*Disclaimer: I provide a part of my perspective of things I felt, things I experienced at Deerfield.
I feel hesitant writing this because now is probably not the time to be recounting my observations at Deerfield. But I do believe that Deerfield’s classist tendencies and subtle disparities in the treatment of its students contribute to problems that need to be fixed. If the school puts solutions into action to address these issues, first-generation students, low-income students, students of color, and students with intersectional identities will no longer have to feel, whether intentionally or unintentionally, isolated and targeted by their set of identities. If Deerfield takes a decisive step in addressing its problems, its history, the community can begin a process of healing that is inclusive of everyone.
Part I: “Be Worthy of Your Heritage” – Seven Unspoken Rules
- Be silent. (Which I’m not)
See something, say nothing.
Besides, who would you go tell it to?
If you speak, remember to keep white peers’ comfort in mind.
Shush, don’t make so much noise.
Isn’t it sad that noise is always followed by silence?
Or that noise can be turned against the people that make it?
- Be grateful. (Which I am)
Being a boarding student at Deerfield for a school year is $64,640.* The cost of attending Deerfield is more than your family’s adjusted gross income in a single year.
Four years at Deerfield is the equivalent of $258,560. Imagine what you could do with a little over a quarter-million dollars. $258,560– invested in YOU…
Now, should you really be complaining?
*According to the Deerfield website: https://deerfield.edu/apply/tuitionfinancial-aid/
- Be compliant.
It’s not your place to disagree. Refer to rule number one.
- Buy-in. (Which I eventually did)
Lighten up, will you? Buying-in to the traditions of the Boyden days will help ease your sense of uncertainty about this place.
Remember the cultish ritual of Choate week? It was uncomfortable, but you stuck through it. “Good times.” And the dress code? You never really invested your energy into changing that one, did you?
Soon you’ll learn to love the imperfections that will not change.
- Be happy. (Which I learned to be)
Deep down, you may be faking some of your happiness, but what does that matter? Fake it ‘til you make it.
Smile for the cameras. Refer to rule number three.
- Be perfect. (Which I will never be)
- Donate. (I’m stalling)
You were so well behaved! Good for you. Consider matching a David Koch donation for the next kid set to take your place?
Part II: “Hi, my name is Fernanda, and I’m from Chicago.” – Experiences of an Impostor
“When is [Deerfield] gonna realize that these ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion’ groups do nothing to address [Deerfield’s] decades-long, deep-rooted racism problem? And when is [Deerfield] gonna realize that putting the burden on students of color to run these groups in an attempt to solve [Deerfield’s] problem created by white students and faculty is actually a direct manifestation of the racism within the institution?
And when is [Deerfield] gonna realize that the hallways are cesspools plagued by classism where students who pay full tuition and wear Gucci belts….are constantly tearing down the livelihoods of kids on scholarship, who, no, can’t donate to your “non-profit”…while you sit there with billions of dollars to your name that you could easily donate and solve the problem you claim to care so much about…
The scholarship kids who…start to question their worth and whether they deserve to be within those brick walls in the first place. The kids who feels a tinge go down their spine when they notice the group of rich white girls huddled around their desks going online shopping for $500 Golden Gooses and chit chatting about which Chanel purse to buy from The RealReal [or equivalent] during a discussion about class and race…”
Piece written by current student at Francis W. Parker, a private school on the North Side of Chicago. Originally published on June 26th, 2020 via @fwpanonymous’s Instagram page. The post was modified to reflect the name “Deerfield” in place of “Parker”.
In 2015, after my parents and I had said “yes” to Deerfield, we attended a welcome reception for newly admitted students at a country club in the northern suburbs of Chicago. (It was the first time in my life that I had ever stepped inside a country club, which should already say a lot about my networks at the time, as well as my socioeconomic status.) At the country club, I met the other “new” students, most of whom were white, and who, in one way or another, already knew each other. In talking to them, but mostly just listening to the conversations they had with one another, I learned that they were all from the wealthy suburbs of Chicago, graduates of incredible elementary and middle schools that they had tested into at the age of five, and legacies of Deerfield and some of the best colleges in the country. I was the only brown kid. I came from a neighborhood no one had heard of. I had graduated from a predominantly Latinx school, where I was the only kid to go to boarding school. My parents did not attend college.
At the reception, while debating which fork to use for the salad, and which fork to use for the entree, I kept glancing at the adults’ table. I was afraid my parents’ so-so English, their lack of education, and their lacking professional background, would somehow find a way to embarrass me in front of the other kids and their parents. Besides worrying about potential humiliation, I wondered how my mom and dad felt being surrounded by the mostly white and wealthy moms and dads, with impressive kids, impressive cars, and pure comfort when entering the country club space.
I was part of the first Rising Scholar cohort at Deerfield my freshman year, meaning I arrived on campus before my one hundred other classmates. The first official move-in day, as I watched parents bring neverending boxes of belongings into their child’s new boarding room, I felt empty. I yearned for my family, my parents, who had all left days earlier. My parents never attended the advisory lunch with the other freshmen families in my advisory. (Though I was lucky enough to befriend the Howard family there, and they helped refill a lot of my homesick soul.) My parents didn’t get to wave goodbye as I climbed the bus to Beckett. My parents were not waiting for me by the time that I got back. My parents did not reserve their spot at the Deerfield Inn for graduation four years in advance.
There was a girl in my hall who called the school during the summer to request the largest room on our floor. From what I understood, she begged for the room, citing concerns over her “messy” habits. (I think in talking with my roommate once, we both agreed that room could have quite possibly been meant for us.) The school conceded to the girls’ pleas, and I’ve always wondered if it was because she was white and her parents had money. Once, she had twenty Amazon shipping boxes delivered to the dorm, and it was then that I understood why she needed the largest room.
After school one day, a girl sitting in the common room felt the need to casually exclaim that she had just purchased a 500 dollar skirt from one of the high-end brands you-only-hear-about-until-you-get-to Deerfield. I did the math. $500 could have covered 20 months of laundry. $500 could have bought me 6 Deerfield sweatshirts from The Hitchcock House. $500 could have bought me two roundtrip plane tickets home– something I longed for badly.
I was the only Latinx-identifying student on my hall that first year, and while the other girls bonded over their previous life experiences and similar upbringings, the lake house or country club their family was going to visit that summer, it was difficult to find someone who could relate to missing your mom’s tortas and the livelihood of family gatherings. The other girls didn’t know what it felt like to hear people whispering about you, saying you’re too quiet; they never felt what it was like to be looked at up and down in a dismissive way. I cried myself to sleep countless nights as my loneliness consumed me, unable to express my feelings to a concerned (and frustrated) roommate. That first year was constant questioning of belonging. But one of my proctors, who was Black, always treated me kindly and made an effort to make me smile even on the days I hit my lowest points, and it was through her that I was reassured that things would get better at Deerfield.
And they did, sort of, but not really, because I started noticing the things that are never said out loud.
Sophomore year, I am certain that there were girls in my hall who thought I was the reason our proctor got kicked out of the dorm, which was, of course, completely false. I wonder: did any of the girls stand up for me when others falsely assumed I was the tattletale? I’m not sure, but I would hope so. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t. In high school, people are always finding someone to pin the blame on. Besides, I never made an effort to get to know the girls in my hall and they didn’t quite put in the effort to get to know me, so is it really a surprise that the invisible fingers were pointed my way?
A couple years removed from that incident, it makes me laugh. Sophomore year I was wreaking havoc on the structure of my life and mental well-being. Why would I be investing my energy into turning people in for things I wasn’t even aware that they had done? Heck, I couldn’t even take care of myself.
What bothers me sometimes about the snitches or the people that are caught is if you’re going to bring a couple people down, why not take the whole boat with you? At Deerfield, the hubs for illicit activities are not as secretive as some people make them out to be– at least, from what I’ve heard. Sometimes it’s as easy as following a little trail of money. But I guess that’s every high school, right? If you don’t want to get involved, it’s simple— just ignore it.
Everyone knew that there were always great disparities in the “discipline” received by rule offenders at the Academy. At Deerfield, it was well known among students that if you had money and family connections, you could pull a couple strings to make your punishment more tolerable. Being white and an athlete didn’t hurt either. Before entering Deerfield, I heard that the boys’ swimming team a couple years back had all gotten drunk, but they were not kicked out because of the aforementioned characteristics. Like this case, there are probably plenty more. But everybody makes mistakes and deserves second chances, right?
My sophomore and junior year, I was placed at the end of the hall, meaning the two other friends I had signed up to dorm with, one white, one person of color, were at the end of the hall with me as well. I attributed the fact that we were placed at the end of the hall two years in a row to pure coincidence. But then I heard about two students of color who signed up to dorm together and were placed on complete opposite ends of the hall. And one time on my way to my teacher’s office during study hall, I couldn’t help but notice that the girls of color in the sophomore dorm were also placed at the ends of the hall. Isolated phenomena? Probably not. I mean, what are the probabilities of grabbing the same lottery number and being placed in the same spot in the hall two years in a row? And for other peers of color to find themselves in similar predicaments?
I resented the blue E&R bags that would pile up at the entrance of the dorms each morning. They were one of the subtlest indicators of socioeconomic class at Deerfield. If you were going to boarding school, wouldn’t knowing how to do your laundry be part of the experience? What always got me was the people whose parents or family members were paying for the thousand dollar service, but who still paid $3 or more each week to wash and dry three articles of clothing. And speaking of clothing, I’ll never forget about the fashion runway left behind by cliques of affluent white girls who hung thousand dollar paintings on their walls. Anyways, slow clap to them; way to show off your riches. But they weren’t the only ones. There were kids who left whole rooms behind. No big deal: they could afford new $500 furniture pieces.
Junior year there was a white boy in my Honors U.S. History class who I would occasionally get paired up with for discussion. He would dismiss my points during our conversation, and then say the exact same things I had just said to the larger group. There was one time the teacher called him out for it as he proceeded to rephrase the point I had just made during a general class discussion. The white boys in that U.S. history class always proceeded to talk overtime and try to dominate the floor of discussion, disregarding their other classmates completely. It was always depressing to see that no matter the efforts of the other girls in the class, the class statistics showed that the boys almost always had the upper hand.
In one of my elective classes there was a girl who, from what I understood, came from a wealthy family. I concluded that she felt entitled by her money: asking our teacher permission to read on the carpet, as if we were in Kindergarten, proceeding to waste time in class by talking about things completely unrelated to the class, and laughing in my face when I called her out. I think I was more shocked that my teacher let her disrespect my time and his time. But who am I to talk, right? I did half the readings for the class. But may I offer an excuse? The girl set a precedent for the class; if you have the name recognition and money to back you up, you rule, and the rules she set were treating my instruction time like play time.
On an unrelated note, something that has always bothered me is some students’ reliance on private tutors. Apparently, there were students who had started prepping for the SAT with their private tutors as soon as the winter of their sophomore year. My financial aid covered my group tutoring my junior year, thankfully. But to think there were kids light years ahead of me, travelling all over the country to visit schools, having that luxury. But why am I complaining right? If I wrote 20 essays and crossed my fingers, I too could have visited colleges across the country with the fly-ins that they offered.
Something I was never quite able to shake off from my time at Deerfield is how the students showed more outrage, spent more time debating the administration, about the dress code than any hateful, insensitive, ignorant, purposeful incident that happened on our campus during any of my time there and since. There were countless girls who wore skirts in protest, and I loved the solidarity among the female-identifying students, but where was that same solidarity to ask the administration to make bathrooms gender-neutral? Where was that same solidarity to talk about Charlottesville? Where was that same solidarity to condemn the racist girls in the freshmen village? Where was that solidarity to condemn the senior boys who dressed up as cholos? Where was the solidarity to condemn racism? Where was the solidarity to uplift the voices of Black students and students of color?
While at Deerfield, I often went to the counseling office, and I expressed my deep insecurity for not knowing how to talk to people. Deerfield helped me grow a lot in this respect. In college, I find it easier and more natural to converse with my peers and befriend new people. Of course, I can’t give all the credit to Deerfield. In college, I’ve had the great privilege and fortune to surround myself with more first generation, low-income, students of color who can relate to my background and similar journey in reaching the realm of higher education. But in college, I’ve also found that I am enough. Of course, my college is not immune from its own diversity, equity, and inclusion issues. But it’s nice that there, at least, I can choose to avoid and ignore the culture that so silently and violently tested me at Deerfield Academy. (That’s on occasion though, because sometimes I don’t have a choice when it comes to ignoring the culture.)
If I seem to “hate” Deerfield so much, why did I stay? I could have left. There’s no shortage of good schools in the city of Chicago, I suppose. I won’t deny that I thought of transferring. It’s a question I seriously pondered every summer, perhaps more so the summer before my senior year. But how could I quit? When you have $258,560 invested in you, and when that quarter of a million dollars gets you trips across the world, access to premier facilities, connections with outstanding educators, and so many other things, it’s hard to turn down opportunities like that. Especially as a first generation, low-income, student of color. So no matter how much it hurts, sometimes you have to keep going. And I did, accepting accolades and awards along the way.
Deerfield does a really good job of promoting the things it’s good at. Once upon a time, I too had the “Top Ten Things I Love About Deerfield” learned by heart. (Shout-out to Deerfield’s marketing team. They really know how to make people fall in love.) I’ve never hesitated to tell potential and incoming families about all the things I do love about Deerfield. After all, I have to recognize that there are many things Deerfield has and does that no other place in the world can replicate. For example, have you ever been down to the lower fields with the Astronomy Club, looking at an unpolluted sky of Milky Way stars as you bond with other students around a campfire? No, I didn’t think so.
But sometimes, to stop myself from idolizing a place, I have to be honest. Truths hurt. And sometimes, truths seem a little bit too recurrent to be coincidental.
At the very least, that’s what I think.
Part III: Querida Mamá, Querido Papá — La Carta Que Les Debo
La semana antes de que me graduara de Deerfield, me encontré el libro de Mafalda que Papá me había regalado mi primer año. Por primera vez desde aquel entonces, abrí el libro, y en la primer página me encontré una foto de ustedes cuando estaban mucho más jóvenes. Me encantan las sonrisas que le dan a la cámara. Sus sonrisas demuestran una felicidad y un amor puro. Al otro lado de la foto, me encontré una nota que me escribió papá que dice: “Con mucho cariño para mi hija Fernanda, deseando que logres tus objetivos en…DEERFIELD 2015-2019.”
Y saben que? La foto y la nota me hicieron llorar. No podía creer que por fin estaba a punto de llegar al final que añoraba alcanzar desde que me di cuenta que sin ustedes, me quedaba un vacío no solo en el corazón, sino en el alma. Quizás eso se les haga un poco exagerado, pero por qué creen que deseaba regresar a casa para estudiar el colegio?
Mamá, tú siempre me suplicaste: Fernanda, regresa, aquí te encontramos una escuela. Me decías eso porque te llamaba llorando diciendo que no me podía adaptar, que el ambiente de la escuela y mis clases eran muy difíciles. También me lo decías porque como la hija mayor, la que te hizo madre, te hacía falta en la casa. Por días, semanas, y varios meses, no me viste entrar por la puerta de la casa. No pudiste observar los cambios pequeños que estaban ocurriendo en mi persona mientras crecía y me desarrollaba cientas de millas lejos de casa.
Sin embargo mamá, nunca regresé. Me quedé por allá y me enfrenté a los obstáculos que se me presentaron.
Papá, tú también supiste lo tan difícil que me fue estar en Deerfield, sin embargo, nunca permitiste que tus preocupaciones tomarán las riendas. Cuando hablaba contigo, siempre me echaste porras y me decías que tu creías que yo podía sobresalir. Tú, a todo lo contrario de mamá, demostraste entusiasmo por que me fuera a estudiar fuera de casa. Obvio que eso no quiere decir que no me extrañaste o que no sentías el mismo dolor que mamá al no tenerme en casa.
Saben algo? Estoy muy agradecida hacia mis maestros y mis guardianes adoptados que me apoyaron mientras que estaba en Deerfield. Pero las personas que merecen más crédito que cualquier otra persona son ustedes. (Pues obvio Fer.) Pero yo jamás les he expresado esto. Una, porque soy una niña malagradecida. Por otra, la excusa de siempre. No tuve tiempo.
Una de las cosas de la cuales me arrepiento es no llamar más seguido a casa. La excusa de siempre era o que no tenía tiempo o que no era posible que ustedes entendieran mis vivencias y mis experiencias. Pero esas fueron excusas. Me arrepiento y les pido perdón.
No quiero proporcionar más excusas, pero en verdad, la experiencia de hablar por teléfono no es agradable. Solo te recuerda de lo que no tienes, las limitaciones de esa forma de comunicación. No me gustaba estar repitiendome para que me entendieran.
Algo que me maravilla es que aún con esas excusas que doy, ustedes me quisieron. Y aunque no hablábamos por teléfono todos los días, ustedes me proporcionan un amor incondicional, y es precisamente ese amor incondicional que me mantuvo salva y sana durante los cuatro años que estuve en Deerfield. Me llegaba todos los días, aun siendo que teníamos una distancia de cientas de millas entre nosotros.
Mamá y Papá: gracias por su apoyo incondicional. Gracias por su amor incondicional. Gracias por sus palabras de aliento todos los días que me sentía derrotada y triste. Gracias por sus preocupaciones. Gracias por sus lágrimas. Gracias por sus sonrisas. Gracias por sus llamadas. Gracias por sus textos. Gracias por las innumerables oportunidades de poder empezar de nuevo.
Mamá, tu siempre me dijiste que no pasara de noche, que dejara mi huella. Considero que hice esas cosas mientras que estudié en Deerfield. Y mi esperanza es que ahora lo pueda hacer tanto en tu corazón como el de papá.