life at beacon academy
On Annabell’s first day at Beacon Academy in September 2011, the first thing she learned was how to shake a person’s hand. Her class walked outside and formed a circle, and Mervan Osborne, Assistant Head of School, walked up to a student and shook his or her hand. He pointed out the importance of eye contact and a firm grip. He then joked that some of the students’ parents could benefit from this exercise too. The new Beacon students practiced shaking hands with their classmates in the circle, one pair at a time. As Annabell walked to the middle of the circle with an extended hand, she heard Mervan yell, “Make eye contact! Walk with confidence.” Annabell absorbed the lesson that day, and three years later, when Beacon arranged for her to meet President Obama, she would shake his hand firmly and confidently.
Annabell shared this story with me this summer while I interned for Beacon Academy, a school that provides students from Boston and surrounding areas a transformational year between eighth and ninth grades to prepare them academically and socially for competitive independent high schools. Beacon only enrolls around twenty-two students a year to maintain an intimate space for learning, provide opportunities to travel and visit schools, and to cover tuition for its students. Beacon’s summer session is a short five-week program where students learn only math and literature. By the end of the year, they have learned almost two or three grade levels of material. Beacon’s mission statement begins with “One day, all children will enter high school prepared to achieve their social and academic potential.”
Currently, Annabell is a junior at a top independent school in Massachusetts, and her two siblings attend Beacon Academy. While at Beacon, she woke up at five a.m. every morning to her dad yanking the covers off her bed. She commuted every day from Taunton by taking a 5:45 a.m. bus, transferring two subway lines, and then walking a block or two to get to school by 8 a.m. When she applied to independent schools, Annabell frequently was awake until three a.m. finishing her homework.
If Annabell hadn’t gone to Beacon, she believes she would not have been admitted to an independent school. She would have gone to Taunton High School. When I talked to her, she described the Taunton as a “zoo.” She told me she would have taken additional nighttime classes because the students made it such a difficult place to learn during the day.
When she got to Beacon, what was most striking was having her own copy of a book for school. Being able to annotate and carry around The Old Man in the Sea changed her concept of literature. In her middle school in Taunton, she never talked to teachers. It took her thirty minutes to do her homework, and even if she hadn’t completed it, they would mark that she had.
Annabell’s favorite aspect of Beacon, she told me, is the “sense you can come back, even if you’ve messed up, or have been away, or just need some place to rest your head or work. If you ever need anything you have Beacon.” Annabell came back to Beacon to intern for the summer. I first wondered why this sibling of a student wasn’t leaving. Then she stayed for the summer and gradually explained to me the profound influence Beacon had upon her life.
This summer, Annabell and I stayed together on a class trip to Martha’s Vineyard at the end of the summer session. After dinner, Annabell, two current Beacon students, and I jumped into Cindy’s Jeep. Every year, Cindy crisscrosses Martha’s Vineyard, dropping off students to stay with families who are interested in supporting Beacon. It was eleven p.m. and Google Maps could not find the address, but Cindy said this year was easy compared to other years. The stars were bright and the smell of the ocean was almost present. First, we dropped off two Beacon students who would spend the night on a boat. Cindy stopped the Jeep at the dock in downtown Vineyard Haven and said, “Great. See you tomorrow.” Then Cindy looked at Annabell in the rear-view mirror and exclaimed: “Now isn’t this great.”
When we finally found our host family’s home in the woods, Annabell and I saw that we were staying in a quaint guest cottage. When we got settled, Annabell wrapped her hair in curlers, and I sat with a book. We discussed her religious upbringing, the students in the current Beacon class, and my experience at Brown. Annabell said that in her experience at her predominantly white school, people often don’t talk about race in a way that’s effective: “Black people don’t want to say things that offend white people and white people don’t want to say things that offend black people. But that’s the only way we are going to have productive conversations. People never learn anything from agreeing with each other.”
In her comment, I recognized my own fear of speaking about race at Brown. I realize that even a misplaced word can carry the weight of hundreds of years of oppression. However, I find myself hiding what I mean behind veils of vague language. The many conversations I had with Annabell, Cindy, and others at Beacon taught me to speak openly and honestly.
Beacon teaches students a new way to speak—one that is relentlessly honest and authentic.