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Pride and pressure at prestigious Boston Latin

This photo and quote display, an explanatory panel says, was “designed to show that BLS students embrace their diversity.”
This photo and quote display, an explanatory panel says, was “designed to show that BLS students embrace their diversity.”Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Lynn Bashir and Miren Parkinson hunch over an empty notebook in Boston Latin School’s massive library, laboring to devise a compelling argument for a humanities assignment.

It’s a tough project, and Bashir is helping her friend.

Bashir is black and lives in Roslindale. Parkinson is white and from Dorchester. They, along with a friend who is Cuban and Salvadoran, are part of a cultural mosaic in a historic school scarred by recent episodes of racism.

Latin — the nation’s oldest public school — is a place of vaulting aspirations, an exam school that occupies a singular spot in the city’s civic pantheon. More than anything, students talk about the pressure-cooker academic environment and the pursuit of greatness.

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But in the past few weeks, the school has also become a symbol for the city’s unhealed racial wounds. It started with students’ complaints that administrators were slow to respond to the use of racial epithets at the school, and has since led US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz to investigate allegations at the school.

Molly O’Halloran (left) did geometry homework and Nora Davis read a book for English. Students speak often about the school’s pressure-cooker academic environment.
Molly O’Halloran (left) did geometry homework and Nora Davis read a book for English. Students speak often about the school’s pressure-cooker academic environment.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The developments have stunned Latin School, exposed a shrinking black enrollment, and forced administrators to pledge that the school’s racial climate will improve. Much like the world outside the school’s neoclassical walls, the climate at Boston Latin is not immune from racial and cultural indignities, large or small.

“There is discrimination at BLS just like there is discrimination in every other school in the country,” says Brendan Maguire, a senior from West Roxbury. “We have the courage to talk about it. We have no problem questioning what others have tried to keep silent.”

In the lunchroom, in the gym, and in the library where Bashir and Parkinson work on their humanities assignment, no obvious signs of racial tension can be seen.

True, here and there, white students cluster together, Asian students cluster together. For the most part, though, blacks and whites, Hispanics, and Asians are all jammed together in the age-old ritual of adolescents eating and preening.

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Bashir and Parkinson — both 17 and the first in their families to attend Boston Latin — are trying to make it to senior year. The juniors bonded while they were “sixies,” a nickname for seventh-graders. They connected in homeroom and over art and music lessons. They lean on each other. Competition can be brutal at Latin.

Neither has been directly affected by racial tensions at the school. But they know those tensions exist. Sometimes, Parkinson sees racially offensive tweets from students.

“I’m kind of horrified by seeing some things like that,” she says one afternoon amid a crush of students. “I don’t understand it personally.”

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From the sprawling campus to the high expectations, Latin School feels like the Ivy League. Set on Avenue Louis Pasteur near the Longwood Medical Area, the building sits in a cradle of intellect and culture, amid museums and colleges.

The school resounds with the ghosts of the past. The smell of old paper lingers in the foyer. The opulent stone stairway has been smoothed by thousands of footsteps.

The roster of notable graduates, including five signers of the Declaration of Independence, inspires deep reservoirs of love and historical pride.

A Globe reporter and photographer were allowed unprecedented access to Boston Latin, one of the city’s three exam schools.

The weeklong visit — which included interviews with about 60 students and two dozen teachers, staff, administrators, and alumni — came in February, as racial tensions swirled.

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Senior Solomon Taieb was the first in his family to attend Boston Latin. “I was trained to be a learning machine,” he said.
Senior Solomon Taieb was the first in his family to attend Boston Latin. “I was trained to be a learning machine,” he said.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

IN ROOM 114, members of BLS BLACK, which stands for Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge, gather to practice for their Black History Month showcase.

It was their social justice campaign highlighting racial insensitivity at the school that landed Latin back in the headlines.

Black alumni are promising to come in droves to the event. And the club wants to give them a great show.

The members are mostly girls, and they had been discussing racial issues long before the ongoing controversy erupted.

Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta has agreed to meet with them, in her second sit-down since the year began. In-school dialogues have begun to address a better racial climate. And the showcase — their biggest ever — is just days away.

Club members form a circle. Three recite Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird.”

Meggie Noel, a senior from Roslindale who helped spark a social media dialogue on race, steps forward and leads another performance that challenges racial stereotypes. Her voice is resolute.

“This is a PSA announcement,” she reads. “This is the one and only time when we will ever explain why we are all ABSOLUTELY an angry person of color.”

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Walking along a hallway one morning, Maria Morel, a 17-year-old Latina from Mattapan, pauses near the portraits of headmasters hanging from the auditorium’s frieze.

“They tell us that if we work hard,” she says, “one day our name will be up there, too.”

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Latin School has come a long way since the days when old headmasters warned new arrivals to look to their left or to their right: One of you won’t be around when the year ends.

Today, the school has psychologists, nurses, and guidance counselors. But it’s not always enough.

“It feels, like, overwhelming,” says Alyssa Exum, a 15-year-old from Dorchester, rushing to class, beads of sweat pocking her brow.

The mantra drilled into students: Work hard, and we’ll get you to college. They develop regimented routines — rise early, take six intense classes, study into the night.

Tucked in a corner of the lunchroom is Solomon Taieb, a senior from Charlestown surrounded by other seniors — blacks and whites. They are typical Latin School boys, on their way to somewhere.

He’s the first in his family to attend Boston Latin, where two of his younger siblings are also students.

Malcolm Flynn is an assistant headmaster at the school.
Malcolm Flynn is an assistant headmaster at the school. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

His parents emigrated from Paris in 1996 and came to Boston with just $1,500. When his mother found out Latin School is free and elite, she knew she had to get her children there. She got them ready for the Independent School Entrance Exam by fifth grade.

“I was trained to be a learning machine,” Taieb says.

In his inner circle, he has friends of every color, bonding over a shared struggle and purpose. The way he sees it, whatever racial disharmony exists at Latin is symptomatic of something larger.

“It’s not the school; it’s the way society is,” he says. “I don’t want them to think this is a racist school. I love this school.”

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The hallways vibrate with students in grades seven through 12. Two by two, four by four, they savor the moment. Hallway time is precious time, a rare respite from the intensity of learning.

Purple lockers open and close with a clank. A bell rings, and students, bent over with laden backpacks, scramble.

They head to Peter Sullivan’s humanities class, where students debate a World War II movie. In Kamissa Barry’s English class, they decipher Homer.

On the opposite side of the building, the 62 members of the string orchestra sit elbow to elbow. Some of the violinists in hoodies are so small they crane their necks over their music stands while the teacher talks.

It’s a tough lesson, the finale of Handel’s “The Water Music.”

“Up and up!” music teacher Susan Shipley tells them in a lyrical voice. The students raise their elbows high.

The sound sharpens, then turns gentle.

Soon, sweet calming music drifts down the halls.

Kamissa Barry taught his ninth-grade English class about Homer.
Kamissa Barry taught his ninth-grade English class about Homer. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

DURING THIS WEEK, a shaken school contends with a torrent of damaging news.

Two seniors had taken to YouTube to fault the school’s administration for doing little to clamp down on students using racially offensive language. They had also urged fellow students to share their own stories of racism at the school. A school department investigation determined the headmaster failed to fully address a threat made against a black student.

In a symbol of the school’s resolve, a photo montage appears on a brick wall across from the main office. Portraits depict black boys in thick glasses, Asian boys in spiky haircuts, groups of students beaming. “We. Are. BLS.” That is the message on the wall.

Just down the hall, the school’s quote of the day is displayed in the main lobby.

“Boston Latin has kept faith with its remarkable history and purpose: It still provides an exacting, classically based education. For me, a black boy who literally came from the wrong side of the tracks, the school held out the promise of success,” reads this day’s quote.

The quote goes unremarked upon — until someone affixes it to the classroom door of a white teacher.

Judi Freeman teaches a class called Facing History and Ourselves that provokes critical thinking on racial issues. She knows the author of the quote, Lee Daniels, a 1967 Latin graduate and journalist. He had penned a 1985 homage to his alma mater in The New York Times.

At some point, a student stops to read the quote and takes a picture, later posted on Facebook: “What say you? Currently posted outside of a teacher’s class.”

Outrage pours in from students and alumni who say the quote sends a message to students of color to be grateful they’re at Boston Latin.

Driving home that afternoon, Freeman gets a text from a former student who expresses dismay after seeing the Facebook post: What’s this all about?

Freeman’s mind races. “What’s wrong with the quote?” she thinks.

The next morning, she returns to school and posts a lengthy explanation on her door. Given the heightened sensitivity around race at the school, she says she understands how the quote could be misconstrued.

She prides herself on being able to grapple with thorny social issues in her classes. She just did not see this one coming.

“If anyone was upset by that quote,” she writes, “I sincerely apologize.”

From left, BLS BLACK members Meggie Noel, Kylie Webster-Cazeau, and Avi Vasquez gathered for a meeting.
From left, BLS BLACK members Meggie Noel, Kylie Webster-Cazeau, and Avi Vasquez gathered for a meeting.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

BEHIND THE CLOSED doors of a first-floor conference room, Teta, the headmaster, holds court with about three dozen student leaders. The meeting is part of her push to develop a way to routinely include student input in improving the school’s racial climate.

Teta has pledged to work with the district to hire more black and Latino teachers in the next academic year. Latin School’s faculty of teachers and guidance counselors includes eight Latinos, nine Asians, and 20 blacks. The remaining 88 are white, school data show.

The 47-year-old Teta has cropped hair, intense eyes, and a wardrobe of scarves. Latin School is her alma mater. She has been headmaster the past nine years. Her two children attend the school.

Around the building, she is known by her initials, LMT.

During the week observed by the Globe, Teta was in defense mode. The NAACP demanded her resignation. She issued a public apology for not doing enough to address racial hostilities. She met with community members and faculty. And the school department canceled a lengthy interview with the Globe, although a 15-minute interview was granted.

Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta has resisted calls to step down amid accusations that she and other administrators were slow to respond to the use of racial epithets at the school.
Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta has resisted calls to step down amid accusations that she and other administrators were slow to respond to the use of racial epithets at the school.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Now, Teta is sitting in a conference room surrounded by students. Her back faces a glass case filled with old yearbooks. Members of BLS BLACK, including Noel and Kylie Webster-Cazeau — who had joined Noel in the social media campaign about race — are there.

“We are not going to brainstorm,” says Jim Levesque, who trains students to be leaders. “We are going to brain-write.”

The students look on quizzically.

Thao Ho, a member of the Vietnamese student group and the Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence, urges dialogue that engages the entire student body. She would like to see Asian students better represented in conversations about race.

Asians and whites make up nearly 80 percent of the student population. Just 9 percent are black, and 12 percent are Hispanic.

The students say Latin should be a more welcoming place for everyone. Twenty-seven percent of students are from families who accept food stamps, Medicaid, and other forms of government assistance, school data show.

Teta begins writing down the students’ suggestions:

Better school community

Rethink history curriculum

Safe haven for students

.   .   .

Betty Davis is a towering figure in a colorful top and long skirt. She has stumped her students by asking them to figure out a hand trick to easily determine trigonometric functions of acute angles.

The veteran math teacher circles the room. The students scramble for the solution.

Davis mixes hard lessons with a soft heart. She has nurtured so many students through the years, she can’t keep count. In today’s class, she hands them paper to map out the answer — paper, she says, that is older than they are.

Like many other faculty members, Davis wants to give the headmaster a chance to work things out. She acknowledges there are problems.

“But you can’t tell me that it’s worse than when my kids were in school and they were throwing rocks at the buses,” she says.

Still, the issues being raised by students are hitting at the core of Latin. In a classroom one afternoon, about 90 faculty and staff gather to show the Globe reporter their support for Teta.

“I cry in my heart when I see what is being done to her. It hurts. And I think it’s wrong,” says George Carroll, one of the teachers.

In between classes one day, English teacher Lynn Burke points to the public show of support from faculty and staff, parents and alumni for Teta. Why, she wonders, hasn’t there been similarly broad backing for the female students who sparked the soul-searching?

“It’s tense at this school right now,” says Burke, an alum and teacher for 15 years. “For everyone to start publicly supporting the headmaster instead of engaging in the actual problem at hand is maybe some misguided energy.”

Ashley Kelsey (right) and Samaya Hasberry relaxed at their rehearsal for the Black History Month showcase.
Ashley Kelsey (right) and Samaya Hasberry relaxed at their rehearsal for the Black History Month showcase.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

THE THEME FOR this year’s Black History Month show is “a blast to the past and back.”

The show will include spoken-word presentations, a hymn from the gospel choir, a routine by the school’s Step Squad.

The students have taken their practice to the massive auditorium.

Noel calls out directions, getting things in order, including her own spoken-word presentation.

Webster-Cazeau is on stage going over a dance routine to the tune of the popular hit “Mama Africa.” She steps, she dips, she rocks in the lead. She stops.

“Again, from the top,” she says.

Finally, the evening of the show arrives. Stewart Amas, a 17-year-old from Mattapan, scans the audience, which includes many former students, some making their first trip back to the school.

He loves this school and felt he was destined for Boston Latin since his days at the Ohrenberger School in West Roxbury.

All eyes are on him now as he stands on stage. He’s wearing a red dashiki. It’s good to have the alumni back in the school, he says.

It’s good to be following in their footsteps.

The audience applauds, and the curtain opens.

French teacher Jessica Blackler was among the approximately 90 teachers, administrators, and staff members who stayed after school to voice their support for Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta.
French teacher Jessica Blackler was among the approximately 90 teachers, administrators, and staff members who stayed after school to voice their support for Headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @MeghanIrons.