The ‘American Promise’

by Tiffany Jones

“Dalton will open doors for him for the rest of his life” says Joe Brewster.  Joe Brewster and Michelle Stephenson sent their son Idris to the Dalton School, a prestigious prep school in New York City, which sends 31 percent of its students to the Ivy League, MIT, and Stanford.  Idris’ entire education, from age five to seventeen, was filmed in an effort by his parents to document the experience of an African American boy in a competitive educational environment.  The result is the documentary “American Promise,” which films Idris and his friend Seun’s experiences.

To understand the motivations and dreams held by Brewster and Stephenson it is important to understand where they come from.  Both parents came from working class backgrounds and attended three of the most elite universities in the United States.  Brewster is a psychiatrist who attended Stanford University and Harvard Medical School.  Stephenson is an attorney who attended Columbia Law School.  At one point in the film Stephenson expresses frustration over her son’s lack of urgency and motivation, “I wish he had half the drive I did at that age.”  They were driven to give their son all the advantages that no one had afforded them before college, believing that by sending their son to a school like Dalton he would be more likely to succeed.

Idris matriculates to Occidental College.  This was a huge disappointment for his parents who expected that he would matriculate to a more elite university.  They were disappointed with their son for not achieving, what they believed was, his full potential.  That disappointment and frustration was later turned towards the school, which they believed failed their child and didn’t live up to its promise for multiple reasons.  Idris experienced a great deal of doubts over his intellectual capacity, expressed frustration over his social experience, and wondered whether life would’ve been better if he were white.  These are issues that many minorities wrestle with; however, the high school experiences of Seun introduces the idea that maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

Seun is the other African American boy followed in the documentary. His mother, Stacey Summers, works multiple jobs as a nurse.  His father, Tony Summers, works as a systems engineer.  He has three siblings; therefore, his parents’ efforts are spread out across all four children leaving less time for them to focus on Seun’s difficult course work.  For them Dalton is about opening doors to an elite world.  Seun experiences a lot of difficulties at Dalton and mentions the same frustrations as Idris.  The difference is that Seun left Dalton as a teenager to attend Benjamin Banneker Academy, which is approximately 83 percent African American and combines a strong academic program (90% of the students graduate and many students matriculate to college, including some Ivy League schools) with cultural affirmation.  The principal of Benjamin Banneker speaks about the importance of black students understanding their history and seeing themselves in a positive light.  He makes the argument that the there is no better environment for a black student to grow intellectually and socially than in a school where they are taught by black teachers and surrounded by black students because there is constant affirmation of their cultural background and social significance.

I have been skeptical of the benefit of attending schools where the majority of the students are comprised of one race.  The reality is while white-collar America is becoming increasingly multiracial, the majority of those employees are still White, and when minorities enter the working world they have to deal with that reality.  I am a biracial woman (half Black and half White) who grew up in an ethically diverse environment in regards to community and school demographics.  The high schools I attended were mixed race.  The first high school I attended was approximately 60 percent Asian and White and 40 percent Black and Latino.  The second high school I attended was equal parts Asian, Black, and Latino with a few White students.  The third high school was majority Black and Latino with 20-30 percent being Asian and White.  I believe that experiencing these diverse cultural environments made it easier for me to blend in with multiple groups and allowed me to find similarities with others beyond race.   However, this documentary and the success of Benjamin Banneker challenges my beliefs because it introduces a new paradigm: the idea that self-esteem can be instituted in the classroom and may be one of the most beneficial tools to teach a student which will help them achieve future success.

Perhaps the best way to get to that point of success is having a strong sense of self and belief that your vision and potential can make you into the success that you want to be.   Many successful people in the United States are successful because of their drive and will to succeed, their ability to fight back after a multitude of setbacks. It is the internal mechanisms that they have cultivated within themselves that have created success, not their external environment.  This is not to say that going to an elite prep school or Ivy League institution isn’t helpful.  I would be remiss to not mention that part of the reason I attended two elite universities was because of the reality that connections are important and can make the path to success easier.

However, a person can be successful without going to the most elite institutions and this film challenges that premise by showing that there are alternative paths to success and helping a child believe in themselves may be one of those paths.  If this idea is true then a parent should adjust how they approach the search for the adequate educational experience for their child by adjusting to their personalities and recognizing that the child has a sense of who they are and should consider whether the child believes there is another choice for them.

Watching this documentary reminded me of the struggles my parents and I endured while trying to find a school for me that was intellectually stimulating.  It was a challenge because of our economic background, my personality, social sensitivities, and my desire to be in the most intellectually demanding program available.  In the end we were unable to find a school that would help me grow the way that I desired.  However, the schools I went to gave me a different perspective on life:  the understanding of what it means to go to underprivileged schools, the experience of having to fight for opportunities, and the challenge of having to craft my own path and figure things out for myself.  Furthermore, I was able to interact with students who came from all types of cultural backgrounds and it was the norm.  I state these realities because my experiences helped build my internal mechanisms of success and make me the person I am today.  We can’t look at education in a vacuum – as simply a tool to build an intellectually adept individual – and believe that access to certain universities are the only way to be successful.  My experiences were very different from Idris, as I attended numerous schools and I didn’t have the intellectual rigor that he had in the classroom growing up.  That being said I still ended up at elite institutions, which proves that there are multiple paths to the end goal.

My point in hashing out the details of my education experience is to show that while Idris’ parents were well intentioned; Dalton may not have been the best choice for him because he did not excel socially and academically at the rate he may have at another program. Perhaps, Benjamin Banneker would have been a better choice because he would have developed a sense of self that was affirmed by his teachers, peers, and the curriculum.  Or, perhaps, Dalton was the best choice and his parents should have worked harder at helping him understand who he was and that he was valuable as a person and a black individual.

His matriculation to Occidental may have initially been a disappointment for his parents; however, it is important to not brush over the fact that our current President also began his college education at the same small liberal arts college.

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One thought on “The ‘American Promise’

  1. As a Dalton alumna, I have to say that this is actually a classic Dalton story, whether you’re black or white. Dalton parents tend to be self-made super achievers who think that their kids will do even better “because they have all the advantages.” What these parents don’t realize is that their own success is extraordinary and hard to match, let alone exceed.

    (This kid’s parents went to Princeton, right? Princeton only takes about 5 percent of its applicants. And two thirds of the kids at even the best prep schools don’t get into ANY Ivy.)

    All of my former Dalton classmates are — in the eyes of the world at large — extremely successful. Nearly all of them feel like failures. At least their parents don’t make documentaries about how disappointed they are. Sheesh.

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