Bridging the public-private school gap
“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.