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Educating the Head, Heart, and Hands: Life Lessons from Piney Woods School

Be Sure to Watch the Upcoming Hulu Documentary about Piney Woods School!

Piney Woods School Flyer
Hulu Flyer

It was the summer of 1992 when Granny said to me, "I want you to attend Piney Woods Country Life School." I had no idea what that was, but I certainly did not want to find out. My admission essay, which I wrote half-heartedly at her instruction, was a window into my experience grappling with the absence of my mother, stepdad, and uncle, all away at war, leaving a void during Christmas. It was a raw reflection that somehow paved my way to Piney Woods, Mississippi (thirty minutes outside of Jackson)—a place I was dragged to, kicking and screaming, marking my first real departure from everything I'd ever known.

Prom Night '94
1994 Senior Prom

Piney Woods was not just a school; it was a microcosm of the world.

I never imagined that this school, which I was petrified to attend, would morph from what I thought was a school for bad kids (even though I hadn't gotten into any trouble) to an experience that remains a part of the fabric of who I am. The school was a melting pot, with classmates ranging from African royalty to inhabitants of Cabrini Green—the very place that birthed the legend of Candyman. My world expanded, from grooving to house music with kids from Chicago to unraveling the rich tapestry of Africa beyond the limiting narratives of commercials. I shared classrooms with the children of celebrities and farmers alike, learning early on the invaluable skill of connecting with people from all walks of life.

And the food - we knew about farm-to-table before it was a trend. Yes, I'm dating myself here, but our school lunches were legit cooked from scratch, thanks to our own working farm. Eggs, meat, veggies - you name it, we probably grew it. I remember one student (I won't call you out if you read this) risking life and limb by diving to save some of Mrs. Sias' homemade yeast rolls from hitting the floor.

We worked hard and played hard too.

Piney Woods’ work-study program instilled in us a profound sense of responsibility and work ethic. The school's tuition was income-based, but no matter what your tuitions was, everyone had to be assigned a work-study job. Whether tending to the farm that provided our cafeteria or assisting teachers—our tasks were designed not only to contribute to our tuition but to equip us with practical skills and a deeper appreciation for the value of our education. This hands-on approach to learning, coupled with the disciplined structure of segregated classes, Saturday schools for misconduct, and the Shooting Stars program for academic encouragement, sculpted a college preparatory experience that was rigorous yet nurturing.

But it wasn’t all work; Piney Woods knew how to blend education with joy. From swimming pools to campus stores, horseback riding to town trips, and student union gatherings for movies and dances, life at Piney Woods was rich with experiences that prepared me for college life at an HBCU. (Jackson State University!) These moments of fun and community were as pivotal to our growth as any classroom lesson, teaching us independence and embedding a deep sense of love and unity among us. And while I won't share the details here, we figured out how to make our own fun, too. (NSP 4 Life! ;-)

Ready to be a date for a Beautillion
1994 Beautillion

Piney Woods deepened my love for music.

As soon as I arrived at the school, I tried out for the choir. That's right, tried out. Everyone was not allowed to join the Cotton Blossom Singers, led by Dr. Lindy G. McLeod. I was not only allowed to join, I was also added to the coveted sextet, which made the new girl a target. Nothing too bad happened, and I eventually made friends with my classmates and peers in choir. Being a part of the elite, Superior-rated Cotton Blossom Singers deepened my love for music and taught me a number of skills:

  • I learned how to read music and sing well, a skill that got me a free ride for my first year of college and a partial scholarship for the remaining years. (I switched schools.) I wonder if I could still diagram the circle of fifths...

  • It taught me how to "jones" or "rank" with the best of them. I was tall, skinny, and sweet, and that often made me a target. For the most part, it was all in good fun and no one really held a grudge. But it made me quick and sharp, and if you sent for me, I was coming hard for you.

  • It taught me teamwork. We sung together for hours, whether it was the entire choir, the girls choir, or the sextet, in order to learn how to blend. We heard the word blend so much, most of us hated to say it. But my goodness was our sound unmatched. I still know many of the songs we sang and would sing my part today if I had the chance.

  • I was able to travel to places I might have never seen. One Thanksgiving, we were asked to tour California. I got to sing from the "Dog Pound" on The Arsenio Hall Show, at the church that MC Hammer attended, at a popular radio show, and at another private school in the California Valley. It was a beautiful experience.

  • I experienced the rewards of hard work. Nothing felt like more of an honor than to hear our school's name called out when noting the superior-rated performances, and that was just about at every competition we entered.

Piney Woods School left an indelible mark on my heart.

The heart of Piney Woods, however, was its teachers. They were more than educators; they were mentors, guiding us with a blend of rigor and warmth that made us not only reach for the high standards set before us but also aspire to embody them. They reinforced the values of honor, integrity, and respect—principles my family held dear, now deepened and expanded in this new, shared family.

As I reflect on my time at Piney Woods, I recognize it as a cornerstone of my identity—not just as a scholar, but as a person. The lessons learned within its embrace extend beyond academic excellence and encompass the importance of community. It was here that I found an extended family for life, a bond unbroken by time or distance, a testament to the school’s enduring legacy of cultivating African American educational excellence. I graduated with honors in 1994. Leaving Piney Woods, I carried with me more than just academic accolades or the Honor Society induction. To be from Piney Woods is to belong to an everlasting family, where alumni are instantly kin, united by our journey through this unique institution.

I'm glad my Granny insisted I attended Piney Woods. In a world where the narratives of "boarding school experiences" and the foundational values of "life lessons from boarding school" are increasingly relevant, Piney Woods School's story is a reminder of the profound impact education can have on shaping the future. As a proud alumnus, I am a living testament to the transformative power of Piney Woods, a sacred soil from which I've grown, flourished, and continue to reach for the stars.

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