thinking and being. I credit my parents for always balancing traditional education with “social education.” In my opinion, my time as a prep scholar was more about social education as I took notes on various subjects such as personal finances, race relations, competition, networking, etiquette, dressing for success, interpersonal communication and Black pride. Albeit, I learned a great deal about who I was and what I wanted out of life as a teenager. Learning in both public schools and preparatory schools and programs helped shape my personal and professional path in a multifaceted way. Yet, it was my prep school experience that set me up for life!