The currently enrolled students of the Girard College Upper School have had our futures ripped up from under our feet. We have resolved to fight this decision with whatever tools possible — not merely because it affects us, but also because the it blatantly disregards a dead man’s will.
The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.
Twenty-thousand strong they marched down the chapel aisle at graduation, in steel and garnet robes that draped from their shoulders like folded wings. And though they represented several generations of the school’s history, each person had a head full of knowledge and a body healthy and ready for reality.
Those first steps out into a world blighted by war and corruption — yet equally gilded with hope and beauty — are perhaps the most terrifying we will ever take in our lives, because we realize in that moment we will never again be held safe within the stone walls of Girard College.
But these sensations will never be felt in the hearts of nearly 200 students — we, the current Girard College generation: a melting pot of individualists, politicians, lawyers, musicians, artists, future Olympic Gold Medalists and Supreme Overlords of the World (humanity willing). We have spent our young years toiling at an institution synonymous with that humane intimation of “home.” He have been forging lives with help, love and advice from teachers, residential advisors and counselors — all parents to us, of a kind. For every brick composing Girard’s grand walls, there is a story of a child finding solace.
However, following from the decision of the Board of Directors of City Trusts of Philadelphia, the currently enrolled students of the Girard College Upper School have had our futures ripped up from under our feet. Citing the school’s declining fiscal stability, the Board has settled upon a “solution” that will eliminate the high school and residential aspects of the school upon the start of the 2014-2015 school year. Every student in 9th through 12th grades at the time of this change would essentially be robbed of the privilege of a Girard College diploma.
Barbarians at the gates
Girard College is a boarding school in the heart of North Philadelphia. Its sprawling, 43-acre campus houses 1st through 12th grade, academically outstanding students from financially disadvantaged, single-parent homes. For many students currently enrolled, Girard has been their “home away from home” since they were children. Growing up within the gated community, they have forged lifelong bonds, tattooing themselves onto the hearts of students and adults alike. Imagine the shock when the Board of City Trusts made it explicit that they planned to tear these individuals away from the home they had poured their souls into.
Naturally, the student body wasn’t having it. Amidst a maelstrom of grief and outrage, we began to organize an opposition. It began with a flurry of letters — to journalists, politicians, and some of the household names of American wealth. (Oprah, god love ya, if only Girard was in your studio audience. You could point to us and shout: “You win a graduation!”)
This gradually progressed to a joint effort of students and alumni, culminating in an impassioned protest on the final day of classes. Students, alumni, and even teachers joined forces at the head of the campus, brandishing signs with declarations such as “Girard College saved me. That’s why I’m fighting to save Girard!” — and imploring passing drivers to “Honk for Girard.” But in the following days, many students fell back into the pools of grief for which anger is only a momentary antidote.
Reginald Morgan, a rising freshman, wrote to me one evening that the “highlight of Girard is being able to meet and bond with many new people each year.” This is the familial paradigm of being a Girardian. If the school plays out the proposed changes, Reggie, who has been advancing quickly through the ranks of Boy Scouts, may not have a troop in the next year or two. The hard work he has put into his journey to Eagle may be for nothing.
Stories like this echo throughout campus. Girard is full of students who have found their respective niches. What will happen to their work when the clubs and activities in which they excel suddenly cease to exist? More importantly, what will happen when their school ceases to exist?
Many students will be forced to enroll in their neighborhood public schools — schools with track records of violence and negligence. They will be released into a school district wracked with fiscal problems, whose rampant layoffs will eliminate, for instance, counselors, the very people who might ease the transition. We are Girard College students, raised on Girard College ethics — ethics that were bred in a gated community. Do you think those ethics will stand up in public school?
For some students, Girard’s residential program is their savior from the horrors lurking in their very own homes. Philadelphia is no utopia, and several Girard students are from the most crime-ridden areas, from households ripped apart by poverty or abuse. If the residential program ends, students will be thrown to the dogs, with nothing better to defend themselves with than the fading vestiges of the Girard College Core Values.
We are resolved
Tears have been shed in the last few weeks, but rising slowly from this sadness is a resolution: We will graduate. The students of Girard College have resolved to fight this decision with whatever tools possible — not merely because it affects us, but also because the it blatantly disregards a dead man’s will.
Our founder, Stephen Girard, is famous for the statement: “My deeds must be my life.” Indeed, his life of philanthropy has immortalized him in history as one of the most compassionate and giving men ever to walk the face of the earth. In establishing the College, Girard set thousands of future students on a path to success where they might have met only destruction. It is our goal as Girardians to ensure that this legacy is not shredded.
But we cannot do it alone. Often students are told to stay in a child’s place — to leave the decisions to the adults, because they know what’s best. The adults in this situation have proven just the opposite. Entrusted with keeping Girard’s legacy alive, entrusted with the futures of every student of the college, the Board of City Trusts has a duty to ensure that Girardians continue to march down that chapel aisle as high school graduates of a residential school. But they will not listen to us.
There is strength in numbers. This is not a task that can be completed with scattered blasts of sound. We need an uproar, a tumultuous swell of voices, to urge the board to reverse their decision. And if they do not, then we must convince the Orphan’s Court to refuse their proposal.
Even though the board has recently announced that the Class of 2015, my class, will graduate with a Girard College diploma, one thing is certain. When I took office as student body president, the one thing I promised my brother and sister students was that I would be returning for the next five years and embracing every one of them as they stumbled down the aisle, eyes stinging with tears of joy and grief, whispering into their ears, “You did it.”
I want to be able to congratulate my family on becoming the one thing that the world seemed hell-bent on preventing them from becoming: Girard graduates.
Brandon Dixon is a student at Girard College, class of 2015, and student body president.