Op-ed: My alma mater needs to teach about racism

By Cheyénne Prescott

I was raised in the town of Chester, population slightly more than 3,000.

From the 2nd grade to the 12th, I’ve been a part of this tight-knit, corner of Vermont. Some of my earliest childhood memories took place on the wooden play structure at Chester-Andover Elementary School. My “crew” and I would cause pure chaos, running through the parking lot, agitating the hornets’ nest and jumping off the swings from the highest point we could reach  — only to pause when our parents reluctantly handed us a couple of dollars to grab ice cream at the Jiffy Mart just to calm us down.

Chester has always been my home and no matter where I am in my life, I represent Chester, Vermont.

The older me looks back at my time at Chester’s public schools, and I have to ask myself, where was I represented? As the only Black girl in my elementary school, then only Black teen in my high school class, many times I felt isolated, alone, separated by the color of my skin. Classmates would make inappropriate comments about my body: My neck looked like a “tree trunk,” my braided hair “looked and felt like rope” or unbraided it was “wool.” Some would ask if it was real and strangers had no qualms in touching my hair without permission.

I also was subjected to racial slurs masquerading as “jokes.” During a class on current world events, a classmate decided to play hangman on the blackboard, with the leading question being “people that annoy you.” He wrote the letters “N _ G G E R S” on the board. A silence fell over the room. Through my pounding heart, I mustered up the courage to call my classmate out.

After a theatrical pause, he said the answer was “N-A-G-G-E-R-S.” I later learned that it was a South Park joke. But there was nothing funny about it.

I have been called the N-word while walking down the street with my baby sisters and I have been told by a classmate that they won’t be my friend because of my skin color.

Racism continues to exist in our society, and our schools are not addressing it.

Moving forward against racism

Children and teens are susceptible to untoward influences. Other’s opinions and comments sit with them because their brains are like sponges, soaking up the underlying ideals that hold up white supremacy within American culture. Racial bias is taught. That’s why it is important for schools to address racism and make it a part of the required curriculum. We need to teach students to recognize prejudice as we work to stop it. Addressing issues of racism is an obligation of all schools, regardless of the racial or cultural make up of its student body.

Some may say that it should be the responsibility of the parents. I agree. Parents should be the first line of defense in preparing their children to live their lives without the burden of racial bias. But if they don’t have the tools at home, it is the school’s job to equip students to combat it.

I was active within my high school community; I had the support of friends at Green Mountain Union High School. But I also was reminded that I was different from everyone else. From 1st grade to the present, my experience as a Black woman is atypical. Growing up in a small town in Vermont, where the Black population is under 2 percent, I had to find out the hard way the cost of living in a rural bubble.

Living in a small town where there are so few people of color,  white students may find it easy to live within their own bubbles, without any understanding of racial issues. So what happens when these small-town students graduate, and no longer have an education structure that could provide them insight?

Since racism isn’t being directed toward them, they won’t experience systemic white supremacy and will likely never know that there is a problem.

Green Mountain in prime position

Green Mountain High is uniquely situated to teach its students that even in the absence of racial and cultural diversity, even without those “teaching moments,” it remains all Americans’ responsibility to be proactive learners and to uphold Democracy for all people. This should include teaching students how to understand what racism looks like, how to recognize racism within the everyday world and how to unlearn racist ideas that are absorbed by us all. These teachings are especially important in our predominantly white community.

Those in power within our community need to take action to actively oppose white supremacy.

  • Black history should be interwoven into the curriculum and not just touched on during Black History Month. Teach that Black people have always been a large part of the American fabric.
  • Address “isms.” Teach about the intersectionality of oppression and from where it stems. Get into the history to see the pattern of how the virus of “isms” affects minorities to this day.
  • Address police brutality against the Black community and how racism is entwined within American culture. When people become uncomfortable with the discussion, ask them why.

It is never too early to teach children about racism and it is never too late to unlearn racial bias. Without understanding and serious and open discussion of the problem, change cannot be implemented.

I challenge my alma mater to pull back the curtain on a system that was built to benefit one part of America  to the detriment of another. Racism needs to be  addressed in a thoughtful manner.  The struggle to understand should not be expected to occur after high school or in response to a horrific event.

I look forward to seeing the residents of Chester and its school community discuss not only the history of Black America, but the recent events as well and, hopefully, to soon consider doing away with its Chieftain mascot.

This community has supported me and has shaped me into the woman I am today. Although it has taken some time for me to accept that I am different, I am immensely proud of where I am from: Chester, Vermont. I’ve already seen power in the generations of GM’s graduating classes. I’ve seen so much growth in this short amount of time, where all eyes in America are being forced upon injustice. Imagine the power we could give students if they incorporated this amount of social awareness into their regular educational program.

As an alumna of this school, I recognize the power this institution has.

Green Mountain has had incredibly brave students stand up for equality and acceptance both in the past seeking equity for transgender students and today with the recent student-lead protests for racial justice. They want to change the world. Our town needs to give them the tools to do it.

Cheyénne Prescott was born in Massachusetts and raised in Vermont from the 1st through the 12th grade, discovering a passion for athletics and music. In 2014, she graduated from Green Mountain and was  accepted at Berklee College of Music in Boston, majoring in songwriting and voice. She graduated from Berklee in 2018 and, in 2019, moved to Los Angeles to continue to pursue her career as a songwriter and artist.
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  1. Keith Brown says:

    Ms Prescott,
    My professor at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester assigned your piece to her class on Restorative Practices. I so much appreciate your wisdom and courage, and thank you for sharing so that others might learn and benefit from your experiences.

  2. Katherine Leshchiner says:

    Thank you, Cheyénne, for your powerful words. I graduated from GMUHS in 2001 with barely any understanding of Black American history. As a case in point, I had not even heard of Juneteenth until a few years ago and only this year took the initiative to learn about the history of the holiday.

    To add to Barbara Howard’s suggestion, Teaching Tolerance is another excellent resource that could be incorporated into the curriculum at Green Mountain as well as Chester Andover. Here is the link to their lesson about Juneteenth and empancipation: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/teaching-juneteenth.

  3. Paulo Adams says:

    This was an amazingly powerful message to read. I graduated from GMUHS in 1984, myself. As Bryan Ballinger mentioned earlier, it was not very diverse back then. We did have a few students of color through my years there, and I have vivid memories now of ways, subtle and perhaps not so subtle, we definitely “othered” our schoolmates who didn’t share our skin tones. It was shameful then and horrifying to remember, now. I carry those memories and they instruct me how to talk to my 7 year old son about racism and how to treat all people with respect and compassion. And I do teach him that Black Lives Matter and why that distinction is so important today.

  4. Barbara Howard says:

    A big “Thank You” to Cheyenne for “giving back” to her community with this thought-provoking and nuanced essay. May I suggest a concrete action that could begin to address Cheyenne’s call for Chester to teach about racism?

    “Eyes on the Prize,” the gripping, alarming and ultimately inspiring PBS series speaks to the non-violent protests going on in the streets today. You can stream it for free, starting with the story of the lynching of young Emmett Till. It’s something individual families might consider watching, or something to watch as a community in the spirit of the “One Book, One Town” model. It is certainly something the Chester schools could consider incorporating into the curriculum. There’s an excellent study guide for parents and teachers. Here’s the link. (Scroll down for the videos): https://www.facinghistory.org/books-borrowing/eyes-prize-study-guide.

    p.s. My cousin Wendy Schwarz lives in Chester. I live in Newton, Mass., am a long-time NPR radio anchor, and worked on the “Eyes on the Prize” series.

  5. Jeanie Phillips says:

    Cheyenne, Thank you for sharing your experience and your wisdom! We all must do better to educate ourselves and our young people about racism and to equip them to be anti-racist. A question I urge every educator to consider is this: what kind of white students do we want to send off into the world? It brings me hope that there are young people like you in the world!

  6. Wendy Schwarz says:

    Dear Cheyenne
    Thank you for your words of experience and wisdom. You have done more than you may know in this heartfelt writing for the people of Chester. Your eloquent piece lays out the path for us to walk and the cause to be taken. One small but major step at a time.
    Keep up the true words.
    Sincerely, Wendy

  7. This was thoughtful, really well said, enlightening and a great call to action. Thanks so much for this. I graduated in ’86 and it wasn’t diverse then either.

  8. ANITA LEWIS says:

    Beautifully expressed my Great Niece. Proud of the women you have become. GOD’S Blessings to Your success. Love You!

  9. Katherine Henry says:

    Perfect, thank you.

  10. Lyza Gardner says:

    Cheyénne, thank you. You make a town proud.

  11. Lynn Behrendt says:

    Thank you for this article, Cheyenne, and for speaking out. I’m amazed that the school mascot is still the Chieftain. Many found it offensive decades ago. I graduated from GMUHS a long time ago, in 1976, and my son, Jake Carter, just graduated from Berklee. Maybe you know him. Best of luck to you on your musical pursuits in Los Angeles.

  12. Judy Verespy says:

    Cheyénne, that was beautifully written with a powerful and important message. I hope that schools throughout our state, and the whole country realize the importance of including anti-racism education in their curriculum! And I hope teachers, parents, coaches, authors, songwriters, television and movie producers also realize that racist attitudes are not only taught, they’re caught…at times unconsciously absorbed by impressionable minds. No longer can people who are not directly affected by racism afford to be ignorant of the cost of blithely ignoring or brushing off racists “jokes”, comments, biases or behavior. It is hurtful, stress-inducing and and even costing human lives. And that is something no one in our town, our state or our country should be okay with.

  13. Bob Furman says:

    Ms Cheyenne Prescott: I appreciated your thoughts on moving forward against racism. You made impactful points about your own experiences with racism in Chester. Then you put forward constructive ideas for the future and you stated that you are immensely proud of where you are from. We share that with you in such palpable ways. Those early years for so many are the hardest and most wonderful years of our lives. To live them in Chester and to be supported as you were is a special distinction. We were blessed to grow up here, as beautifully difficult as it can be. From one Chesterite to another, we’re proud that you call Chester your home town. We do have much to work on to better understand our own white privilege and its effects on people of color. Good on you for your willingness to openly discuss it with your home community.

  14. Kathy Bentley says:

    Cheyenne, well said. I was delighted when my Mom told me there was a BLM march in Chester. I was enrolled in GMUHS when the mascot of Chieftains was chosen. I was one of the few students who said it wasn’t appropriate. I never saw a non white person until I left and went to college. Delighted that you are a strong empowered young black woman.

  15. Betty McEnaney says:

    Cheyénne, thank you. Thank you for your honesty. Thank you for sharing the hurt and the struggles, yet through it all you have maintained your love of your hometown. I am hoping your words are shared far and wide and taken to heart by all. Thank you. May you find much success in your career (and should you ever change gears…school administration would benefit from your presence!)