A boarding school novel, by an Oaklander

Phillip Wilhite wrote “Surviving Chadwick,” a novel about an African American teenager from West Oakland who goes to a wealthy boarding school in the 1970s — a story based on his own experience. Last week, he spoke to West Oakland middle school students about it, and he wrote the below essay. -Katy

Scared. Nervous. Excited.

Those were the words used by some of the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students all decked out in their maroon and blue uniforms last Monday inside a large assembly hall at the St. Martin de Porres Middle School Campus in West Oakland to describe what their first days felt like at their new school.

I told them that Isaiah Issacson, a young African American teenager from West Oakland and the main character of my new novel, Surviving Chadwick, felt that same angst on his first day at a predominantly white boarding school in Ojai, California in the 1970’s.

The novel, a modern-day version of Catcher in the Rye, is loosely based on my own experience growing up in Oakland and later being granted a scholarship to attend a fancy boarding school similar to Chadwick. It explores the ever-present issues of race and identity faced by African American students who are suddenly plucked from the inner city out of their comfort zone.

I read aloud parts of the story to them.

Did these students even know what a boarding school was? Only a handful raised their hands when I asked them if they knew or had heard about them.

I didn’t know about boarding school either at their age when I was awarded a full scholarship through the A Better Chance Program to attend The Thacher School in Ojai and later the Robert Louis Stevenson School in Pebble Beach.

My parents wanted me to attend a good public school in Oakland, but after begging them to attend, I ended up in Ojai. This school was full of rich kids, had an observatory, a computer lab, and horses.
The first days away from home were frightening. I missed my friends, my family and familiar surroundings. I told the students at St. Martin de Porres to imagine a similar fate.

From that point on, my story really sunk in. Their imaginations ran wild. They asked a lot of questions.
Did I miss my friends back home? Did I keep in touch? Did I have a girlfriend? Did I ever come home for vacation? Was it hard? Did boarding school prepare me for college?

I answered all of these questions with a yes. The experience prepared me to attend Cal where I ended up earning a scholarship to play on the basketball team and finished with a degree in Political Science.

By the end of the program the questions were still coming. One of the kids raised their hand. “Where do I sign up?”

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Nextset

    A very interesting story. Getting out of the comfort zone pays off. I’d like to hear his observations on where he is professionally now and how much of that is due to the early schooling experiences – where does he think he would have been had he gone the OUSD route…

    And when I speak of OUSD I’m really referring to the typical California Urban Ghetto School District. I don’t think they serve their black students well.

    Brave New World.

  • Michael

    I really enjoyed the book. It really hit home about transition, making good choices, the influence of friendships,and socialization in different environments. I came out of OUSD in the late 1970’s at a time when the teachers really cared about the students and for the most part, students enjoyed being around each other. I still have friendships developed from those OUSD days.

    In today’s era there are some different challenges as most Urban public schools operate with limited resources. That is a much longer discussion.

    Getting back to the book. The story premise is relevant today and probably more so today. There are opportunities to make a better life for yourself no matter what your circumstances. The journey will not be easy but anything worthwhile is going to take sacrifice and getting out of your comfort zone. The book clearly is a coming of age story that could really reflect any of our lives path of growing up.

  • Cranky Teacher

    Michael, perhpas you didn’t intend it to sound this way, but…it sounds like you are implying Oakland teachers no longer care about students, and students no longer form strong friendships with each other? You don’t really believe that, do you?

  • Heatman

    What is this language, “out of your comfort zone”? Last I looked kids were dodging pimps, drug dealers and bullets. There was a memorial last week for a teenage girl from Oakland Tech who died from gun fire. We need to create a “comfort zone” for these children. The world they live in is as much of a factor in the lack of opportunity for success as the dysfunctional nature of our underfunded schools.

  • Nextset

    Heatman: Sit down and get comfortable. Here’s how this thing works. It doesn’t matter how dangerous or unsanitary your environment is – when it is what you are used to. “Comfort” is relative. Lack of change is “comfort”. Lack of challenge is “comfort”. Sameness is “comfort”.

    Prison inmates, battered women, kidnap victims, cult members, all of them remain in or go back to these environments because they have become comfortable in them and really don’t want to change right now.

    Just like blacks in ghetto schools.

    It doesn’t matter that they know on some level that the grass is greener on the other side. Many, many people don’t do anything when it involves something new, or worse, being told what to do – something unfamiliar (clothes, speech, deportment, mores, table manners, education, whatever).

    There are people who grow up and live their lives an hour from the ocean or the snow and don’t travel to either.

    The people who get comfortable easiest are called “dulls” or perhaps “the left side of the bell curve”. You see, curiosity is not their thing.

    So ghetto residents are quite comfortable dodging pimps, drug dealers and bullets. They are quite stupid and the come from a stupid line. And by that I mean IQ. Brain processing speed. That sort of thing. So they stay until they meet their premature end. The mortality charts tell the tale.

    Change for ghetto dwellers does not come from internal forces. If they are to change it must be imposed by external forces. Since this government likes things the way they are, the public schools are designed to pacify the lower classes, not change them. Contrast that with the US (government’s) Army which is designed to quickly change or weed out lower class recruits. It’s not like the government doesn’t know how to impose changes when they are needed.

    So we get people who are full of self esteem and unemployable. They’re not rioting – but they are not going anywhere in this Brave New World.

  • Shelly

    I understood your point until you got to the part that (ghetto residents)…”are quite stupid and the come from a stupid line…” I don’t think if you’ve intereacted with a lot of people in the ghetto you’d say that. From my experience, they are as intelligent as the general population of people. Less educated? Maybe. Lacking solid family structure? Some of them. Lacking exposure to things that many Americans would consider “de rigeur”? Yes. But to actually state that overall they lack IQ power–I would need to see actual data on that, because my experiences don’t jive with that statement.

  • http://Phillip_Wilhite@hotmail.com Phillip Wilhite

    Nextset: Overall, this was a good experience. Classes were smaller and the instruction challenging. The schools were secluded so there were fewer distractions. I learned the importance of making good decisions and ways of balancing academics and my love of athletics at a young age. I work for a major bank in the area of finance but I have carved out time for family and novel writing. I have learned to handle multiple priorities and live with passion.

    Living with my classmates and teachers and then coming back home prepared me for navigating and thriving in multiple settings.

  • Nextset

    Shelley: I hear your point here, but that’s just my conclusion after a lifetime of dealing with the problem. The combination of not being very bright combined with a lifetime of not being prodded results in a group of people who cannot take care of themselves. In the good times they are happy enough, but without some external force taking care of them the ghetto dwellers just die off from predictable and avoidable problems that fester until they become fatal (trauma, disease, financial, all of it).

    With conditions in the USA eroding, well, they just aren’t going to make it. I attribute this to a problems with smarts. The stats speak for themselves, from the VD and AIDS rates to the mortality tables to the imprisonment rate, education levels, unemployment levels, any measure you care to use run by Zip Code – smarter people do not let this pathology run rampant among themselves.

    Phillip Wilhite: What do you think OUSD and districts like it can do to improve the life prospects for their students? Specifically, their black students?? Also: Did your parents have any significant issues or problems with their decision to send you away to boarding school? Was their any disapproval of their decision within the extended family or social circle? Was your personal approval sought in this decision or were you told that it had been decided?

  • http://www.derarwilliams.blogspot.com Dera Williams

    My siblings and I graduated from the Oakland Public school system in the late 60s and 70s. My mother also retired as a teacher in OPS in 1990. I know I got a good education and would put it up against any suburban school or for that matter, boarding school. Of course, that was then, that was now. As mentioned by someone else, today’s urban students face different challenges with tragedies such as the Oakland Tech student and the boy in Chicago who was an honor student who was killed.

    I still say, however, that with a combination of self-motivation, parental support, and teacher support, a student can make it in the OPS. If you don’t have all three of these variables, it is extremely difficult, not impossible, but it is a hard mountain to climb. I don’t know what the solution is; I firmly believe, parents need to be involved, unfortunately, a lot of these kids do not have stable home lives. If someone takes an interest in a bright kid and steers them toward advantages, then good. Who is going to advocate for the child hanging on the edge?

  • Bee Hylinski

    Phil, I loved your book and loved this blog post. It sounds like it was a terrific experience for you to talk about your book with the kids. I wish I had been a fly on the wall! Bee

  • http://fletch9870@att.net Fletcher

    Hey Guy,

    What you are doing for the kids is great
    Keep up the good work!!!!! I’M VERY PROUD OF YOU