Bridg­ing the pub­lic-pri­vate school gap

The Commercial Appeal - - Sports - Your Turn

“Keep your head up and walk into this op­por­tu­nity with con­fi­dence.” These wise words were given to me by my fa­vorite ele­men­tary school teacher.

The new op­por­tu­nity? Tran­si­tion­ing from pub­lic to pri­vate school. Epic.

As I en­tered a whole new world with white faces and Chris­tian val­ues, I was scared. “Will I be able to han­dle the work? What will my friends look like? When will I see my ‘old’ friends?”

Like a whirl­wind, my life changed, and af­ter mak­ing the big leap of faith to bet­ter my ed­u­ca­tion, I never looked back.

Be­ing a poor black girl with a sin­gle par­ent mother who sac­ri­ficed to send me to pri­vate school posed unique chal­lenges. My up­bring­ing was as pro-Africana as it could get un­der the lead­er­ship of Mrs. Ruby J. Payne at Han­ley Ele­men­tary. I em­anated pride in my Black­ness.

But this quickly had to be con­tained in or­der for me to as­sim­i­late. The tone of my voice changed. The things I found en­ter­tain­ing changed. The recog­ni­tion for be­ing the smartest stu­dent in class changed. My new world, though ex­tremely nur­tur­ing and full of high ex­pec­ta­tions, thrust me into sur­vival mode. Con-

sider­ing Mama al­ways said, “Get your ed­u­ca­tion, it’s the only thing go­ing to open doors for you, Brit­ney,” I knew I had to fig­ure it out.

On the flip side, coming home ev­ery day kept my eyes sen­si­tive to dif­fer­ence. A child of Or­ange Mound, Mem­phis’ old­est African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity, I knew poverty well. I greeted pros­ti­tutes, drug deal­ers, and job­less in­di­vid­u­als daily as neigh­bors and friends. We watched out for each other. We shared with each other. We built re­la­tion­ships and knew one an­other. As I started to no­tice how peo­ple in my com­mu­nity “moved dif­fer­ently” than peo­ple at my school, I learned how to code-switch in or­der to fit in.

If not for BRIDGES, I may never have known how to em­brace my dif­fer­ence.

Nat­u­rally, I was forced to pick and choose as­pects of my iden­tity in or­der to be ac­cepted. Of­ten­times I felt over­whelmed by liv­ing in the gap. By the time I dis­cov­ered Bridge Builders, I was more priv­i­leged than im­pov­er­ished—at least that’s what I wanted ev­ery­one to be­lieve.

What to ex­pect in Bridge Builders was a mys­tery to me. The idea of in­ter­act­ing with not only other pri­vate school­ers but also pub­lic-school stu­dents brought anx­i­ety. Un­til my sopho­more year, I had only known the divi­sion be­tween “us” and “them.” Pride once in­stilled in me to pro­mote a col­lec­tive Black con­scious­ness was re­placed with a di­vi­sive, elit­ist spirit that made me feel un­com­fort­able around pub­lic-school stu­dents, which then I as­so­ci­ated with be­ing black.

So imag­ine my sur­prise when I was grouped with a white stu­dent from Ridge­way High School, a black stu­dent from Bolton High School, and an athe­ist stu­dent from St. Mary’s. How could these dy­nam­ics ex­ist?

Con­nect­ing with stu­dents also man­ag­ing their own dif­fer­ence helped me es­cape my bub­ble. Our bond was im­me­di­ate as we sat in cir­cles and shared our ex­pe­ri­ences, cry­ing and re­lat­ing and nod­ding heads and rub­bing backs. BRIDGES was home, and I did not want to leave. Just ask my mom, who was quite con­fused when she picked me up af­ter my first re­treat and I cried the whole way home.

Thanks to Bridge Builders, I re­ceived a much-needed in­ter­ven­tion. Hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to build re­la­tion­ships with other stu­dents with uniquely sim­i­lar iden­tity gaps re­leased a lot of the pres­sure.

Ten years re­moved, I still honor BRIDGES for its pos­i­tive im­pact in my life. The best part is know­ing that I join thou­sands of other Mem­phi­ans with shared pas­sion for em­brac­ing di­ver­sity, be­ing trans­for­ma­tive lead­ers, and build­ing re­la­tion­ships. Our Bridge Builders oath was more than cer­e­mony. It was a planted seed that for­ever changed our lives.

For me, that seed grew into a pro­fes­sional com­mit­ment to pub­lic ser­vice. As a li­censed so­cial worker and K-8 ed­u­ca­tor, I’m fas­ci­nated by peo­ple and be­lieve whole­heart­edly in the power of col­lec­tive ac­tion. And I’ve fo­cused my ef­forts in my home com­mu­nity, serv­ing as the non-profit leader of JUICE Or­ange Mound.

Com­mu­ni­ties like Or­ange Mound are of­ten told to wait for oth­ers to rec­og­nize their po­ten­tial, but we be­lieve ev­ery re­source needed al­ready ex­ists among the res­i­dents in our com­mu­nity. Us­ing spare change as a tool, we unite and em­power res­i­dents to be the change they wish to see.

I am proud to con­nect peo­ple to re­sources in my com­mu­nity, and I am proud to for­ever be a Bridge Builder.

Brit­ney Thorn­ton, Bridge Builders class of 2007, is founder of JUICE Or­ange Mound and a math in­ter­ven­tion­ist at STAR Academy Char­ter School. She is a grad­u­ate of Hard­ing Academy of Mem­phis, Bay­lor Univer­sity, and the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

Brit­ney Thorn­ton Guest colum­nist

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