Oakland, CA

Opinion: A Diverse Private School in 1990s Oakland Widened My World View

Aimée Gramblin

1990s Culture Shock

When I was in 7th grade, I moved from Norman, Oklahoma to Oakland, California to live with my dad and step-mom. It was 1991. On the plane ride out, I chatted with passengers. They had serious questions when I said I was from Oklahoma.

“Do you live in teepees?”

“How do you get drinking water?”

“Do you ride in a covered wagon?”

Hahaha. The advent of the internet helped squelch this kind of question, fortunately.

Into the City

In Oakland, after an interview process in which I was involved, I was accepted into a small private school that opened a world of new experiences for me.

My dad and step-mom didn’t want to send me to the overcrowded, underfunded public school in Oakland. Although I didn’t directly experience the sort of socioeconomic and racial diversity that is found in an Oakland public school, I did find myself in a more diverse school setting than I had ever before experienced.

St. Paul's

I’ll forever be grateful for the year and a half I spent at St. Paul’s Episcopal Private School. It’s there that I got to see other Jewish kids — I’m half Jewish —and go to my first Bat Mitzvah.

I became friends with a diverse student population. Black, Asian, Latinx, White, and other races attended. We were taught by diverse teachers. I’d come from an almost all-white, Christian school setting in Norman.

In Oakland, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X which spoke volumes to me. My dad and step-mom are disability rights advocates living with disabilities. Being the child of outspoken advocates, I sympathized and empathized with a lot of what Malcolm X said even though I was a white kid.

At my new school, the teachers had an affinity that I will never forget for fun being a companion to learning. When the teachers heard that Ted Danson and Whoopi Goldberg were shooting a movie scene for Made in America at the lake we jogged around every day we went on an impromptu field trip.

We waved at the movie stars on elephant-back. They waved back. We talked to the extras. They were nice and invited us to come back and try to get our own gig on the set. That didn’t happen, but I got a view of movie stars being real people. Seriously. They’re real people. Just like you and me. Figuring that out at age twelve was probably a great stroke of luck.

At St. Paul’s, I wrote and edited for the school newsletter, went on staged archeological beach digs, and completed volunteer hours every week during the school year.

We learned Spanish, went on a food and art mural walk in a Latinx part of Oakland. We went on a class ski trip at the end of 7th grade. Even though it was my first and last time skiing and I never made it off the bunny hill, I had a blast. I’d never participated in something so fun, confidence-building, and extravagant.

Our weekly swim class was with the priest. Father-I-Don’t-Remember-His-Name taught us swim strokes in his swim trunks and none of us dared laugh. Once a week, at an indoor pool, I learned and perfected the butterfly stroke to the best of my ability. Other than the shared locker room after swim lessons, I loved that swimming was part of our weekly school routine. How lucky could you get?

I am a very shy introvert. St. Paul’s teachers made sure everyone was included the best they could. I dreaded going to an end-of-year swim party but ended up having a great time. Situations that I would have been excluded from back home in Oklahoma were now being required of me. It was good character development.

Recently, I was reminded that everyone at school pronounced my name Aimée — eh-may — the French pronunciation. I did a lot of coming of age at St. Paul’s.

There were also uncomfortable situations. Our science teacher taught safer sex ed. An embarrassed co-ed group of young teenagers watched as she showed us how to put a condom on a banana. To hit home the lesson on the importance of safer sex, she introduced her HIV-positive friend to us. It was a somber day.

A guy flashed us when we were walking back from the Lake one day. Do you know what we did? All of us 7th graders started singing “Stop in the Name of Love,” only we changed out the word “Love” for “Respect.” Our teachers weren’t so sure about us directly addressing the guy. But, we banned together in teenage solidarity.

When we broke out in song, the guy looked confused. He stopped. We felt empowered. Or, at least, I did. We took our power back immediately.

We read Chesapeake. Our social studies teacher decided that we needed to learn about racism and inequality. She taught us a lesson I’ll never forget. It was quite simple, actually. We all drew a piece of paper.

There were three group designations depending on what you drew. One group got to eat as much pizza as they wanted. One group got as much couscous as they wanted. The other group got nothing. And, that was that.

There was no “Lesson over kids, go eat pizza.” Nope.

This luck of the draw taught us in concrete terms about the inequities of the world we live in. It was a gut punch. It was unfair. We didn’t want to live in a world like that. We wanted to create a better one.

Attending St. Paul’s was an amazing experience I’ll never forget. It helped shape me into the empathetic person — and writer — I am today.

Takeaway

My experience at St. Paul’s provided a lifetime’s worth of benefits that enrich my life and our kids’ lives to this day. I learned about racism and became comfortable — and noticeably enriched — being in our richly diverse, inclusive setting.

I experienced uncomfortable conversations about race in 7th and 8th grade. I’m sure that has made me better able to navigate uncomfortable — and vitally important — conversations about race as an adult. I am flexible in evolving dialogue and terminology about race, able to adapt language (BIPOC) and behavior (anti-racism) in a more fluid way because of my California education.

We now live in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is much more racially diverse than my hometown of Norman. It’s also geographically segregated, as many American cities tend to be. Having our children experience quality education in a socioeconomically and racially diverse setting is important to our family. We applied for a public magnet elementary school when our oldest was ready for pre-Kindergarten.

We got the luck of the draw and our children have had the experience of diversity being their normal. They have uncomfortable conversations about race. They also experience diversity as a given, interesting part of the world we live in. That’s something I’ll be forever thankful for. That’s the world I want to live in.

Although I’m still quite shy, I know I have it in me to navigate social situations even when they’re uncomfortable — and, that sometimes it’s worth being uncomfortable to find eventual fun — and friends — even.

Education is vitally important. Not only do children have the opportunity to learn standard subjects, but they are also placed in social groups with teachers who are mentors.

I hope that education begins looking a lot like my experience at St. Paul’s and my children’s experience in Tulsa at public school. Neither are perfect, but what they offer far outweigh any imperfections. Let’s support the evolution of education to be more thoughtfully inclusive and diverse. It could be a catalyst to change the world in which we live.

Originally published in October 2020 on Medium.

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