Dawn Simmons ’85

January 2018
I started kindergarten at Brearley in the early 70s, right after the civil rights movement.  My parents wanted my sister and me to attend a good school so I attended Brearley and my sister, Spence. I only thought of Brearley as being a predominately white girls’ school located downtown whereas I lived in Harlem.  In my grade, there were only three African-Americans, including myself, until sixth or seventh grade.  None of us had ever heard of or gone through programs which helped minorities get into school.
Brearley was like a second home.  I was a teacher’s pet to some and had many friends, but because I lived in Harlem I did not have most of
them visit me as their parents didn’t want them traveling so far north “into the ghetto.”  On Saturdays I attended dance and piano school in the Bronx.  I stood out because the people in the neighborhood said I talked differently, or “proper.”

I left Brearley after seventh grade and enrolled in public school, when my family moved to Baltimore.  Suddenly I had to sit at a specific table, go to the bathroom at a certain time, stay in line, and I couldn’t interact with kids from different grades or even different classes within my grade.  I remember how challenging the change was, and I realized then how special my Brearley experience was.  I learned through a lens of freedom at Brearley—education through freedom, responsibility through freedom, independence through freedom.  Ever since, I have followed the Brearley model, as a parent and also when I was a schoolteacher; when children would ask me, “Where do I sit?” I would answer, “You sit wherever you’re comfortable.”  Letting them decide allowed them to learn how to become responsible themselves.
For over 20 years, I have worked in Derivatives.  To succeed in a corporate structure you have to be no-nonsense, get things done quickly and focus on your work to the point of being considered abrasive.  Yet there’s the other side of me: I created an English and Breakfast program in Ghana, serve on a community advisory board at Harlem Hospital and worked with prisoners to create the book Letters to Our Sons to stop crime and mass incarceration.  I attribute who I am and have become to my family and Brearley by Truth and Toil.  Not only are Brearley girls smart and determined, they are fun and caring.  I will speak to the queen down to the vagrant; Brearley stressed expression, being multifaceted, interacting with different kinds of people and having an open mind.