I'm Resisting a Conversion Narrative

By Kelly Foster Lundquist. Manchester Academy 1989-1995


In the spring of 1989, six months before I entered Manchester Academy as a 7th grader, I went through three rounds of callback auditions to play Sissy Spacek’s daughter in the civil-rights-era film A Long Walk Home. Had I gotten the part, I would have missed my first three months of Manchester because of the film’s shooting schedule.


I did not get the part.


With my big brown eyes, brunette hair, and large features, I look just about as different from Sissy Spacek as it is possible for two white people to look. Thus, I began 7th grade at Manchester in August 1989 with everyone else—right alongside a few friends from the small Presbyterian school I had previously attended.


A Long Walk Home tells the story of the Montgomery bus boycott, largely through the perspective of its sympathetic white protagonist. In one of the film’s climactic scenes, Sissy Spacek’s character breaks from her disapproving white relatives in order to support her black maid, played by Whoopi Goldberg, in the fight against segregation. The film’s centering of white ally-ship over black activism fueled criticism even at the time of its release.


When I was still going through auditions for the part, my parents showed me the first six episodes of Eyes on the Prize so that I would have some historical context, not only for the film, but for the era, not too long past, in which schools like Manchester had originated.


My father, a Marriage and Family Therapist, was the clinical director of our county mental health center, a job which entailed helping people cope with the traumas of systemic racism in one of the most under-served regions of the United States. My father and my mother had also been active in the Jesus Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s, which involved, for them at least, advocating for racial equity in churches. They refused to join our local country club, which was where most of my friends swam every day throughout the summer, because that club wouldn’t admit black members.

They didn’t want to send me to Manchester.


I remember them sitting me down in our living room one night towards the end of sixth grade. “I don’t want you thinking everyone looks like you or thinks like you and has the same life experiences,” my mother said. She didn’t want me, in effect, going through a version of A Long Walk Home but in real life—where my parents’ white ally-ship was centered and black suffering remained frozen for me in amber, undisturbed by any actual relationships with living black people.

By the time my parents and I had that conversation, Manchester was entering its 20th year. Funding had been dramatically leached from our district’s public schools, as a result, over the course of those two decades. The fact that Manchester’s very existence caused that leaching I would not grasp until much later. But put in the position of choosing between two less than ideal choices—a nearly all-white academy or a vastly under-funded public school— my parents ultimately left it up to me.

Or at least that’s how I remember it thirty years later.

I chose Manchester because it seemed easier to continue attending school with people I knew and liked than venturing out among strangers, and all the kids I knew were going to Manchester. My family had moved frequently when I was younger. I’d been the new kid in class every year from kindergarten through fifth grade, which is when we’d finally settled in Yazoo City. The thought of leaving the first friends I’d ever been in school with for two uninterrupted, consecutive school years seemed too much for me to bear.

Regardless of who chose it—whether it was me or ultimately my parents who made the choice—I would always wish there was a way we could go back and un-choose it. Because Manchester would be a brutal place—for me and for both of my younger brothers, one of whom would also have to navigate Manchester’s brutality as a Queer kid in a small Southern town.

After our last class one day, one of the girls on the basketball team told me to carry her backpack to her locker for her because she didn’t feel like carrying it. I was so stunned by the casual cruelty of her demand that I actually did it. I carried her backpack at the end of every day for the next three months. Another group of girls asked to be invited to my house for a sleepover and then spent the following week at school making fun of me, my parents, my brothers, and my house. Yet another friend would tell a boy I liked about the time I’d unexpectedly gotten my period and hadn’t been wearing a pad, and there was a bloodstain on my pants I had to cover up with a sweater. When I walked into English class later that day, that boy shouted in front of the other 23 students, “Kelly’s disgusting!”

I wouldn’t find out why he’d said it for three days.


There were hundreds of other instances of bullying, and these were unfortunately some of the milder ones. But as a result of my experiences and those of my friends, I knew Manchester to be a place where difference of any sort was punished, where visible effort at anything other than sports was often openly mocked, where only a handful of students (at least in my class and the one ahead of my class) genuinely cared about academics.


I knew Manchester to be a place where physical symmetry, not intellect or kindness, was what gave girls currency, and where girls who passed out drunk at Friday night parties were abused in ways that were whispered about on Monday mornings with great amusement. I know that when adults who heard these whispers intervened that it was often the victims of the abuse who were pilloried instead of their abusers, in ways that several of those victims never got over.


I knew Manchester to be a place where drug and alcohol abuse ran rampant, even among the twelve and thirteen year old’s who began 7th grade with me. I knew Manchester to be a place where anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and addiction were common and often persisted untreated.


In other words, many of the subtly and not-so-subtly coded racist ills that Manchester’s founders believed they were shielding their children from by forming that school—loss of educational standards, violence, exposure to drugs—all those things happened anyway. And it should also not be surprising, I suppose, that in an institution founded on the desire to preserve a sameness tied to skin color that hierarchies elevating and reifying other kinds of sameness would then be enforced with severity. You may say that middle schools and high schools are always places where rigid social hierarchies exist, and there probably aren’t too many places where being pretty doesn’t make you more popular than not.


But having spent so much of my adult life in other places, I don’t think that the psychological and even at times physical enforcement of sameness was quite the same in other middle and high schools. I meet people all the time who went to school in other places and though many of them also fell outside perceived societal “norms” as middle and high schoolers, they don’t recollect those years as particularly damaging in the way I remember mine. Their yearbooks are littered with glowing comments. They didn’t develop an eating disorder in college or make a disastrous first marriage or drop out of graduate school (all of which things I did). And I’ve always felt when trying to explain to those friends why I do remember Manchester so negatively, I have often wondered if the reason Manchester felt so bad to me lies in its very origins. In other words, if you plant a poisoned seed, should you then be surprised when your tree bears poisoned fruit?


However, in the interest of painting a complete picture, I feel compelled to add that several gifted and lovely teachers and administrators changed my life in very positive ways while I was at Manchester (and afterwards), and I also formed some treasured life-long friendships there. Several kind adults also sought me out during those years—one took me out for a weekly breakfast at McDonald’s, another took me to operas and movies in Jackson, many bought me books and wrote me letters telling me not to let it all get to me.


They drove me to play practice and brought me back Playbills from trips to New York. Our town’s reference librarian, knowing I read biographies of old Hollywood actors obsessively and would let me know when a new Laurence Olivier or Marlon Brando book came in or when Leontyne Price’s Aida vinyl got updated. Several other adults also helped connect me with a thriving church youth group that kept me sane.


But none of those adults could go with me down the halls at Manchester in the mornings before class. None of those adults was with me in the locker room. None of those adults were watching what happened in the Texaco parking lot or at the Levee.


When I moved back home after a divorce in my mid-20’s, I was able to make peace with many of the people I’d found the most personally hurtful while at Manchester, many of whom had also endured grief and loss I had never known about. If anything, those positive relationships now mean even more to me considering the negative crucible in which they were formed. I could say so much about Manchester that it is honestly hard for me to marshal my thoughts as I write this. It’s a complicated place for me, one that’s taken me years of therapy and exposure to healthier environments as an adult to overcome.


In fact, during the first meeting with one of the therapists I saw on the heels of my divorce, the first thing I began to unpack with her was not the pain of grappling with my husband’s infidelity or the grief of losing that relationship, but Manchester—how my years at Manchester had taught me to believe I wasn’t worth loving. Despite the many positive influences I’d also had, I had carried that deep belief about myself around like that 7th grader’s backpack for fifteen years.


For all its personal damage, I think it was also my very positioning as an outsider while at Manchester that has made interrogating my complicity in racist systems most difficult as an adult. Because when it came to race, at least, I always saw myself as incredibly progressive by contrast to most of my white peers. I saw myself as an outsider in the kind of racism I felt even at the time to be foundational to Manchester’s very existence.

Because unlike most of my friends at Manchester, my family had black guests at dinner and birthday parties. My parents sent me to acting class and drama workshops in Jackson where I made black friends. In other words, despite the fact that I attended a school that was 99.4% white, situated between a cotton field and a federal housing project, I felt I was exempt from any complicity in racist systems because I felt conflicted about going there, and I felt I was a nice white person who’d read some books and watched some movies about African-American history and counted among my friends a small number of black students who were also enrolled in acting classes at New Stage Theater.

Bad white people, I thought, at least when it came to public discourse about race, still venerated the Lost Cause of the Confederacy either with tacky bumper stickers or patrician nostalgia about the “War of Northern Aggression.” I was never either kind of white person, and because of that, I assumed I was good.

But much like the difficult legacy of Manchester, the fact that I was not as good as I thought I was would take me years to process—among so many other possible examples of that lack of goodness: the fact that once I felt surprised in college when a black friend of mine expressed a firm preference for Cottonelle toilet paper over Charmin or when I found out another black friend could recite Monty Python and the Holy Grail better than I could. Because despite those few early friendships, my images of black interior life remained for me almost entirely defined by my cinematic exposure to their suffering. The fact that they might have mundane preferences about toilet paper or an affinity for British comedy of the 1970’s had entirely escaped me. The reductive human flattening required for me to feel that surprise was itself a kind of proto-racism.

I don’t really know how to end this.

I know white Americans are inexorably bound to our collective myth of eternal progress. I’m sure I am no exception. Therefore, I’m resisting the urge to wrap this all up like a conversion narrative. I once was lost, but now I’m found and all that. I don’t know if that’s how this sort of accounting works. I think I’ve learned a lot better how not to define people by any “single story,” to borrow Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s beautiful phrasing. That’s something. I think I’ve become better at shutting up and listening when people of color speak. That’s something. My vocation at an urban community college just outside the Twin Cities involves actively combating the academic opportunity gap between white students and students of color where I now live in Minnesota (that gap is one of the largest in the United States), and as a result of that, I’m becoming increasingly vocal in my (imperfect and incomplete) efforts to be not just a nice white person but an active anti-racist. That’s something.

But no one comes out clean from racist systems, and in that, I am certain I am no exception. Segregated schools remain in place throughout the United States (at higher levels now than in the 1960’s), so the work is far from done. To borrow from Faulkner, along with several of the other writers at this site, the past is not past. Therefore, I am glad that the Academy Stories project aims to be an ongoing one. Because if one of the central tasks here is to examine what Mississippi could have looked like had the Council Schools and Mississippi Private School Association schools never come to be, then those examinations could prove instructive in making the future more equitable, not just in Mississippi, but in the United States.

After all, it is one of the questions that’s haunted me since that spring of 1989 when I was still hoping to be cast in a movie that might have given me a way out: What if I hadn’t gone to Manchester?

Kelly Foster Lundquist teaches writing and literature at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. A former Milton Fellow at Image Journal, she is now completing her first book length memoir, Girl at The End of Boystown.

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