I was a 13-year-old girl from a mostly white and Asian suburb in NJ. I had never been acutely made aware of my Korean-American background. Race wasn't an issue in my life.
I was in large part naive; my surroundings allowed me to remain so. I had read books dealing with race, and I had an understanding of history and current affairs. But I had no firsthand experience with discrimination, and race was not something I thought about often.
When I came to Andover, there were no issues of race as far as I could tell. Kids were nice, well behaved. In that kind of environment, it's easy to forget about a problem that isn't yours.
Every Wednesday afternoon, Andover students gathered in the chapel for All School Meeting, or ASM. Usually, ASM is a performance, a program, or a guest speaker.
One Wednesday, a speaker walked on stage, and I'll never forget how he opened his speech:
"Everyone raise your hands," he ordered. All 1,100 students and faculty raised their hands.
"Now, keep your hand up if you've ever thought about the color of your skin in your life." Most students kept their hands up. A few very honest ones pulled them down.
"Now keep your hand up if you have thought about the color of your skin in the past year." Many students and faculty lowered their hands. I, too, lowered my hand. I hadn't thought of my race since I could remember, really.
"Keep your hand up if you have thought about the color of your skin this past month." Even more hands dropped.
"Keep your hand up if you have thought about the color of your skin this week." Few hands remained. They were distinctly the hands of minority students at Andover.
"Now keep your hands up if you've thought about the color of your skin at least once today."
Those hands stayed up.
I was shocked. Maybe it was because some of those students were my friends and I never thought of us as remarkably different. Maybe it was because I didn't think there were race issues at Andover, which seemed like the safest haven in the world. Or maybe it was the truth that shocked me: that every single day, these students thought about the color of their skin, whereas I didn't have to. How different our lives were, and how much energy that must consume.
What stayed with me that day was a sharper awareness of the world and a reminder of the non-sibi (not for oneself) philosophy that Andover tries to impart on its students. Without that lecture, who knows how much longer I would have gone through my young adulthood only thinking about racial awareness as an abstract idea through my own subjective lens, without thinking about how racial issues impacted the psychology of others? Maybe only a couple years. Maybe my entire life.
That Wednesday's ASM stands out to me as an example of what a great school can do for its kids. And one reason why parents might choose to send their students to one school over another. I was fortunate to attend Andover, with its resources, great teachers, college prep, and financial aid endowment. But Andover was truly great because it went one step beyond facilities and opportunities. It also sought to make its students better, more understanding, more enriched and engaged. Those goals were written into its motto. And they were achieved through the school's unique structure, its funding of special events and programming, and its emphasis on living a moral life.
To parents looking at schools, I suggest asking the school what it stands for. What is its motto, or its vision for its students, beyond academics? And what does the school do to back that up?
Even though I graduated from Andover 10 years ago, I remember that ASM vividly to this day. I can still remember the jolt of understanding I had, the feeling of illumination and also discomfort at dealing with a new reality. Those feelings are the germs of learning and growth - in school and in life.