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"How to Be a Winsor Girl" by Tricia Elam Walker

Some self-labeled “patriots” and other conservatives rage against truthful and complete history and access to books that explore and acknowledge the existence of racism in our country, allegedly because they don’t want children to feel uncomfortable. It’s pretty clear though, that they are only worried about how white kids feel. I’ve heard zero concern for what Black children experience, especially those in predominantly white institutions.

I was one of those kids a lifetime ago and unfortunately the terrain can be as treacherous for some now as it was back then. In 1964 Ellen and I were the first Black students to enter the hallowed hallways of Winsor, a private school for girls in Boston. We didn’t realize the weight of history we carried in our 10-year-old bodies.

A half century later and three years before she passed away, I asked Virginia Wing what possessed her to revolutionize Winsor in her first few months as headmistress. She told me she was influenced by the relationship with her Black nanny as well as by her minister father who sometimes exchanged pulpits with an African American pastor. When she brought up the idea of admitting Black students to the school no one opposed her, so through a series of connections, Ellen’s parents and mine answered the call. They seized the opportunity for us to have a solid education, a rarity for many African American children in Massachusetts at that time.

Ellen remembers we took the entrance exam in the school library, just the two of us. At one point she heard urgent chatter from behind where we sat and turned to see white girls pointing and saying, “Look at the Negroes taking the test.” It was then, Ellen notes with residual sadness that she “knew what it was like to be an animal in a zoo.” Although my memory of that day has faded, I trust Ellen’s because the edges of her hurt remain sharp.

We passed the entrance test but Winsor was not ready for us and we were not ready for Winsor. Our world consisted of day-to-day survival tactics. White girls asked things they dared not ask the only other Black people in their lives --maids and chauffeurs. Questions like: “Why is the outside of your hands darker than the inside?” or “Can you wash the brown color off?”

The adults weren’t much better. When invited to a classmate’s home, her mother asked me if I wanted to sing “We Shall Overcome” before dinner. I was only ten years old and stumbled a confused “no” that probably sounded more like a question or an apology.

By 1969 there was a grand total of five black “Winsor girls” (Pam M and Marilyn joined our class and Pam B, a year older, joined the class ahead of ours.) That term - Winsor girl, an oxymoron of sorts, was fraught for us. Ellen says because she never could, she ultimately no longer wanted to be one. I, on the other hand, pretended my hair hung lank against the sides of my face and refused to acknowledge the mirror’s betrayal. I still don’t know how to swim due to that betrayal even though proficiency at it was a graduation requirement. I couldn’t bear the thought of the white girls discovering that my hair, when it touched water, turned into a giant brillo pad.

For a time I questioned whether there was anything beautiful at all about my Blackness even though my parents tried their best to ground me and my siblings in the richness of our culture (we were surrounded by Black art, Black professionals, Black books and more). As a teen trying to fit in at school, though, the notion of Black beauty was not front and center.

In the mid to late 1960s Winsor haute couture was plaid kilt skirts worn with bare legs and loafers. (Pants were unthinkable.) We Black girls took public transportation to school – two or three buses for an hour each way – and we weren’t allowed to leave home bare-legged in the winter. So Pam M and I removed our tights on the bus but our knock-off kilts, exposing ashy legs jammed into orthopedic loafers, were tragic imitations. Pam B, leap years wiser as well as older, set us straight when she began rocking an Afro and wearing African daishikis rather than sweating white girl outfits. Soon the rest of us sprouted proud afros too. My father didn’t hide his disdain (“Awful!” he’d grunt with a head shake) but I forged ahead, ready to grow into the Black pride I craved.

In many ways school was not a safe place for us but we didn’t know it at the time. Though absorbed into our psyches, some of the difficult memories have dimmed but each of us can recall an incident that still stirs up a battering ram of emotion more than 50 years later. My nemesis was Huck Finn. For some reason, we often had to read paragraphs aloud in English class. I prayed I wouldn’t get a passage that contained the two most dreaded of words: Nigger Jim - but lo and behold, there they were taunting and menacing. I remember how jagged and insistent my heartbeat became, how I planned for my tongue to skate across and render them inaudible, how desperately I didn’t want to cry. When I said the words, despite the softness of my voice, it was as if I were Nigger Jim and the whole class knew it. The teacher never even attempted to assuage my despair. If I operated by the same premise as some white folk, that book should be removed because it made me uncomfortable, to say the least. I recall some rumblings years later about changing the offensive word but certainly no uproar as to how Black kids might feel reading it. I’m not for banning books but that one shouldn’t be read in any classroom where Black children are in the minority. Maybe that’s what needs to be determined where the banning of books is being touted. In most instances the white child is not alone in the classroom and I would imagine there is a teacher primed to explore the feelings that arise.

Not every Winsor adult was tone deaf. There were a few teachers who looked past our skin and saw our humanity. Ms. Wortham (English) was the first person besides my mother to tell me I was a writer. Ms. Alger (Math) tutored me in Algebra on her own time. Mr. Rogers (Art) celebrated our creativity. And we adored Ms. Lupinacci’s (Espanol) kindness and fashion sense.

Back in our mostly black neighborhood, sometimes other African American kids teased us about going to a white school so I often felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. On rare days when we got out of school early enough, Pam M and I hung out in the train station where the public school kids congregated and tried in vain to blend in with them.

While all of our parents were community activists in their own right, Pam B’s father was actually on the front lines organizing politically and economically and he discussed his work with his young, impressionable daughter. In this way, Pam B became a dynamic force who rounded up our disparate energies and put them to important use. At some point she decided that we needed to organize and formulate our “demands”: Black history! Black role models! Black teachers! All three were non-existent at Winsor and never contemplated. As a result a young Black man named Roosevelt was summoned from Simmons College (our neighbor in proximity) to assist in the ways he could. I don’t know who made this call or whether he had a formal title but one of his solutions to our plight was to play Malcolm X speeches on a record player in our meeting room. Malcolm’s words pricked the surface of our discontent but we were far from cured.

Meanwhile the administration tried to put similar patches on the various gaping holes in the curriculum and conceded to our Black History month proposal. With the go-ahead, we planned an assembly where we would dress in African attire, read poetry by Black writers, dance to African drumming and sing James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud” because…we were, weren’t we? I remember trying on those ideas and liking them but also being somewhat afraid of them.

We rehearsed several times prior to the big day. When it finally arrived, something remarkable happened. In the midst of everything, and certainly unrehearsed, Pam B, our pied piper, leapt up and broke from the script, screaming out to the ocean of white faces something like, “None of y’all know what it’s like to be Black, to be slaves, to have your mammies and pappies lynched!” She was on fire but I recall thinking to myself, I don’t know what that’s like either. And where did she get that Southern accent? I worried about what would happen next. Would the school explode? Would we explode? Neither happened. Instead Pam B became an unacknowledged hero in my mind that day because she was bold and unafraid, well-versed in Black historical facts and closer to being a grownup than any other teenager I knew. Her speech was almost like Martin Luther King, I told my mother later on.

Something shifted for all of us after that assembly which manifested itself in different ways. The time-honored rule for Winsor commencement was that the entire school dressed in all white. The stated purpose was for every student to “blend in” and “not stand out”. (Even brass buttons had to be covered with tape.) When contemplated as a senior, the concept made no sense in light of our un-blend-in-able skin. Although in preceding years we conformed to the rule, I could and would not do it for my graduation. Our graduating class, after all, was the first class in which the students were not all white from inception.

So we talked it out with our classmates and many of the white girls agreed to forgo wearing white as well, some in solidarity and others because they too understood that our class was inherently different. On that special day I rocked a gold floral print wrap dress that I made myself and thought looked spectacular. Even though, following our diversion that year, subsequent classes reverted back to tradition, I’m still proud that ours was the one and only class in the school’s long history to not wear all white. Our class photograph, documenting that year’s remarkable sartorial statement, hangs unapologetically between the other redundant class photos before and since.

Twenty-five years after we graduated from Winsor, none of us Black girls wanted to attend our reunion – way too many disturbing memories. Ellen, however, came up with the brilliant idea of convening a session wherein we would share our experiences called, “Red, White and Black” (Winsor’s colors are red and white; we brought the Black.) The auditorium was standing room only, filled with Black girls who followed our lead, white girls who had been in our class, parents, teachers and many others. The rapt audience heard our stories, cried with us, shared some of their own tales (Jewish girls spoke of their mistreatment of which we were unaware) and we began the much-needed process of healing. Some of our former classmates embraced us afterwards and apologized if they “ever said something stupid”.

Although I begged my parents year after year to take me out of Winsor, they always refused. After the panel my mother revealed that she and my father hadn’t thought through the possibility of my social exclusion and if they had, might have made a different decision. My father reiterated his decades long belief: “There is no perfect school for a Black child.”

Since that illuminating panel, Winsor has dug down deep, faced its demons and made necessary, beyond the surface, changes. The school actively sought students, faculty and staff of color. One of its best decisions was to hire Pam M as the first Black admissions director who served the school for 18 years. Who better than she to know what the school needed? She recruited in non-traditional arenas such as public schools in minority neighborhoods, made certain there were representative marketing materials and attended school fairs with students of color by her side, expanded financial aid, created “Sisters”, a Black student mentoring group as well as a Black parents support group. These days Winsor boasts 44% students of color with many private schools clamoring to know how they do it.

The halls are no longer hallowed in the way they were. I have returned several times over the years to speak about my experiences as a student but also to praise the obvious advancements. I attended a magical “Sisters” event where I was mesmerized and buoyed by the confidence displayed and the support given.

Though saddened that we did not have such opportunities, I and the other first Black Winsor girls willingly bear the scars so that no girls of color have to do so ever again. Our difficult experiences portend that a “Winsor girl” no longer means a preternaturally privileged white girl. Today she may be African, African American, Latin X, Muslim, Asian, non-binary, gay or trans. Thanks to us, Winsor is now a school for every kind of girl to learn about who she is and from whence she came as well as the required academics.

Schools cannot be afraid to face the challenges of teaching the “ugly” parts of history and must be concerned with the repercussions for all the children they serve. Girls at Winsor are free to learn the truth about each other’s origins because of a vastly diverse curriculum that tackles complicated topics taught by skilled educators prepared and eager to handle the myriad of feelings that may surface. We should desire nothing less for all students everywhere.

Tricia Elam Walker (she, they) is the author of Nana Akua Goes to School, winner of the 2021 Ezra Jack Keats Writer Award, and winner of the 2021 Children's Africana Book Award. She can be found at She is Assistant Professor, Creative Writing for the Department of English at Howard University in Washington, DC.


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