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
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?”