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“The Way to Survive It Was to Make A’s,” A Head’s Letter by Chuck Baldecchi

“The Way to Survive It Was to Make A’s,” A Head’s Letter by Chuck Baldecchi
This New York Times Magazine article from September 7, 2017, was the most compelling and inspiring article regarding Independent Schools I have read in a long while. The author of the article, Mosi Secret, did an incredible amount of research regarding the work of the Stouffer Foundation, which single-handedly integrated the elite prep schools of the South in the fall of 1967. The Stouffer Foundation was the brainchild of Ann Forsyth, heir to the Reynolds (tobacco) and Cannon (textiles) families of North Carolina. Her son had had a wonderful boarding school experience up North where he made meaningful relationships with students of all races, creeds, and cultures, and she wanted to make sure prep schools in the South promoted that same experience. She formed the Stouffer Foundation to identify students of color throughout the Southeast and paid tuition for those students. I was already well aware of the Stouffer Foundation through my work at The Asheville School in North Carolina—one of the schools to benefit from the Stouffer Foundation’s work. This article focused on the story of the first students to integrate Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, Virginia, better known as VES.
In the article we meet Marvin Barnard, an African American male raised by his aunt and uncle and living in the poorest section of Richmond, Virginia. We also meet his roommate, Bill Alexander, the son of a black minister who hailed from a middle-class family in Nashville, Tennessee At fourteen years of age, each of these young men felt the responsibility and weight not only of proving his academic prowess and character at VES but also of representing an entire race. As the article states,

Marvin and Bill each came to V.E.S. with a belief that the civil rights movement was his to bear, and that the way to bear it was by proving himself in the classroom… “We recognized that being the black kids, everything we did was going to be under scrutiny,” Marvin said. That meant no sneaking off campus, stealing away with girls or missing class. “It would go beyond us as individuals, and they would say: ‘This is what all black kids do. This is what the black race would do.’ Representing yourself as an individual and then being a representative of your people — as I went through school, that became a struggle.”

What an incredible weight of pressure and responsibility to accept as a fourteen-year-old boy. As a freshman at boarding school myself, it was all I could do to handle the responsibility of being away from my friends and family much less overcoming the incredibly high academic expectations of me in the classroom. Meet and exceed those expectations, Bill and Marvin did with grit and determination:

With uncanny speed, Bill and Marvin did just what they set out to do, rushing to the head of the class while shaking up racial allegiances, seldom losing their footing, the path they raced along hewing so closely to the one they’d imagined. A few more weeks into the school year, faculty members posted student rankings on a bulletin board, as they did at the end of every grading period. When the freshman boys pressed up against the bulletin board in their jackets and ties, they saw Bill and Marvin at the top of their class, ahead of all 40-some white boys. “I wanted to get their badges,” Marvin told me. “That became one of my mottos. I want to get what you say is good, so that you have to say I’m good.”

And maintain them Bill and Marvin did. Both boys remained at the top of the class for all four years at VES. They also became leaders on the athletic field and within the community.
As one can imagine, the experience brought with it difficult moments where the boys had to take a stand and not cower to blatant racism or bigotry. One of the most riveting and courageous stories occurred the night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in the spring of 1968 during Bill and Marvin’s freshman year. I will let them tell the story:

On the evening of April 4, 1968, Bill and Marvin were in their dorm room when news came over the radio that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed. The movement’s leader was dead, and they were away from home. “I’m standing in the room,” Marvin recalled. “Bill is in the room. And then we hear nothing but — I mean, it’s like the whole doggone dorm was celebrating and laughing and whooping. And I looked at Bill, and I’m just like, ‘No, this is not gonna happen this way.’ I went out into the hallway, and I looked up and down the hallway, and I yelled out that if anybody thinks that this is funny, then come out of your rooms now and tell me. I wasn’t the biggest guy around or nothing like that. But they could feel I wasn’t taking no mess. And there was quiet.”

I cannot imagine the courage it took Marvin to stand out in that hallway and demand respect for the man who led his people through the Civil Rights Movement. How alone those two must have felt that night miles away from family – the only two African Americans in a sea of white classmates. But they weren’t alone that night. The school’s Headmaster, Mr. Montgomery, demanded that the students be called to the chapel the night of King’s assassination:

Late that night, Montgomery, having heard the uproar himself, as had other faculty members who lived in the dorms, assembled the pajama-clad boys in the chapel to admonish them. “This is not who we are,” he told them, invoking the school’s motto, “Toward Full Stature,” which was on a crest above the chapel door. If this seems an obvious response, it was not in the South at that time. To Bill and Marvin, two among hundreds, Montgomery was a hero at that hour. But that night was a turning point for them. It was as if they’d been picked up off their feet and set down in another place, and from their new vantage point, light didn’t shine as brightly toward harmony. “We had made some miscalculations about how people felt in their hearts,” Marvin said. “That took some of the smile off of my face.”

The Headmaster’s contract would not be renewed the following fall. To many members of the Board of Trustees and parents, Headmaster Montgomery had moved too quickly by integrating VES. Bill and Marvin remained at VES and were joined by five more brave black students over the course of their four years at the school. In addition to VES, seven other prep schools around the South integrated with the assistance of the Stouffer Foundation in the fall of 1967. The following year many of the school’s that resisted the invitation in 1967 felt compelled to join the others in 1968. Fifty years later many of those trailblazing students have gone on to succeed in business, medicine, law, and education; they also became Trustees and loyal alumni.
I want to make this clear. In my opinion, what these students and alumni have given their institutions far outweighs what their Alma Mater gave them. Sacrificing a normal childhood and education in order to change and diversify any institution is a sacrifice I would struggle to ask of my own child or myself. That being said, I will forever be indebted to those students who took part in the Stouffer Foundation’s program to integrate the South’s most elite prep schools. Bill and Marvin’s bold move inspired The Lexington School to follow suit and become integrated. We all have benefited greatly, and thankfully The Lexington School is focused today less on percentages of students of color and more on inclusivity. We are forever focused on the goal of allowing every student to feel comfortable in his or her own skin and making every family feel ownership of The Lexington School.
With a deep gratitude both for a job I love and for the brave students and parents of color who blazed an inclusive trail for all our students,
Charles D. Baldecchi
Head of School
P.S. If you would like to read the full New York Times Magazine article, you can read it at this link. “This American Life” also ran an episode on this story; here is the link.

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