CSUS Alums Talk Diversity 

At 6:00 p.m., when parents, caregivers, staff and others from the community walked into Cambridge Street Upper School (CSUS)’s February 15 Diversity Dialogues, they piled salads and sandwiches on their plates and caught up with friends or greeted those new to the event. It was a typical start to this welcoming monthly gathering.

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But the “typical” ended at 6:30, when eight Cambridge Rindge & Latin School (CRLS) students, seven of color, took seats at the front and began describing candidly their cultural journey from CSUS to CRLS.

“The first year at CSUS was hard,” said Chris, “but you did make friends with kids from the other triad schools. But it doesn’t last. At CRLS, it’s bigger and you’re forced to find a new group, and some kids go back to old habits in their friendships.”

“A big problem is that when you clique up in high school, race relations may not affect you so much,” added Jahnavi. “You aren’t aware.”

“At CSUS there needs to be more done to integrate the kids,” said Kester. “Racially but also by income; that’s just as important. If more were done, then the friendships would last into high school.”

It quickly became clear that the cultural journey these students experience at CRLS is not just one about race. The adjustment to a different school culture was a dominant theme. Jahnavi described it with some of the most direct language of the evening: “A split happens when you go to CRLS. It’s very divided. You need to find a new group. You have to pick a side.” 

One reason for strained relationships may have to do with the size of CRLS. It was surprising, for instance, to learn that panelists Jahnavi and Smarika, who had been friends at King Open and at CSUS, had really never seen each other in the halls or in classes for 2 ½ years at CRLS. So leaning on old friends for support isn’t always possible.

Aiden noted the paradox of how “at CSUS there was integration in the classrooms, but in the hallways and lunchroom the kids sorted by race. At CRLS it’s the opposite: less integration in the classrooms and the hallways are where the diversity is.” The only white member of the panel, Aiden pointed out that participating in something you’re passionate about can expand your range of friendships. “When I started doing dance I noticed there were a lot of kids of color in dance, too. So now I’m good friends with a lot with kids of color and that was new for me. Having a thing that you’re passionate about helps encourage diversity. But only if it is a thing that’s not classes.”

Summia, also a CRLS dancer, described how the first step of her journey was unsteady. “In 8th grade my teachers said that I was prepared for taking all Honors classes, so I did. But I was the only student of color in my 9th grade classrooms and that was overwhelming to me. I wasn’t prepared for that aspect, and it was significant.”

When the panel turned to the topic of classroom dynamics, the students provided vivid examples. 

“When you’re the only black student in the classroom and the topic is race, it’s hard to voice your personal opinion because everyone looks to you for more than that,” said Jahnavi. “Or else, your viewpoint is overlooked. I was in an AP class full of white males and they would take over the discussion and use all sorts of big words and talk and talk. I couldn’t follow their thinking, but I wanted to speak, because we were talking about race, but I was afraid that if I made my point more simply they would look at me and say, ‘That was just the point that was already made,’ so I didn’t feel like trying to speak.”

Smarika added an example from a club: “I grew up in Nepal until I was five then came to Cambridge. Finding my identity has been hard. In the “Issues in Education” club I was the only nonwhite, and the topic was to learn about schooling in India. The kids said a lot of disparaging things said about Indian schools but when I raised my hand to speak, I had to wait and wait and hear the buildup of the comments so when it came time for me to make a different type of comment, it didn’t have weight. But I was the only person in the room who had actually lived anywhere near India.”

To prepare for these situations, panelists had suggestions. “At CSUS, kids need to learn better skills at adapting to and embracing uncomfortable circumstances,” said Kamrul. “It will help at CRLS.  Kamrul, who had come to CSUS from Malden, noted that for more than two years in his Malden school he’d only seen the principal three times. “But Mr. Fernandez was always standing around somewhere nearby, and wanting to talk with you,” he added with a laugh. Aiden suggested “It’s important to ask teachers for help at CRLS. They will care if you get to know them.”

Referring to some of her past actions at CSUS, Billien chimed in that “Schools need to realize that personal life correlates with behavior.” Kester, who had been the only student of color in AP English Language and Composition, added this: “At CSUS, it always seemed like the same black boys would be sent out of the classroom every single day. That means that the system wasn’t working. I see those same boys now at CRLS and I can tell you they won’t be graduating with us.”

Jahnavi observed how shocking it is to go from a curriculum celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman to a more Eurocentric one at CRLS. “I was the only student of color in an English class that was discussing Othello. I thought it was important that Shakespeare made a character black but no one wanted to discuss it.” Jahnavi praised social studies teacher Tracey Gordon for getting her through tough times. “She told me, ‘Grades don’t reflect self worth.’ That made me feel better and at CRLS I decided to put my physical and mental health needs before my need to get good grades.”

Jahnavi also suggested that students take the Privilege Walk, as she did in a CRLS history class, as a literal step in the direction of students understanding race. Noting that it left a huge gap in the room between groups of students, she said it did create a more integrated shift in seating arrangements in class periods that followed. “But that didn’t go beyond the classroom,” she noted. “No one made new friends. It was like in leaving the classroom ‘It’s over, we don’t have to feel like that anymore.’ So education isn’t enough. You need to be required to actually make a change. We don’t tend to hang out with people who have different views, but we should.”

One thing all students agreed was universally terrific at CRLS is the STARs course for Leadership and Community Action. Praising the teacher and her methods of building classroom community, they emphasized that the focus on independent project work was a nice change from the rigid structure of the high school. “It makes you think about school in a different way,” Jahnavi said.

The evening’s discussion wrapped up to a standing ovation, as the students were thanked for their honesty and articulateness. Some suggested establishing a mentor match between 6th graders and 9th graders or 7th graders and 10th graders, which could connect the schools better, and with the students staying connected one year to the next. Stay tuned.

-Monica Velgos