When award-winning director, André Robert Lee, was 14-years-old, he received a full scholarship to attend one of the most elite prep schools in the country in Philadelphia. His mother, who struggled to support Lee and his sister on a factory worker’s salary, thought the scholarship was her son’s ticket out of the ghettos of Philadelphia into a world that would lead to career and financial success.
While Lee thrived academically and went onto critical acclaim in the film world, his journey, which he chronicles in the award-winning documentary The Prep School Negro, shows how growing up as ‘the only’ – in a world of racial isolation – often comes at a price.
Experts are now seeing how children who grow up in these situations are forced to develop ‘coping strategies’ in order to ‘fit in,’ that can impact everything from their relationships to their financial behavior as adults.
“One would think that it leads to success,” says Wendy Van Amson, co-founder of the Independent Schools Diversity Network. “But you also have to think about what’s really happening to your child…You have to find out what they’re thinking and pay attention to whether they’re being demoralized,” she adds.
Paying the Price
“If I saw someone who was successful, or a family or a person who had money, I never, imagined I could really have it,” said Lee. “I didn’t honestly believe that I could reach the same level that they did, you know, in terms of my classmates and people in my school because I would go home and we were struggling,” he adds.
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