“What’s unique about The College School is that we are a private, independent school for everyone,” says Vincent Flewellen, the school’s director of equity and inclusion.
We’re seated in an open area that I happen to know was once used as a library. It’s next to the principal’s office and directly across the hall from the classroom where Miss Kasch taught me to read in 1972, when I was in the first grade.
“We are proactive and intentional in our work around equity, inclusion and social justice.”
In the fall of 1971, I started kindergarten in this building, which at the time was Lockwood School, and part of the Webster Groves School District.
The first four years of my formal education took place here, and they were nowhere near what one might call “inclusive;” like the grade school experience of many queer kids then and now, they were in fact a trauma, the aftermath of which smoldered for decades and left plenty of scars.
On the playground, where a beautiful greenhouse presently stands, I remember day after day of trying to render myself invisible, hoping that nobody would notice what a predicament I was in. At home I’d been doted on by older brothers and a sister and mother who thought everything I did and said was an achievement.
But on the unforgiving asphalt at Lockwood, which quickly became my own personal war zone, the boys rejected me outright, swiftly and completely — I was way too much of a girl for any of them. The girls, in a way that was at once more indirect and more spiteful, regarded me with a weird mix of suspicion and hostility.
The rejection was painful, of course — nobody would play with me — but what was worse was the never-ending fear that some adult might intervene on my behalf. I could think of nothing more humiliating than a teacher scolding the boys for not including me in kickball. Or my mother meeting with the principal to alert him to the fact that I had failed to make a single friend.
Whether on its own initiative or in response to external pressure, at the end of third grade, in 1975, the school district took action to more thoroughly desegregate. That meant moving some of us pupils to another elementary school that was eight or nine blocks in the opposite direction, while others stayed at Lockwood until they completed sixth grade, in 1978.
In 1979 the building was leased to The College School, which had started out not far away as an experiment conducted by idealistic educators during the heady days of the 1960s at what was then Webster College. In 1981, The College School bought the building and has occupied it ever since.
Inside it for the first time in 43 years, I’m seated comfortably across a table from Flewellen, and as he tells me about the school’s plans to march in the upcoming PrideFest Parade to show support for LGBQT individuals at the school as well as the larger community, there’s so much full-circle moment madness inside my head I suddenly feel dizzy.
I left this building for the last time in 1975 so that Webster Groves could prove how serious it was about desegregation; now it’s 2018, and I’m having a free-ranging conversation with an openly gay black man that hits on topics that would have shut the place down the last time I was here — for example, the impact of positively portrayed gay characters on popular television shows.
On the iPhone I’m using to record our conversation, I have a few gay blogs favorited (even the terms didn’t exist back then) and a couple of gay dating apps that are so par-for-the-course they don’t even warrant a content warning, even as right across the hall lies the room where Dick, Jane and Spot welcomed me to the magical world of written language even as they revealed important clues about how the world was ordered, how it worked.
As a gay man in his early 50s who came of age in the suburban Midwest of the 1970s and 1980s, I’m used to being awestruck by momentum. But being in a physical space where the dark ages and whatever era it is we’re in today sit side by side, literally, takes “mind blown” to a whole new level.
While Flewellen and I haven’t shared a journey, exactly, we have traveled a few of the same roads. With a list of credentials that includes a Master’s of Social Work from Washington University and many years of teaching, consulting and leadership in both public and private schools, Flewellen decided to proactively out himself as gay during his initial interview at The College School a couple of years ago.
It was a departure. In previous positions, he’d come out selectively and gradually to colleagues and in some cases to families, a move he admits he sometimes felt “burned” by. So when he interviewed at The College School he decided to talk about his sexuality on the front end as an important part of his identity.
“I read on the website that all voices were welcome, so I decided to challenge that and see how it felt,” he says. “My being gay was a blip in the conversation, which was wonderful.”
Last year, for the first time, about 70 people marched with The College School in the Pride parade, which Flewellen considers a means of honoring the school’s DNA.
“In a lot of ways we were, and still may be, the hippie of local independent schools,” he says. “With that comes a certain openness to individuals’ otherness. That openness gives us the ability to celebrate and welcome that otherness. We are a community that I do believe really celebrates our differences, identity and makeup.”
Kate Polokonis currently has two children enrolled at The College School. She marched in the Pride parade last year and plans to do so again this year. A former St. Louis Public Schools teacher, Polokonis is pursuing a Master’s in Social Work at Washington University and currently serves on the equity and inclusion committee at The College School.
Like Flewellen, Polokonis believes that the Pride parade is an ideal opportunity to not tolerate differences but to celebrate them.
“Kids at The College School are engaging in conversations with people who come from different backgrounds, who have different life experiences,” she says. “I think that’s very valuable. Kids are learning to say, ‘These are my core values and they may not align with yours – how do we talk about that?’ They are learning to have this conversation. Our kids will leave this school knowing who they are and how to articulate it.”
The school’s participation in Pride is but one component of the school’s commitment to LGBQT+ individuals and issues, Polokonis and Flewellen say.
The middle-school students in the gender studies class, for example, quickly noticed that they were missing books delving into gender roles, so they began exploring ways to fill the void.
In partnership with the Novel Neighbor, located a few blocks down the street, a list of books was curated, purchased and then sold to families, who bought them for their homes and individual classrooms based on teachers’ wish lists.
The students also invited the executive director of the Metro Trans Umbrella Group to visit the class and made and sold T-shirts and buttons emblazoned with slogans about feminism and gender, the proceeds from which were donated to the Transgender Memorial Garden in the Grove.
And then there’s Scout.
In kindergarten, Scout shared that she sometimes feels like a girl and she sometimes feels like a boy. I can certainly relate to that conflict.
When I was in kindergarten, right down the hall from the table at which Flewellen is telling me Scout’s story, I came to school on Halloween dressed as Cinderella. I hadn’t given this particular incident any thought in many years — it’s cringe-inducing, even now — but I do remember being thrilled, having just discovered Cher, to be going to school wearing a dress and a plastic mask and carrying a little wand.
And from there the day went rapidly, irrevocably downhill.
It was different for Scout. What she conveyed was not lost on Uchenna Ogu, who teaches kindergarten at The College School. After talking with Scout and her parents, Ogu facilitated a classroom discussion in which Scout told her classmates about her perspective.
The result of that discussion wasn’t name-calling or threats or ridicule, but the creation of a booklet entitled “Wishes for Scout,” a collection of pages on which students colored pictures and wrote messages. I hope that no one ever laughs at you because you are a boy and a girl, reads one. We love you a whole bunch. And: I love you no matter what. You’ll be my friend forever. And: You are special, Scout.
On my way out of the building, Flewellen tells me that “Wishes for Scout” is shown to parents who are considering sending their children to The College School.
“We find that the younger families that are new to our community are looking for and wanting a school that’s intentional and proactive about identity,” Flewellen says. “So we show them who we are. We make sure they know what they’re signing up for. We show them the book that was created for Scout to let them know we’re a community of families building a climate and culture that are as bold as what they’re looking for.”
Patrick Collins recently returned to St. Louis after living for many years in Portland, Oregon. Reach him at [email protected]