Gwendolyn Steele Fortson Waring ’73

January 2018
I entered Brearley in sixth grade in 1966.  I lived in Harlem and had attended public schools there. The summer before I began, I received a call at home from a girl, warning me, “Don’t go to the Brearley School, we don’t want you.”  I wasn’t the only Black girl in the class in 1966, I later learned.  There were two others who had attended since kindergarten. Were three Black girls a crowd?  

Over the years, my mother would often remind me that she was not raising a White girl, and that Brearley could not just force a square peg into a round hole.  She encouraged me to be myself; in the sixties we did not articulate the term or the benefits of “diversity.” I was not convinced for many years.  I initially tried to assimilate, which did not work well.  From attempted assimilation, I moved to militancy, I wore an Afro, I was “Black and proud.”  We formed a Black student union and raised money to buy books “relevant” to our experience for the school library.  Dear Mrs. Cunningham set aside a section for Black heritage books that we could easily access.  I was annoyed with my classmates’ constant queries about why the Black students talked in a different vernacular with each other, and annoyed that they always wanted to touch my hair.
The final stage of my evolution at Brearley was the appreciation that my Brearley experience had prepared me for the world.  I was well educated, and bicultural (such that I could move in and out of the Black community with minimal criticism for “talking White” and I could successfully engage the majority culture).  I was extremely well prepared when I attended Princeton.  Who knew that someone who never took a math class again in life after Brearley could assist engineers at Princeton with their calculus!
Brearley prepared me, a girl from Harlem, to unquestionably believe that I could become a lawyer.  Brearley also made me realize that I must fight for others who did not have the benefits that were afforded to me as a result of my Brearley experience.  I have lifelong Brearley friends with both good and bad memories; friends who understand something of my evolution and who also become teary-eyed whenever we hear “Jerusalem” and “By Truth and Toil.”