This article originally appeared in Sesi’s spring 2017 issue. Subscribe here to stay up on our current editions.
When Shani “Kami” Vigilant was 14, she had aspirations of studying engineering, anthropology, or international diplomacy once she got to college. But her chosen high school journey was a lot different from what people typically think of for Black girls — she went to boarding school. Read on for a look inside that world.
As told to Andréa Butler
IN FIFTH GRADE, I found a pamphlet about Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Connecticut. I remember writing down, “I will play field hockey. I will play lacrosse at Miss Porter’s.” That was on my list. In seventh grade, it came up a little bit more. Eighth grade, it was a year until high school, so I had to pick.
We went to visit Miss Porter’s from Virginia [in February 2016], and I met my Old Girl. [Editor’s note: An “Old Girl” is a student who has been at Miss Porter’s for at least one year. To have a “New Girl” mentee, an “Old Girl” must be a senior.] She said it was a great place, and I really liked how it was all girls. (At the time, guys were really annoying to me.) I thought, OK, this is a good choice, and that same day, I told my Mom that even though I didn’t like moving, I would move for this school. But she didn’t think it was an option — until she met my friend’s mom who told her I’d love it there, that it’s perfect for me, that I’m a Porter’s girl, and all kinds of stuff. Then, my mom was like, “Oh, OK. You can apply.”
I applied a week before they accepted, so it was crunch time. I told my eighth-grade teachers that if I didn’t get my homework done, it wasn’t because I was just blowing it off; it was because I genuinely had to finish my application. Every single word had to be perfect.
LEAVING HOME WAS EASY, but there’s also not enough time to be homesick. By the time you wake up, you have to go to school. By the time you go to bed, you’re exhausted. I usually get up at 7:30 or so, and then I’ll get ready and go to breakfast. After day classes, we have sports until around 5:30 p.m., and then we go to dinner from 5:30 to 6:30. We have an hour in between, and at 7:30, study hall starts. For New Girls, there are assigned seats and those change every quarter. There’s no talking in study hall, you can’t have your phone, you can’t do anything but work. If you finish early, you can’t knit or draw; you have to read or something like that, but it’s a good thing because most of the time, we have a lot of homework, and our schedules are so packed anyway, there’s not a lot of other time to do it. At 9:30, we leave and go back to our dorms, where we have to be checked in with our dorm mom by 10:00. At 10:30, we should be in our actual rooms, and at 11:00 it’s lights out.
On the weekends, we usually have activities starting Friday night. You can sign up for the socials, or you can go to the mall, things like that. We also have brunch on Saturday and Sunday. I usually do homework and hang, depending on if I have games. Sunday is also cleaning day, and our rooms have to be cleaned entirely — vacuumed, with everything in its place — by 7:30 p.m. Then, we have quiet hours from 7:30 to 9:30.
If you’re going to go to boarding school, see if the one you pick has camps or activities where you can actually see the school for itself. The summer before I started, I attended a camp on campus and that was really important. I also got to meet upperclassmen, and I can’t tell you how many times they have saved my experience. I’ve been upset about something, and I’ve gone to them about it, and they’ve told me it’ll get better, that they went through some of the same things.
I’m friends with the student head of athletics, and I’m athletic. I love sports, so it’s good being friends with her. My Old Girl is head of diversity, and that’s something I’m really passionate about at my school.
A LOT OF PEOPLE, when I tell them I go to boarding school, ask me if racism happens often. I tell them not really, not as much as you’d think. Even after the election it was pretty good on my campus. We did have an issue with one of the freshman saying the n-word, and another with one girl coming to school wearing a Trump hat, but the majority of our school supported Hillary. You could feel people mourning. I didn’t go to some of my classes the day after the election, but I did go to my math class, and my teacher came in bawling, saying, “I’m sorry. Whether you support that candidate or not, you just need to know that there’s definitely something going on.” We realized there can’t be a rational way to explain supporting somebody like Trump.
Then, I went to the wellness center with some of my friends, and we had tea and hot chocolate. They brought in a therapy dog to play with. It was a fluffy, cocker spaniel named Ollie, and he was so cute! He was just playing around, making sure everyone was OK. It was really nice.
We also started to have a lot of conversations on campus about perspective and knowing what it’s like for somebody else and how that election, for example, affected me versus somebody who wouldn’t be as affected by it like somebody who’s Caucasian and male. The great thing is, I was also able to talk to my Old Girl, and right downstairs from my dorm is the woman who’s in charge of inclusion and diversity, so I went to her office with some other girls, and we talked there.
AS A BLACK PERSON in general, I think you have to advocate for yourself a lot more. Boarding school is a great platform for that because you’re on your own. It’s easier for you to get out of your comfort zone. I was sure I wanted to go to Miss Porter’s when I found the environment to be really inclusive.
At our school, we have groups like Sister to Sister and BLA (Black and Latina Alliance), and you can come just to be an advocate and an ally. We do a lot of things together. In fact, we recently went to a conference called Sphere to talk about microaggression, colorism, and hair. Our school sent us because it’s something they knew we needed to do to be comfortable and something they needed to know about in order for them to know how to react and how to treat us and represent us equally.
Boarding schools get a bad rap, but if you’re the kind of person who’s determined and focused on school, the little nitpicky things like whether or not you’re going to see a guy, have a boyfriend, or be around too many girls, won’t bother you. Even if people tell you, “Oh, that’s for white people,” it’s like, no. If we keep thinking that, it’s never going to change.
Photo courtesy of Shani Vigilant