Bridging a Bay of Privilege

February 21, 2019

As the Marin Academy senior class of 2002 walked across the classically black stage to accept their high school diplomas, fitted with graduation caps sporting logos of the country’s most prestigious colleges and cheered on by hollering friends and family members, Sanjai Moses proudly accepted her bachelor’s degree at age 27 from the New College of California, 20 miles away from Marin Academy in the mission district of San Francisco.

“To us, it felt like a mountain. It felt like we had climbed a mountain,” says Sanjai.

I’d bet any sum of money that 95 percent of the Marin Academy class of 2002 graduated from their college or university four years later, with the same hooting and hollering cheerleaders in the stands.

With 71 percent white students, 70 percent Marin County residents (nationally ranked as the fifth wealthiest county in the U.S.), a 100 percent graduation rate for every senior class, and ⅔ of the faculty holding advanced degrees, Marin Academy often needs a bit of a reality check. The school needs to be reminded that perception is deceptive; what we think may not be true in reality. In our beautifully criss-crossed, individuating, and hyper-evolutionary world of today, it rarely is.

That valuable and universal truth is at the core of Marin Academy’s two year Human Development curriculum, through which students examine their beliefs about complex social subjects (which are what really matter in this human life, anyways, right?) such as gender identity, sexual health, drug usage, and many more.

Thankfully, the seemingly privileged Marin Academy students also learn about socioeconomic status and the dark underbelly of money-related topics such as “The American Dream” and widespread income inequality.

The sophomore curriculum is diving into the socioeconomic status unit this week, starting with a film following two high schools on opposite sides of the old “high line” tracks in New York City. One school has abundant materials and a predominantly white student body, similar to Marin Academy. The other is poorly resourced and mostly students of color. Sanjai informs her upperclassmen teacher’s assistants during a weekly prep meeting that towards the end of the film viewers find out that a cheerful boy leading the camera crew around his disenfranchised school has killed himself. With clarity, Sanjai exhaled: “It shows the complexity of life.”

Key definitions for the socioeconomic status unit are on display in the Hum Dev room in order to create a common dialogue for open conversation, always abiding by the community norms.

Sanjai, with her urban energy and social-justice oriented mind, recognizes that not only is life complex, but individuals, themselves, are mosaics made up of tile chips from their experiences, positive or negative. In this vein, she sees through the privileged facade of Marin Academy: “There are other kids who are on financial aid, who are like ‘I’m hungry. Do you have a granola bar?’ And I’m like, I can relate.”

Growing up, Sanjai was always on welfare and fed with food stamps. She grew up attending rallies and marches with her lesbian, gay-rights activist, single mother. But perhaps moving out at age 14, following suit of her sister who moved out at age 12, was when Sanjai’s internal sensor for injustice of any kind first truly illuminated.

One concern that comes to mind when remembering her transition to solo-living as a young teen was her pet fish: “I had a fish…cause I was 14. and I was like “where am I gonna put my fish?!,” Sanjai laughed.

She didn’t get dinner cooked for her every night in her closet-sized rental room in the lower Haight; she went to friends for that. She didn’t have her biological father’s support, either; she went to a loving gay couple who Sanjai always considered to be her “gay dads” for that. Their eventual HIV positive diagnosis and subsequent decline would flicker her internal injustice sensor and ultimately inspire the health activist inside of her.

Sanjai headed straight into health education work in a post-AIDS crisis in San Francisco after high school, simultaneously accumulating college-credits. It would take nine years for food and social needs to be stable enough to complete a bachelor’s degree and arrive at Marin Academy.

Sanjai was led to a full-time job at MA through a series of small yet auspicious signs. MA called the non-profit Sanjai worked for to give an assembly about HIV prevention. The old Hum Dev teacher was leaving. To top it off, Joani Lacey, a friend of Sanjai’s at the time and another current staple of the Marin Academy community, had just become MA’s new counselor. Marin Academy wanted Sanjai, but being used to working at juvenile halls and lockdown facilities, she wasn’t so sure a clean and affluent Marin school was her place: “I was like ‘Dang! This place is nice!’ And they were like ‘would you like a water bottle?’ And all this stuff. So fancy. And just, not my jam, you know? And I had a lot of stereotypes about Marin.”

Sanjai experienced exactly the kind of identity-questioning that students talk about in Hum-Dev: To belong or not to belong. It wasn’t that she looked down upon MA’s privilege, she just didn’t know how she fit into it.

But the job was simply too good to turn down. It offered a much higher salary than she was receiving at the non-profit and full benefits, including medical care — something Sanjai never had before being hired to teach at MA. Lastly, the job at MA also offered something that was unknown to Sanjai at the time: perspective.

“I’ve learned so much and gained so much from the community here. It’s been a really good life lesson for me, to be careful about judging people. And I think it’s a tenement of this class (Hum Dev), you know? Sometimes what you see is not always what is there.”

Today, a rainbow flag, an “I heart consent” poster, and many others coat Sanjai’s Hum Dev classroom in an ultra-liberal sheen. Sanjai, as far as anyone can tell, is the bedrock of MA, someone who crochets the values of the school with her own hands. In the students’ eyes, she’s representative of the institution at large.

The classic Hum Dev classroom, equipped with comfortable seating, supportive posters, and a Sanjai at work.

But, like everything else learned in Hum Dev, Sanjai’s place in this community is more layered than that: “I’ve been here for 17 years, and I almost feel like I’ve become acculturated into this culture, like I almost am one of you. Even though, I’m not. You know? And like, I do feel very welcome here, and I feel like this is my community, and I feel like I belong here. But, there are many moments throughout my day where I’m reminded I’m not like you guys…”

She smiled, adjusted her bohemian, bespeckled glasses, and asked her students to wait a minute before filing into the comfortable classroom so that I could pick up my things. They need her. The school needs Sanjai Moses, Department Chair of Human Development and Dean of Multicultural life, just as profoundly as a blind person needs a cane: We’d be visionless without her.

Unsuspectingly, she needs us, too.

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