Part One: The Personal Essay
During the summer between sixth and seventh grade, my parents sat me down one evening and told me they had made a decision.
“We’re enrolling you in Country Day,” my mother said.
Up until that point, I’d attended public schools for my entire life. I went to Nachman Elementary from kindergarten through fifth grade, and in sixth grade, I attended the now-defunct South Alexandria Sixth Grade Center. At one point, the Rapides Parish School Board decided to experiment with “sixth grade centers,” with the notion that it could better insulate and prepare pre-adolescent kids for the rough-and-tumble years of middle school. Needless to say, it didn’t work as planned.
When I was there, South Alexandria Sixth Grade Center still dealt with its fair share of school fights. I will never forget the day my friend Tommy and I were playing during recess, and someone threw a rock at him, hitting him directly in the eye. Ambulances were called in; when our teacher explained what had happened (drawing a picture of a bloodied eyeball on the chalkboard as an illustration), all of the girls in my class erupted in tears. Thankfully, Tommy was okay, but he had to wear an eyepatch for the better part of the second semester.
Still, I hated the whole idea of attending Country Day. I’d grown up around many of those private-school kids, and I’d always thought they were spoiled and snobby little brats, kids whose parents had made them believe they belonged to a superior social status and were receiving a far better education than anyone else. I didn’t dislike those kids because I was jealous, though; I disliked them because they were sheltered and because they were wrong. The smartest kids in town were in public schools. And honestly, my family was relatively wealthy; I grew up in a big house with my own bedroom. I never once considered this to mean that I belonged to a superior social class; that’s just not how I was reared. I tried to make friends with everyone. I didn’t like those kids because I thought they didn’t understand, and looking back on it, for the most part, as kind and compassionate as some of them were, I think I was right; they didn’t.
When my parents broke the news to me, I cried, the full production: a flood of righteous tears, sobbing, and screaming back, “You can’t do this to me. I don’t want to go there. You’re just trying to shield me from reality,” I said.
There is an untold truth about private schools in Louisiana: Many of them, like Alexandria Country Day School, were created in the immediate aftermath of school desegregation. Alexandria is a majority African-American city; its public schools are majority African-American, but my class at Country Day had only one African-American.
I’d been preparing to follow my friends to Brame Junior High, the public school, but at the time, there’d been a rash of stories and rumors about school fighting and violent bullying. And my parents knew that I would probably have to spend the majority of my seventh grade year in a wheelchair; I needed a couple of major surgeries that year. Looking back, I cannot blame or fault them for wanting to enroll me in a much smaller private school with only 32 classmates, but at the time, I was indignant.
As it turns out, I loved Country Day. Aside from the one person who continually bullied me, everyone treated me with respect and dignity. My friend Tommy, the kid whose eye was nearly taken out by a bully at the sixth grade center, also enrolled, and in those two years, I forged some lifelong friendships. (I should mention that Tommy was my best friend in junior high, my first debate partner, and he remained one of my closest friends until he passed away at the age of 24. And I still miss him and think about him all the time).
After County Day, I re-entered the Louisiana public education system, spending my four years of high school at Alexandria Senior High, the alma mater of both my father and my mother. I had some amazing teachers at ASH, but ASH suffered from an incompetent administration.
It didn’t award academic achievement; it didn’t understand that smart kids, in high school, like to challenge convention. During my sophomore year, ASH had a record number of National Merit Scholarship finalists, the majority of whom were excluded from the faculty-selected National Honors Society because of “character issues.” These students were smarter than some of their teachers, and those teachers, in my opinion, seemed to resent this. So, these kids courageously, defiantly formed the “National Dishonor Society.” They made their own t-shirts, which, before the Draconian, post-Columbine era of mandatory school uniforms, they proudly wore to school nearly every day.
By the time I was a junior and eligible for inclusion in the National Honor Society, I, like the kids who graduated before me, was also rejected. It devastated me; I felt humiliated and dejected, completely and totally abandoned by the school I had fought so hard to represent.
I had stellar grades. I wrote for the school newspaper and even earned a spot on the Youth Council of the local newspaper, The Town Talk. I’d won state championships in forensics events. I’d even competed nationally in declamation and original oratory. I was captain of the quiz bowl team, co-captain of the debate team, and captain of the mock trial team. And not to brag even more, but our debate team was one of the best in the state; our quiz bowl team finished third in the state, and our mock trial team had also finished third. We were competing against the wealthiest and most exclusive private schools and the largest and most accomplished public schools in Louisiana, and we were winning.
But I wasn’t good enough for the National Honor Society at ASH. I know, now, who opposed me– the 16-year-old me– from joining the National Honor Society, a woman who has never had the courage or the integrity to admit this to me and who, instead, showered me with praise and good grades while criticizing me behind my back primarily because she never liked my grandparents. (Incidentally, they let me into the National Honor Society when I was a senior, but it was too little, too late).
If I still seem a little bitter about all of this, it’s because I am. It’s because I can point to my years in public high school and know, beyond any doubt, that while our students were excelling, our schools, our school boards, and many of our teachers, administrators, and principals were establishing a culture of blind favoritism, nepotism, and failure; they promoted coaches instead of educators; they thought public high schools could be run like an NCAA football program.
But either way, I feel incredibly fortunate that I attended ASH. At the time I was there, despite what the kids and teachers at other local high schools may have claimed, ASH was the leading academic powerhouse in Central Louisiana, outperforming every private school in the region. A couple of years ago, I spoke to the incoming freshmen class at ASH about my affection for the school and my belief in their future success.
And it’s why I am confident that Governor Jindal is dangerously clueless. His recent plan to change Louisiana public education is, in my personal opinion, the greatest threat ever to the future of Louisiana and the most convincing reason why fair-minded Louisianans should seriously consider a recall effort against him, our popular governor who claims a mandate because the only opposition he faced was a schoolteacher who voted for him in the previous election, a woman who was actually the beneficiary of his largesse, even after she announced that she was running against him. Pathetic.
Make no mistake: Governor Jindal seeks to destroy the institution of real public education, plain and simple.