The Bossy Bookworm
Review of Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School by Kendra James
In Admissions, Kendra James explores race, friendship, ambition, and the absurdities and rhythm of daily life during her time at a New England boarding school.
Kendra James was the first Black legacy to graduate from The Taft School, an elite boarding school in Connecticut.
When she later works as an admissions officer specializing in diversity recruitment for independent prep schools, she finds herself examining her high school educational experience with a more critical eye, forcing herself to delve more deeply into aspects of her years at Taft that she largely glossed over at the time--and ultimately debating whether or not she should be advising families to pursue the same precarious path she herself followed.
Digging into the past often seems a difficult undertaking, and as she looks back, Kendra James explains that her main goals when she attended Taft were not bringing to light racial injustice and leading a charge toward change, but typically teenage: to escape into role-playing video games and write fan fiction, to bond with a few classmates through watching favorite movies, and, primarily, to secure a spot in a college of her choice, then to (as is the goal for many high schoolers, for various reasons) get out of high school and get on with the rest of her life.
James notes repeatedly that she felt largely unseen and unknown during her boarding school years. When she attends various Taft alumni events in the years following her graduation, they cement this same feeling. Her appearance in a Taft publication that lists her incorrect graduation year (and reunion year) grates on her as more evidence of this.
The majority of page time is focused on aspects of James's boarding-school life, including its rhythms and peculiarities. James received financial aid to attend Taft, then $35,000 a year, and she then attended Oberlin for college, which, by her and her parents' design, was an admissions door likely opened more widely because of her Taft pedigree. But the book is not in large part about financial or class privilege.
At times James laments the absence of frank discussions about race that she might have had with her parents, and she criticizes the lack of information she received from them on the topic. She wishes she could have learned more from them before entering Taft about the many ways she might have expected race to affect her life--especially considering the vastly white, elite circles her parents had either dipped their toes into or immersed themselves in: for example, Taft, Smith, Brown, and her father's banking job.
The author notes that when she was a high schooler, in that place and time in our society, she didn't have an understanding of the power of daily microaggressions nor of blatant racism--nor did she have the language and perspective she now has to talk about such things--in order to sift through the many disturbing race-based incidents in her young life.
James's evaluation of events of these years--including the racism she experienced at school; diverse, acute instances of disturbing behavior, whether race-based and class- and gender-based; and the social segregation of social groups by race--feels hesitantly explored at times as she attempts to dig into her raw teenage feelings while acknowledging her youthful lack of understanding and her early, unformed grasp of the myriad social, racial, and class issues shaping her experience.
Regarding a situation in which the strict rule-follower James was accused of wrongdoing while at Taft, the author acknowledges that for years she largely glossed over not only the event, but the racial issues bubbling beneath the incident and her resulting emotional trauma, pushing all of this down until her reckoning with it in young adulthood.
Late in the book, James shares select portions of a disturbing article a white student wrote for the school paper while James also attended Taft, in which the article's author largely blames the school's racial divides on the students of color themselves and mentions her discomfort about the existence of programs and events that put people of color at their center. James expresses anger and frustration at Taft's ineffective response--and at the many missed opportunities she sees before and after that event for the school to have shaped an effective approach to true inclusion.
In Admissions, James offer a book that is partly a social critique, partly a recounting of the absurdities she experienced, and partly simply her unique story of living away from home and often feeling lonely and alone in her experience.
I received a prepublication digital edition of this book courtesy of Grand Central Publishing and NetGalley.
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Kendra James was a founding editor at Shondaland, where she worked for two years.
She has written articles for various publications and is the author of a romance novel, When Hearts Collide.