The Power of Affinity

When I come back from the People of Color Conference every year, I always tend to look raggedy and exhausted the next few days. I spend weeks processing everything that happened in that short conference time frame. This stems from a long and complicated history with my identity, and much of that is wrapped up in this conference, which I first attended as a young, bright-eyed first year teacher at the age of 22.

At 22, I was fresh out of Amherst College, a predominantly white institution that gave me an amazing educational and athletic experience. I had spent most of those years trying to stay firmly in my comfort zone. This meant sticking close to my teammates instead of branching out to meet new people, and more importantly, it meant trying to blend in and keep my head down as much as possible. Looking back, I don’t know why I spent so much of my young adult life trying to avoid who I was. In high school, I deliberately avoided the teacher who ran the multicultural awareness club, lest I be regarded as anything other than the norm (aka white). During freshman orientation at Amherst, I did the same thing - ducking the kids from the Asian Students Association - because I didn’t want to be associated with them. And believe it or not, this all stems from one significant moment that left me gasping for air like I had been punched in the gut.

Watching the seniors scramble around the doorway of the College Office reminds me of that moment today. I don’t remember much of the college process honestly, because it was the source of a lot of angst and arguments in my household. But I do remember meeting with the school college counselor and my parents. The college counselor and I had already met individually in a rather odd meeting where she had viewed my grades and SAT scores and created a list of schools she thought I could probably get into. I brought the list home to my parents and they had one collective thought: Oh HELL NO. This woman did not just underestimate my daughter. My father, a spreadsheet king, had done ample research on all of the schools appearing on the US News and World Report Top 25 list. He brought in his binder of collective research and said in no uncertain terms that he was confident his daughter could get into one of those schools. I tried to shrink into the floor; I was so embarrassed. She sighed and said that no one had gotten into Amherst from my high school in the last ten years, and my father slammed his binder shut and said, well, maybe it’s time for a first. That was my senior fall.

I applied Early Decision and got deferred. The college counselor probably had herself a little chuckle and prepared her “I told you so” speech. Seniors around me were getting into colleges they were hoping to get into, and I remember the whole process being stressful. Until the day after I got into Amherst. My parents hugged each other and cried. They were bursting with pride. I came to school on cloud nine. I had finally done it. I had proved them wrong.

A girl I was friendly with (notice I didn’t say friends with) came up to me by the kiosk where seniors liked to hang out during free periods. “I heard you got into Amherst,” she said. No congratulations detected in her measured, icy voice. “Guess they’re upping diversity acceptances everywhere now.”

Her words fell on me like jagged bricks. She hadn’t gotten in. She was a white girl from Atherton, one of the richest towns in the country, and up until that moment she had gotten everything she ever wanted. And that moment tore through me like one of those specially made bullets that expands on impact, shredding everything in its path, doing unconscionable damage. She had said, out loud, what I had feared all along: I didn’t belong there. I had not earned my spot. I had taken hers.

This moment would define my actions and self-worth for the next 25 years.

Amherst called my parents in late spring and asked if I would like to be enrolled in a program called “Summer Science.” It was a week-long program, paid for by the school, to give kids who had indicated they would major in math and science “a pre-college boost.” There was also an introductory writing class. A transition program, they called it. We arrived on campus on a sticky July day. 12 students. 11 of us black and brown. We caught on real quick - being in this group felt like Amherst didn’t think we had what it took. A lesson for Amherst on intent vs. impact.

That fall, I sat terrified in my freshman classes at Amherst. I never raised my hand for fear that I would be wrong, and that my so-called friend and the people who picked me for Summer Science would be right: I didn’t belong. I second-guessed myself at every turn. I sat in the back of classes and tried to disappear. I dropped out of biology and my pre-med major because my confidence was completely gone. That is until I got to Barry O’Connell’s Reading, Writing, and Teaching class.

One day, Professor O’Connell was handing back papers from a really difficult assignment. I had struggled most of the night to write it. He called my name, handed it back to me, but didn’t let go - he forced me to make eye contact. “Melissa, this is worth a prize,” he declared loudly for others to hear, and I felt my brown ears burn with embarrassment. With those few words, he had made the words that white girl from my high school spat at me go quiet, although just for a bit.

Flash forward to that bright-eyed, first-year teacher at 22, attending the People of Color Conference in Providence, RI in 2001. A colleague of mine called POCC “the biggest group hug you can get,” and I’ve never had a phrase ring truer to describe that experience. There, I was overwhelmed with something I had not experienced outside of my family unit before - I was welcomed by thousands of teachers of color, teachers who looked like me, teachers who felt like me, who shared experiences and could relate to what I was going through. It was in that first Asian / Pacific Islander affinity group in 2001 where I met Nancy. To me, she was a unicorn of sorts: she was the first Filipina I had ever met who was older than me and who did not have an accent. She showed me who I could be if I stayed in this profession, and what I could achieve. She showed me being in a position of leadership in a predominantly-white institution was possible. Without that network of affinity, I am not sure I would be the same educator that I am today.

We created the Network of Independent School Equity (NISE) for just that same purpose - connection, affinity, collaboration, and endless possibility. Northern New England can be as beautiful as it is lonely and isolating - particularly for people of color - and having an “extended family” in NISE can expand the world a little, open it up beyond campus borders, to serve folks in their needs as POC in a seriously predominantly-white zone. At our last POC and International Faculty Happy Hour in Plymouth, I loved being able to branch out of the Brewster bubble and meet people who were just 45 minutes away, to make those connections and know that I can reach out whenever the bubble feels like it’s closing in. NISE has all the potential to be what POCC is for many of us in the margins, whether we identify as POC, LGBTQ+: affirming, fulfilling, and the Northern New England group hug we all need.

About The Author

Melissa Lawlor

Director of Equity and Inclusion

Melissa Lawlor joined the Brewster Academy faculty in September 2010 as the English teacher on the freshman team and as the head girls’ varsity lacrosse coach. Prior to Brewster, she spent five years working in production in documentary film and children’s programming for the critically acclaimed PBS shows FRONTLINE and Between the Lions.

Her return to boarding school life was prompted by her husband Matt’s appointment as the director of athletics at Brewster. “I missed the kind of community and one-on-one interaction with students that boarding schools foster, and Brewster’s unique approach to teaching kids of all levels in the same classroom was truly appealing to me as an educator.”

Prior to her television career, Melissa taught at Millbrook School in Millbrook, New York, She also was the head dorm parent of the freshman girls’ dormitory and coached the girls’ varsity basketball and lacrosse teams. She currently teaches psychology in the History Department, heads up the upper school social and emotional learning programs, and is the faculty advisor of ONE (One Nationality and Ethnicity) Club and the Trey Whitfield Mentoring Program at Brewster.

Melissa grew up in Northern California and headed east for school; she was a three-sport athlete at Amherst College. She has been actively playing lacrosse for almost 20 years with the Boston Women’s Lacrosse travel team and played midfield on the 2004 and 2005 New England Team at the Women’s National Tournament.

Melissa lives on campus with her husband Matt and their three sons. She enjoys running, playing team sports, photography, and traveling when not busy teaching and coaching.