Transfers, a play about two students from the Bronx, one Black, one Hispanic, who are competing for a scholarship at an elite, Massachusetts liberal arts university, was originally developed in the summer of 2016 at Vassar College. But it arrives in New York City in 2018, smack in the middle of a raging controversy about admitting low-achieving students (and thus presumably minority) into high-achieving (albeit public) schools.
Unlike Lincoln Center’s Admissions, which tackled the subject from the perspective of high-achieving white students and their families, Transfers explores two different questions: Should standards be lowered for underprivileged students, and what toll does being thrust into an unfamiliar, sometimes hostile (Yale, anyone?) environment take on those admitted?
The former is addressed at a faculty meeting, where an African-American literature professor (Leon Addison Brown) refuses to accept a student whose low test scores suggest he would not be able to handle the college’s rigorous academics.
“I earned my education, I earned my degrees, I wasn’t handed anything,” he lectures the case worker urging him to overlook this applicant’s deficits, “You want to make it easier because you feel sorry for him. But you don’t respect people by lowering standards… Standards exist for a reason. The point is to broaden and expand, not to tear down… You send us students who are unprepared and they are taking slots from the more deserving!…. You are setting him up to fail!”
Separate from the fates of these two particular students, Transfers is asking an even more difficult question, a question that resonated with me on a personal level.
This September, my oldest son will start an Ivy League University. My son is African-American.
He has an advantage over the boys of Transfers. My son attended a Specialized High School and, before that, a majority white elementary school. My son is used to being in the minority, and no one can claim that academic standards were lowered for him. (OK, that’s not true, several people have insinuated that he only got into the Ivy League because he is Black.) His younger brother is about to follow in his High School footsteps.
I never gave much thought to what it would be like for my kids to attend a school where they are not the majority. Maybe that’s because I immigrated to the U.S. and always felt like “the other” myself. Maybe it’s because my sons were going to the same schools as their dad had, the ones his mother picked after the most coveted school in NYC proved not good enough. My in-laws wanted their children in the best academic environment possible. All other concerns ran a distant second. (Plus, they wanted them to learn to “play the white man’s game.”)
I’ve written before about how I resent my children’s “diverse” presence being seen by some as just another value-add to a well rounded school – for other people.
Transfers tackles head on what that experience is like.
Clarence (Ato Blankson-Wood) explains, “I transform into what people need me to be… I’m always invisible. I see people but they don’t see me. They see my size, my race… They see all that, but they don’t see me.”
While Christofer (Juan Castano) struggles with survivor’s guilt.
“I saw the exit and no one else did,” he laments about keeping his head down, working hard, not getting into trouble, and earning his unlikely shot at escape. “It’s not my fault I know where the exit is, and you don’t.”
So as NYC debates what effect bringing underprivileged students into privileged schools will have on the kids already there, let’s think about how it will affect the newcomers, too. What they might struggle with and how they can best be supported.
And for anyone who thinks that I am taking this all way too personally, look at the artwork for Transfers, above.
And at this photo of my own son, below:
Transfers runs at MCC Theater through Sunday, May 20, 2018.