Microaggressions and Field Hockey: A Boarding School Survival Story

In 2003 I left the high school in small suburban hometown in New Jersey, for the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut. I became a second generation Taftie, eventually becoming the first African-American legacy student to graduate in the boarding school’s century and more long history. As you might be able to imagine, being a Black kid at a mostly white, New-England boarding school where kids loved to sing the full chorus of Gold Digger in a pre-Black Lives Matter, no social media world left me with some stories to tell. And I’m finally telling them–the good, the bad, the ugly–in a new bookAdmissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School.

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I chose to sign up to manage Mrs. Dalton’s thirds field hockey team in order to fulfill my activity requirement because [my roommate] Jenna chose to play field hockey to fulfill hers, and I wasn’t interested in playing hockey on any surface other than ice. I’d accounted for my Roommate Best Friend for Life plan to take some time to come to fruition, and I was willing to put in the effort, even if it took joining a sport and a team I was actively indifferent toward.

Despite it all, I did try to bond with the girls. I participated in conversations on the bus to and from matches. I attempted to hang out with other underclassmen on the team off the field, saying hello at lunch and in the hallways in between classes and trying to engage in their conversations about things I had little interest in. Ultimately, I was adrift with these field hockey girls and their extended universe.

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Kendra James in Jr year room


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Kendra James in college counseling outfit


“We should play a game,” Mrs. Dalton said one afternoon on our drive from a match at Deerfield Academy. “Two lies and a truth?”

A veteran of church youth groups, I had a few standard answers and fast facts about myself prepared for games like this one. My three go-to truths at the time were:

1. I’d been on Jeopardy! at age ten. Yes, the real Jeopardy! with Alex Trebek, and yes, I did have pictures to prove it, and yes, I did lose quite impressively, but I still got to go to Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, so what of it?

2. My younger brother was adopted by my parents as a baby, and no, I was not just saying that because I wished it were true.

3. My very first memory in life is being on a beach down the shore, surrounded by very brown, very shiny, very muscular men in Speedos, while also being very upset because my mother—who famously hated beaches throughout my childhood—would not let me go in the water. I was on the older side of two, maybe three, and we were attending one of my father’s many bodybuilding competitions, because being a corporate banker in the early nineties meant living through a revolving door of plots from Michael Bay movies.

Kitty revealed that she preferred 98 Degrees to N’Sync or the Backstreet Boys. The bus gasped.

I had plenty of time to craft my lies. As the manager (and resident weirdo, who no one wanted to talk to anyway), I sat near the back of the bus with the equipment, and there were only three other girls behind me—Madison, Kerri, and LoLo, offensive standouts on the field who were given the privilege of the long back-seat bench so that they could gossip privately and have a full view of their kingdom (the bus) in equal parts. By the time the game reached us, Mrs. Dalton had entirely lost interest in her own suggestion.

“One,” I said, when the eyes of the bus turned to me. “I’m from New York City. Two, my brother is adopted. Three, I read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in eight hours.”

“Well, I know she’s from New York City,” Jenna called out immediately.

We still had some roommate bonding to work on. That much was clear.

The other girls nodded in agreement, though I had not spoken more than a few sentences to half of them directly. “New York City is the truth,” Madison agreed behind me. “Adopted brother and eight hours for Harry Potter are the lies.”

I waited an extra second, to see if anyone would veer from the path Jenna had laid. It made sense to believe her; she was my roommate after all.

But. “I’m from New Jersey.”

Jenna! ” several of the girls shouted in unison. “I thought it was New York!” she offered meekly.

“So the lies were . . . ?” Olive from English class asked.

“That one, and also that I read O-O-T-P ”—I spelled out the book’s initials as if I was typing an entry into my journal—“in eight hours. It only took six hours, even if you count the break I had to take for . . . that part.” I’d cried for hours after Sirius Black fell backward through the veil.

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Kendra James wearing Gryffindor uniform from hot topic


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Kendra James drawing of Orlando Bloom 


It seems impossible, given what a phenomenon Harry Potter was at the time, that no one else on the thirds field hockey team had waited in line at a Barnes & Noble in order to read the fifth book at midnight on June 21 that past summer. But their blank stares implied that even if that weren’t true, I was certainly the only person on this particular length of New England highway who had bawled over the death of a fictional character.

“Your brother is adopted ?” a freshman named Janice blurted out. “Yes,” I confirmed. “The other two are the lies.”

That gave everyone an obvious moment of pause. “Where is he from?” Olive asked after a moment. “Huh?”

“Your brother—he’s adopted, from where?”

“East Orange, I think.” I remembered the trips to the social worker’s office and a building that was, perhaps, some sort of group home. I’d only been in kindergarten when my mother had a miscarriage, and so I was fuzzy on the exact details of the adoption she and my dad decided on as the next option. But I could clearly see us driving parallel to the NJ Transit train tracks that led east out of South Orange the first time we met him, the baby whose name I got to choose: Kyle.

Maybe Newark?” I allowed. I couldn’t remember exactly how far we’d driven that day in 1994. Far enough that my mom had pointed out the neighborhood where Dionne Warwick lived as she always liked to do, but close enough that I hadn’t finished the Baby-Sitters Little Sister book I’d brought along for the car ride.

“Delaware?” another voice asked. I turned to see Kerri looking at me expectantly.

“New Jersey—where I’m from.” Despite my pointed tone, Jenna did not have the decency to blush.

“Does he look like you?”

I did not hear the real question, because I didn’t know to listen for it: Is he Black?

“He kind of looks like my dad, actually. It’s weird! But I guess that’s lucky, in a way? I look like my dad too, so we all definitely look related.”

Madison confirmed. “Wow, that’s cool. I didn’t know you could adopt African American babies here. I mean, obviously I knew you could adopt African American babies from Africa, like my friend’s parents. But I didn’t know you could get them here, or that like, you would want to!”


“Your parents.” Madison rolled her eyes, as if those two words were the most ridiculous part of this conversation.

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Kendra James ink drawings


These expensively educated children were, in that moment, learning brand-new information. That Black people—or for that matter, any person of color—could, and often did, adopt Black children. It was just clicking that orphaned or fostered Black babies weren’t just accessories for celebrities and nice white ladies from Utah who needed some color to spice up the extensive and expensive scrapbooking habit that they absolutely have 100 percent under control.

“I think Hugh Jackman’s son is from here.”

It was obvious that Francine was having an entirely different experience at Taft, outwardly, at least. She was on her way to becoming The One—the Black girl each year who managed to cross over into the mainstream, white prep culture of the school by completely ignoring the rest of us. There was one in every class; occasionally two, if you added a white-passing Latina to the mix. They weren’t always well-off either, though Francine certainly seemed to be. The boys had it easier in some respects. Athletics helped them walk the line between circles in a way it never quite seemed to do for the girls. Being good at sports was simply a Black male stereotype white people expected, and when Black boys fulfilled that stereotype it made the white people around them more comfortable; it was a supposed “norm” they could work with and eventually accept.

Upon realizing that we were the only two Black girls in our Algebra 1 class that semester, Francine was perfectly nice, at least once she’d had a moment to get over the shock of my lack of quantitative ability. We stuck together that first week. The friendship seemed promising when we were one-on-one, and some of the other girls in the class started inching their ways toward us too. Or, well, inching their way toward Francine, specifically, who in turn seemed pleased to have other girls to talk to. Girls who didn’t alternate between dressing in purposefully clashing patterns (there was nothing against that in the dress code) and a Delia’s catalog version of a goth.

To be fair, my interests were . . . specific. And I was reluctant to speak of anything else, even when others didn’t understand. I wasn’t prepared to not only explain what a LiveJournal was to most of the girls I tried to befriend alongside Francine, but also face their hesitant polite-but-what-the-fuck reactions to the fact that I was working on my Orlando Bloom romance novel, alongside a Buffy / Harry Potter crossover that, I proudly explained, had nearly two hundred reviews on FanFiction.net even though I hadn’t even finished it yet. Maybe these preppy girls had similar interests, but if they did, they kept it to themselves.

Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School



While I was an admitted weirdo and sometimes asshole, these moments of awkwardness weren’t entirely my fault. The awkward silence from Jenna, Francine, and Olive, for instance, after I mentioned liking our dorm room because, even with the two of us sharing, it was still bigger than my room back in New Jersey stayed with me that year. So did the fact that Olive didn’t believe me the first time I told her that my dad had graduated from Taft with George’s dad. She was equally shocked to learn that he’d been a school trustee. I had to continue correcting girls on the field hockey team who never could get it straight that I wasn’t from New York City and had not come to Taft through Prep 9, or an academic program of any kind. There was nothing wrong with having done so, but we weren’t all the same.

I didn’t know the word “microaggression” yet, so I didn’t have the language for what each of these tiny cuts was, or more importantly, how they made me feel. As a sophomore, I wasn’t even yet ready to acknowledge that they made me feel any kind of way at all. But I knew there was something different between the way the girls at Jenna’s table treated me and the way the kids on the other side of the dining hall did.

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Excerpted from the book ADMISSIONS: A MEMOIR OF SURVIVING BOARDING SCHOOL by Kendra James. Copyright © 2022 by 1329 Prescott Street LLC. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Editor Kendra James is the author of Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School.

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