The False Promise of Admissions

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As a marginalized student, boarding school was supposed to be the opportunity of a lifetime for me: a world-class education, the space and resources of a small college, and a close-knit community all in one perfect package. That has always been the promise behind glossy photos of diverse, smiling teenagers and anodyne mission statements like “teaching the whole student” and “preparation for the active work of life.” Adults across the spectrum of authority told us that we were meant to invest our hope in schools like these — that there we would find the opportunity to craft our best selves; the easy routes to bigger, shinier, more elite colleges; the possibility of a better life built by our own talents and ambition. This is what Kendra James bought into when she began her journey at prep school. What she didn’t know, until years later, was the cost.

Unpacking the price of life as a brown face among a sea of white ones is at the core of Admissions, Kendra James’s coming-of-age memoir about her time as a Black girl at boarding school. Chronicling her three years on the idyllic campus of the Taft School in Connecticut with humor, insight, and a near-superhuman depth of grace, James straddles an ever-shifting line as the school’s first Black American legacy, trying to find equilibrium in a space that was never built for her and isn’t aware that it should try.

After a fitful freshman year of public school in Maplewood, New Jersey, James comes to campus ready to become best friends with her white roommate, get into shenanigans like the ones she’s read about in YA novels, and forge her own path at a school she’s visited since birth. She is freighted with perhaps more hope than her fellow Black and brown companions, because she has no reason to believe that she will not fit. With her father’s legacy as an alumnus and his presence as a trustee, Taft has been “inevitable” for James since even before she decided to apply. Like the “chosen one” protagonists that she loves as a fantasy and sci-fi aficionado, James feels like attending the school is practically her destiny.

This makes the thoughtless comments from classmates, hostile assumptions, dangerous allegations, and unrealized camaraderie across an invisible color line all the more shocking and painful. James’s bright and open prose, her accessible tone, the frequent jokes and references (if you know, you know) become counterweights to the hurt that cannot be hidden, reminders that she is just as scared and confused and overwhelmed as any teenager would be. So while it is hilarious when James uses her rebellious interest in witchcraft to “hex” her white roommate out of their dorm, the humor is undercut when we recall that she is only driven to do so because her white roommate neither respects James’s space nor her sense of self.

The experience creates a boundary for James: she accepts that she will not find friendship among her white peers and abandons any effort to do so. After her roommate leaves their room, James no longer prioritizes managing the field hockey team she’d joined to connect with the girl she had just scared away with a chalk pentagram. She focuses entirely on her interests and goals and plants herself firmly at the “Black table” in the dining hall, cutting her voluntary interracial interactions to a minimum. The destiny is broken; the hopes are dashed, and James has become aligned with the reality that so many Black and brown students endure.

As a fellow member of the self-evidently small sorority of Black girls at boarding school (graduating the same year, no less), here is where I felt Admissions transform into a capsule of companionship. I, too, closed the door on the possibility of inclusion. I also struggled to connect, to find my place, to navigate as easily in the elite world as I did in the advanced classrooms of public school. I knew her sting of rejection and the cold emptiness of omission because it was what I had also endured. Reading about James’s bittersweet loss of innocence comforted the adolescent version of myself who thought I was the only one: We may be rare, but never alone. Someone out there, maybe even closer than we realize, does actually understand.

The isolation that James captures, the uneasy and unspoken cease-fire she negotiates with whiteness at Taft, becomes an echo of the experiences of so many other students of color at the same schools that make up the world of the American elite. She takes up our repressed feelings and gives voice to the untold tales of neglect and disregard, of camaraderie and solidarity and survival, of those of us who were brought into spaces without anyone considering how we would fit. When she writes about the friendships that never formed, the exchanges that never happened, the joys and adventures that never came alive with white classmates, she is speaking for that same isolated island of melanin in every predominantly white space. Even where the details are not the same, James puts onto the page a chorus of the failures that these vaunted institutions inflict on the Black and brown students placed in their care.

This is true even for James, who, despite being granted the advantage of legacy, notes that she is unprotected and unseen, except when she is a useful tool to sell the fiction of an inclusive campus — like when a picture she takes at a diversity brunch is the only spot of color for the entire alumni weekend recorded in the quarterly Taft Bulletin. In this context, diversity isn’t an ethos; it’s an asset. Melanated faces are just props in a play, a facsimile of what wealth and whiteness perceive as inclusion. In a deft twist, the glaring exceptionalism of James’s heritage simply becomes another way to spotlight the systemic failures of a diversity that is only skin deep. In so many moments, the silent question of why she is the first Black American legacy in more than a century of the school’s existence is answered with a brutal retort: This is not an experience anyone would want to replicate for their child.

But with the force of the answer, James also offers a kind of apology: After graduating college, she became an admissions professional for a similar school, marketing these gilded opportunities despite knowing that they were false gold. The book alternates between murmurs of regret and a defiant side-eye asking if inclusion among the white elite is even desirable. It is an undeniable privilege to attend a school like Taft, but the problems of these institutions are rooted in centuries of oppression. The bubble of campus magnifies the slights, but the microaggressions are an early training in the death by a thousand cuts that is American racism. Is the damage overblown, or permanent? Is it calamitous, or common? James doesn’t provide clarity here, instead emphasizing her own conflicted feelings, summed up in her surprised hope and deep incredulity at the words of another Black classmate as they approach graduation: “Taft’s gone. Clean slate.”

This is where the memoir voluntarily shrinks itself. James shies away from the fact that the privilege of boarding school is just a pipeline to power. These are the places where future leaders are trained and the elite enshrine their privilege, while leaving their children to stew in the same toxic soup of white supremacy as their Black and brown classmates. On the other side of every moment of isolation and disruption is a white classmate or teacher or administrator that has rationalized the experience as not merely normal, but beneficial. The schools and their natural inheritors are still suffused with the notion that they are a gift to the marginalized students they accept into their ranks, rather than recognizing that the presence and talents and hopes of marginalized students are a gift to them.

James offers no easy solution to this conundrum. Black and brown students continue to attend these schools, and they continue to experience racist abuse, from being excluded as romantic partners to facing the terrifying assault of slurs defacing their doors. There is no end date to when these schools stop reflecting the white supremacy inherent in American elitism, just as there is no beginning date for when it started. Admissions brings no resolution to what has been, only the clarity of what is not and cannot be the way forward: putting more weight on marginalized students to fix the cultures they did not create. We are resilient, durable, dynamic — but in so many ways, we are people still waiting on the promise of our potential.

The False Promise of Admissions