The Seattle Public Schools
aren't the only local educational institution to be consumed by race
. There's Lakeside School
in north Seattle.
Nina Shapiro at Seattle Weekly has an excellent cover story
on the problems at the elite private school, which happens to be Mossback's alma mater. The story is pegged to a lawsuit filed against last fall
by two faculty members, both African American, who allege that the school discriminated against them and created a hostile work environment. The case, in U.S. District Court, is scheduled for trial next January.
Ironically, the school's effort to promote diversity was one of the things that triggered the suit. The unhappy teachers cite the environment at the school during and after the much publicized dispute over the invitation – and later dis-invitation – of conservative author Dinesh D'Souza to speak last year
as contributing to their feeling of alienation. D'Souza's views on race and culture are controversial and became a lightning rod for difference over the school's diversity program.
On the face of it, Lakeside has little to apologize for in efforts to create a more diverse student body and faculty, or in efforts to turn its bright, privileged kids into young men and women with some sense of the world at large. The school is committed to turning students into 21st century global citizens and has been raising tens of millions of dollars, much of it from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Lakeside's most famous alum, to support that mission.
Deeply rooted in old-money Seattle, the school has been trying to diversify for decades. In the mid-1960s, it started the Lakeside Educational Enrichment Program (LEEP)
, a summer school that pulled bright kids from public schools and gave them a taste of the Lakeside experience. Not all of those who participated in LEEP were minority students. Some were white underachievers like me. (Disclosure: I rarely give money to Lakeside – I let Bill Gates do that for me – but on the few occasions I have, I have directed it to LEEP.)
I was part of LEEP in 1968
. As a kid rooted in the Rainier Valley, I found the plunge into the Lakeside environment a tough one. My dad was a doctor, albeit a researcher who didn't make much money. I had friends all up and down the economic ladder, my schools were very integrated (at Asa Mercer Junior High, whites were in the minority). I was raised by Ivy League parents with a deep belief in education, but they weren't people of means.
The brick halls and towers of Lakeside were an eye-opener. We were taught by Lakeside teachers assisted by current and former students. I think most of us felt like the motley crew of McHale's Navy
plopped down at Harvard. We smoked pot, we had a floating blackjack game going in the back of the school bus. We spent our school hours reading and discussing John Steinbeck and learning – no joke – how to invest in the stock market.
The race and class differences were striking. Kids at Lakeside were named Worthington and Livingston. And those were their first
names. Some of our student teachers wore bermuda shorts and knee-high socks. A couple spoke with the classic lock-jawed accent made famous by Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island
. A few were snotty and bullying in a cerebral kind of way. I remember one student teacher who got into a showdown with a black kid in class. He threw down what he thought was the ultimate challenge. "Okay, smarty, spell 'rococo,'" he demanded, as if that would prove once and for all who was superior. To our great joy, the student spelled it correctly without batting an eyelash and we hooted and hollered ourselves hoarse. The student teacher looked stunned to be mocked by the rabble.
Funny and repellent
as it was, that showdown also exemplified the best of what Lakeside is about: regardless of color, class or family, it was an intellectual meritocracy, a place where the life of the mind was valued above all things. Arguments could be settled with a spelling contest, not a knife fight.
That's why Mary Gates, Bill Gates' late mother, put Bill there. She told me once that she was afraid that Bill would get bullied at public school, and she wanted her son to thrive where minds were valued. Lakeside was a safe haven for socially challenged genius nerds like Bill. It was a place where you might get intellectually bullied – and Gates himself was a master at that – but you were safe in the locker room.
Lakeside has used LEEP as a recruiting ground for minority students. And their efforts there and more generally have been very successful if you measure diversity by skin color. Seattle Weekly
's Shapiro has the numbers:
Between the fall of 1998 and the present, the number of minority students at Lakeside rose from 24 percent to 38 percent. That's a greater percentage of minorities than in the entire city of Seattle, according to the latest census estimate, and 12 percentage points more diverse than rival Seattle Preparatory School. Lakeside's largest share of nonwhite students, 17 percent, are multiracial (the precise combination of races does not appear in school statistics), while 13.5 percent are of Asian or Pacific Islander descent and 5 percent are African American. Approximately 20 percent of all students receive financial aid.
So Lakeside's elite ivory towers are less white than Seattle generally.
One way the school hasn't diversified is in terms of "ability." When I interviewed Head of School – we used to call them headmaster
– Bernie Noe during the Dinesh D'Souza dust up, he said that he would not lower school standards to diversify.
In the Seattle Public Schools debate, some diversity advocates and critics of "white privilege" argue that such things as "discourse," "future time orientation," and standard English are in themselves racist. If that's the diversity standard, which is highly debatable, Lakeside will never meet it and has no intention of doing so. Its mission is to excel as a first-class college prep school.
But that also means life at Lakeside won't be easy for everyone. In the intense, stimulating, and competitive environment Lakeside offers, it is not uncommon to feel steamrollered by the ambitions, hard work, advantages, and brilliance of others. It's also not uncommon for overachiever types to feel like they are underperforming in any event – which they use as motivation to drive themselves even harder.
One of the faculty litigants, Novella Coleman (who has since left the school), described in court papers how miserable she became at Lakeside:
I have lost the ability to peacefully fall asleep after a long day's work rather than spend hours tossing and turning, full of regret and anticipating how I will be able to survive the next day. ... I have lost control over my desire to not cry in public but have been reduced to tears at the thought of returning to Lakeside or even spending another moment there.
I sympathize. I felt that way nearly every night during my first year at Lakeside. For a student like me who dropped in midway through high school, I felt stupid, overwhelmed, and often invisible. I was surrounded by rich kids, smart kids, and, worse, rich smart kids.
I would sometimes puke in the bushes outside of Bliss Hall in the morning before going into class.
And class itself
could be illuminating in unintended ways. I remember watching in awe as Bill Gates, then a high school sophomore who looked to be about 12 years old, went nose-to-nose in a shouting match with the physics teacher. Gates shredded his opponent and won the argument. Anyone who tried to win an argument with a teacher at Asa Mercer would likely have an appointment with the vice principal's wooden paddle.
You don't have to be a person of color to have felt roughed up at Lakeside, though it's surely true that minority students have some different issues than white kids. But as T.J. Vassar, the head of LEEP and Lakeside's diversity efforts, told Shapiro, "Lakeside is not an easy school to be in" for anyone. Including teachers.
While it can hurt, it can also be exhilarating to be in a place where students and teachers alike can get bruised in skirmishes that expand knowledge.
That said, if an environment only feels brutal, well, life's too short to put up with that. I finally got on my academic feet at Lakeside, but I was glad to graduate. Over the years, I have talked to a number of fellow alums who shared the same sense of alienation I did, but none of us ever acknowledged aloud. It was our dirty little secret.
The lawsuit and the Seattle Weekly
story give an airing to Lakeside's competitive culture. The recent controversies have have stimulated self-examination at the school, which is a good thing, because at a place like Lakeside, academic rigor can sometimes turn into institutional rigor mortis