The Lonely Existence of a Black Student in Falmouth Academy

The+Lonely+Existence+of+a+Black+Student+in+Falmouth+Academy

Alice Tan, Lead Reporter

“And is the school diverse?” Falmouth Academy senior Ellie Thomas remembers her mother’s tale of asking this question during an admission event at Falmouth Academy. Upon first meeting the admissions staff, that was the concern Mrs. Emily Thomas immediately raised, a question she deemed crucial to determine the environment for her daughter’s secondary education, “Is the school diverse?” 

Mrs. Thomas recalled being told that the school had a lot of Asian students.

When I interviewed her, Ellie gave a hearty laugh as she retold the story and the little huff that ended her chuckle gave a hint of frustrations. 

“She was asking, you know,” Ellie said, “are there Black kids?”

Ellie and her mother during seventh grade Gala. (Deon Thomas)

Falmouth Academy is a school known for many attributes – academic rigor, open lockers, quirky traditions, and a tight-knit community. Unfortunately, racial diversity isn’t one of the above. Located on Cape Cod, where, according to a 2019 U.S. census bureau report, the population is comprised of 91.6% White residents, a day school can only reflect racial diversity with the few minority students plus a handful of international exchanges. Despite FA’s effort to promote equity and inclusion within its curriculum, minority students often find themselves bracing for a lonely existence, struggling to understand their racial identities among White peers. It’s a reality Ellie Thomas has inhabited for six years. As the only Black student in the Class of 2021, Ellie finds her school experience haunted by a Nick Carraway-esque dilemma, defined by a feeling of “within and without,” and an acute awareness of her difference from the rest of the community.  

Ellie at the school-organized trip to Thailand in spring break, 2019. (Paige Francis)

Originally from Martha’s Vineyard, Ellie started attending Falmouth Academy in seventh grade. After a bad elementary school experience, her parents decided to pull her out of the island’s charter school system and start fresh at FA.

“My mom tells me now that I begged her to go to FA, like begged her,” Ellie recalled. “I don’t remember it, but she said that’s something that she will never forget, me begging to want to go to FA so bad.” 

Like many new students, Ellie was filled with anticipation and excitement, emotions that only intensified when she realized many of her island friends would join her in the same school. 

Back then, she had little understanding of what attending a predominantly white institution (PWI) would entail for a young Black girl. Her twelve-year-old self barely knew anything about FA and had only a vague sense of what it meant to study at a private school and commute every day. When she walked through the halls on her first day, the realization that there weren’t many kids that looked like her slowly dawned on Ellie. She remembered picking out the three or four black kids from upper grades as she looked around during All-School Meeting, and spent the rest of middle school confronting the grim reality of not being able to fit in.  

“Well, honestly, I never fit in,” Ellie said. “In seventh and eighth grade, girls were mean; people were mean. It was the ‘populars’ vs the ‘nobodies.’” 

Like most middle girls, she felt lost in the array of teenage drama and shuffling of different relationships. She was awkward and uncomfortable with many of her peers’ conversations, an isolation enhanced by her racial identity.

“I didn’t fit in because they don’t have the same qualities as I do. They talk[ed] about their hair, but my hair isn’t like their hair. They talk[ed] about their skin, but my skin isn’t like their skin.” 

Ellie told me that the sense of difference was acute for her as a middle schooler, especially when her relationship with others never seemed to move beyond the stage of social courtesy. People were often friendly, yet never becoming her close friends. 

“Thinking back about it right now, I would go home crying to my mom at night, asking: Why don’t they like me? Why can’t I fit in? And the answer from my mother was always: Ellie, you are a Black girl.” 

Thailand Trip. (Susan Moffat)

Attending classes as the only Black student requires courage and some competitiveness to stay afloat. Ellie still feels this way today. There’s a trial that comes with stepping into the classroom. In her words, Ellie’s academic journey is defined by a necessity to “work harder than other kids.” Although schoolwork doesn’t come easily, she still wants to make a point to be exceptional. 

This desire to be exceptional comes from the solitude of FA’s Black students. Ellie describes an invisible burden that rests on her shoulder, as she often finds herself unwittingly becoming the spokesperson for a race so underrepresented in the institution she is attending. She feels a need to impress her teachers. She wants to get A’s and to always present her best self, a desire that often borders on compulsion.  

“Because who was going to do it?” Ellie asked passionately. “There’s no one. I can look to my left and look to my right. I don’t see anyone that looks like me in class. I have to make sure that the teachers remember who I am. And I want to make sure that the White students that I’m with understand that just because I’m Black doesn’t mean that I’m not going to do well. I’m going to do my best and even better than you.” 

A weekday Study Hall (FA archive)

When topics like slavery and race come up in English and History classes, Ellie often finds her school experience frustrating. She is disappointed by FA’s curriculum on slavery, which she believes was too short to properly educate students about the exploitatory system that built the U.S. Instead of a week or so, Ellie thinks that teachers should spend at least two or three months talking about slavery and race in eighth grade and junior year, a demand that might be hard to incorporate into the current curriculum. 

 “I’ve been having this conversation [about slavery and race] since I was little. My dad is black. My mother is black. My brother, my whole family is black. I need to have this conversation, and it’s not uncomfortable to talk about this. But it’s uncomfortable for many White people to talk about it because they never need to talk about it at their dining room table.” Ellie said, adding that the subjects should be treated like more than a simple quiz that people are allowed to forget. 

The bulk of her knowledge of slavery comes from personal research and a father who sat her down to have long conversations. In Ellie’s mind, FA’s inadequate attention paid to such a subject feels like a failure to acknowledge the history of her people. 

The twelfth grade English class. (FA archive)

In junior year English class, Ellie recounts that one of the awkward moments reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was receiving her classmates’ apologetic glances or a refusal to meet her gaze whenever a racial slur came up. Literature or primary historical readings containing the N-word are controversial debates in most high schools. Ellie is especially sensitive about the teacher’s decision to read out the word for historical significance, or avoid its verbal presence due to the horrific connotation.

She understands it’s a historical word and that there is importance in acknowledging a shameful past. But even so, Ellie doesn’t think it’s appropriate for the word to be said out loud under any conditions.

“What people that are not of color need to understand is that that word was the last word that black people heard before they were killed, and I hate that. It triggers me.” Ellie sounded frustrated and livid on the phone. Her voice gradually dropped. “I know in my heart, if I ever have to read or say the N-word in class, I will be saying ‘a person of color’ or ‘a black person.’ Because how dare I say the word when my people were inflicted pain and suffering. It shouldn’t be a tough situation. No, don’t say it.” 

Most importantly, what makes the decision whether or not to verbalize the N-word uncomfortable is that they are unilaterally made by teachers who are White. When it comes to English courses, Falmouth Academy has a fairly diverse syllabus. Discussions regarding race and identity are present and consistent throughout the curriculum. Students read through To Kill a Mockingbird, Their Eyes Are Watching God, Othello, Purple Hibiscus, The Bluest Eye, and Six Degrees of Separation, exploring the contemporary and historical experiences of Blacks. What is absent is a Black academic teacher who from first hand experience could lead students to explore the nuances behind those books. 

“I feel that if we had a Black English teacher talking about slavery, talking about discrimination towards black people, there’s more gravity to it,” Ellie said. “There’s a Black person right in front of you talking to you about their history and what they go through. There’s some pull. It’s not like a faraway land.” 

Reflecting on her high school journey, Ellie imagined the sense of safety and guidance she would have felt if there were such a teacher. Part of the loneliness of being the only Black girl in class is simultaneously picking up the burden of a student and an educator. 

“If there were, let’s say, about twenty Black students and two teachers of color, do you know how safe [they would feel] and how loved they would be by those teachers? Like just seeing people, adults with professions who look like them, teaching them,” Ellie said. “They would feel so connected. And that they understand our struggles. They understand one another. I don’t have that connection with any of the teachers. I don’t feel that.”

 

Ellie learned how to start a fire during the junior class trip. (FA archive)

Ellie celebrates her heritage through the changing of her hairstyle, one of the ways she connects with Black community and culture. 

“Our hair is our own personal journey. It’s our identity,” she told me. And experimenting with it gave her a feeling of empowerment and belonging, when she spends much time with White peers day in and day out. One week she would have her hair short, the next week, long, braided, or even an afro. 

“I do different things with my hair because I can,” she said. 

The discomfort that accompanies such celebration is the moment people randomly come up and touch Ellie’s hair. She lamented that sometimes her peers forget that she doesn’t look like them. “They just come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I like your hair,’ and they immediately put their fingers in my hair,” Ellie said. “I’m like, I didn’t ask you to do that. That does not go well with black girls. Don’t ever do that.”

The action reminds her of a disturbing detail from her ancestors’ past. 

“In Belgium, they held slavery zoos. They would have Black children enclosed in a pen and have the children act like pets. White people would be standing around wanting to touch their hair, wanting to touch your skin, and wanting her to do tricks. When I see kids wanting to touch my hair, it just immediately brings me back to that image,” she said. 

Ellie during junior year Science Fair. (FA archive)

Those moments sometimes launch her into cynicism. For a while, Ellie seriously considered transferring schools. 

“It’s a feeling that is very demeaning in a way,” she said, when I asked her what does it mean to be a minority in a PWI. “It really took a toll on my self-esteem. I feel like I lost confidence in myself a little bit at the beginning of high school, thinking I wasn’t quote-unquote worthy enough.” 

“There are hard times where I thought that people didn’t see me. I feel like sometimes I’m just floating and I’m not really being seen or heard,” she hesitated. “I want to put FA in a good light. But for a time, I thought that I was just here as a Black student, and that’s a good rep for the school. I was just there to make the school look better.” 

In the more frustrating periods, Ellie thought of her school existence as a data point. 

 

Ellie’s Photo Elective Junior Year. (Susan Moffat)

As a senior, Ellie has grown more confident and assured of herself. She is heavily involved with FA’s  SoC (students of color) and SSJ (student for social justice) organization. Starting from eleventh grade, Ellie has been organizing Black History Month activities around the school behind the scenes, aiming to raise awareness and highlighting important historical events.

“Now, looking back, I still think I don’t fit in. Honestly, I don’t think I ever will. But I do have close friends now. I’m okay with not [completely fitting in]. I’m okay because I can speak up for myself. I don’t really care about what people think about me now, like I did in seventh and eighth grade,” Ellie said. 

She tells me her current mantra is, “If you like me, you do. If you don’t, then you don’t.” Nowadays, if her classmates or teacher say something she finds offensive, she is not afraid to speak up and share her opinions. 

“If I do have a teacher that does say the N-word, I will go up to that teacher and be like, ‘hey’, like in front of the class, ‘do not say that word,’” she said. 

Last year, Ellie worked closely with Ms. Carol DiFalco for the foundation of the current Immersion Program, making sure that most academic classes have at least a lesson or two about diversity and people of color. Participating in AISNE (Association of Independent Schools in New England) students of color conferences each year, Ellie has a place to share her story and find connections with other students of color.  

The Student of Color Group. (FA instagram)

“I am an invisible man.” Ralph Ellison opened his 1952 novel the Invisible Man with that particular sentence. “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” The paragraph goes on.  

To be “unseen,” quoting both Ellie Thomas and Ralph Ellison, is the lonely existence FA minority students sometimes find themselves cornered into, coming of age as isolated individuals in a community that lacks racial diversity.  

Over her six years, Ellie has wrestled with her racial identity and where she fits in with the FA community. She grew from a timid seventh grader to someone who learned to speak up for herself. Being different gave her a new anchor to understand diversity and a feeling of pride in her Black identity. She celebrates it by co-leading FA’s SoC group, participating in AISNE’s students of color conferences, and working with Ms. DiFalco to make Falmouth Academy a more inclusive place. 

 “Hopefully I can go to a college that is more diverse, and there are a lot of kids who went through the same situations attending a school like FA,” Ellie said, telling me she is considering a few historically black colleges for next year. “I will feel like I belong because I am with people who have the same culture and background as me.” 

For the next stage of her life, Ellie wants to feel like she belongs.