John Hollis, a former sportswriter-turned-author, often reminisces about his days as one of the few faces of color while attending prep school. In his recently released first novel, “Life in the Paint: The Story of a Black Man Fighting for His Identity”, Hollis chronicles the many challenges he faced – both expected and unexpected – from both the black and white communities as he came of age while vacillating between the two worlds.
Leaving home to attend Woodberry Forest School in Virginia to begin my freshman year of high school was something I had looked forward to doing. My older brother was already there, and I had enjoyed my own visits to the school. I was rearing to go.
There were very few of us faces of color at the school, but that was something to which I had grown accustomed even while attending public schools in my nearby hometown of Fredericksburg, VA. There was some initial culture shock, however, as it became readily apparent how wealthy most of the other students were and how little it appeared they had ever previously interacted with any black folks like me.
Or if ever at all.
It was early in my freshman year that one of my classmates actually asked me if African-Americans ever got sunburned. A wealthy Venezuelan whose family owned one of that country’s national airlines, he clearly had never known anybody of color well enough to feel comfortable enough to finally give voice to his curiosity. I laughed heartily when answering affirmatively, as much as to enlighten him as to add brevity to the situation.
Overall, however, I had a great experience at Woodberry Forest. Without question, I worked harder and learned more during my formative four years there than anywhere else, including later in college at the University of Virginia. The school’s small classes and individual attention had me well prepared for college in terms of preparation, well-developed study skills, and overall confidence. Moreover, the networking opportunities afforded me later in life because of my many Woodberry Forest ties that still remain strong have proven priceless.
That’s not to say, however, that things were easy. As a rare black male in a mostly white world, I never really felt completely at home because I was not like those with whom I shared that very white, affluent and conservative world at Woodberry Forest. Likewise, I also felt different from many of those in the black community because I had chosen to attend an elite boarding school like Woodberry to better my education.
In that white world, mine was always the face that immediately stood out as different. In the black world back home, I was often told I “sounded educated”, as if it were a Scarlet Letter of which I should have been ashamed.
As such, I often felt like more than a visitor to both worlds, but less than a full-fledged member of either. But I was never lacking in self-confidence, and was determined to never let other people or different environments define me. Only I could do that.
Yet, I was hardly the only one in my family dealing with the paradox. Those considering sending their kids to schools such as Woodberry Forest and others should know that entire families feel the effects of that decision, not just the students themselves.
My experience made for an unprecedented challenge, but I made it through all the stronger and wiser for it. I’m a writer today, having written for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for nine years and for Time Magazine among many other publications, and I have Woodberry Forest to thank in large part for that.
- John Hollis