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Daniel Rubin: Germantown Friends graduate shares cultural leap through film

Germantown Friends School seemed a strange and magical place to 14-year-old Andre Robert Lee. Never before had people picked him to be on their basketball team.

Germantown Friends School seemed a strange and magical place to 14-year-old Andre Robert Lee. Never before had people picked him to be on their basketball team.

He was a lousy athlete. Still is, he says. But in that GFS summer program in 1983, the players, local kids, could score bonus points if they knew how to use the word of the day from their readings.

And Lee - a soft, heavyset teen with glasses who loved to look out the window of his rowhouse at 10th and Dakota and dream - found himself a star.

At the end of the summer, a teacher who ran the program asked him if he'd consider applying to the Quaker school. Lee was stunned.

"It was so green and beautiful," he says. "I didn't know it was a school."

He took a test and soon was accepted for the fall, chosen as a Community Scholar, a program for talented minority students who couldn't afford tuition. GFS would cost him nothing.

But his education was not free. The price of fitting in became the subject of a documentary Lee has spent six years making. The film is called The Prep School Negro, after the archaic label Lee found in a 1964 mission statement GFS wrote for the program for black students.

The film's title might suggest Lee experienced a subtle but grinding racism at the school, where he was one of a few black students. That wasn't the case. He found his fellow students at GFS - where my own children later went - to be tolerant.

But the world Lee entered was so different from his own that he experienced a deep sense of loneliness, of not belonging, either at school or at home.

"In order for me to be successful, I felt I had to let go of who I was and be more like them," he says, sitting on the porch of the rowhouse in West Oak Lane where his mother lived her last years.

Lee is 40 now, with flecks of white in his beard and close-cropped hair. He wears horn-rims and a T-shirt that says "Morristown Beard," one of 140 private schools and colleges where he's spoken to students about his experience as a poor kid from North Philadelphia exposed to D.H. Lawrence and Gilbert and Sullivan.

He owns the comfy rowhouse with his older sister, but hasn't lived in Philadelphia since graduation in 1987. After earning degrees at Connecticut College and Tufts, Lee moved to the East Village, where he has worked behind the scenes in television and film.

Lee came to town this week to show an early version of his film and talk about the world-straddling experience of minority students at elite private schools.

The newest version of his film is much more personal. It bores into his fractured home life - the garment-worker mother who had trouble expressing her love, the garbage-collector father who left when Lee was 9, the sister who felt that Lee abandoned the family for his new school and friends.

He expanded his work on the advice of a fellow GFS alum, Nathaniel Kahn, whose 2003 film, My Architect, portrayed his own efforts to understand his world-famous father, Louis Kahn.

"He told me, 'You provide these heavy scenes with your family, and then you don't tell us how you think,' " Lee said. His film does now.

From his porch across from the Simons Recreation Center, Lee reminisced about his neighborhood. As he spoke Tuesday morning, an old friend stepped out of a truck and yelled.

"Yo, Hollywood!"

Lee laughed at the tall, athletic man now walking up the steps.

"He used to beat me up," Lee said, in a stage whisper.

"No, no, no!" replied the man, Mike Brooks, extending his hand.

They talked about the old days, Brooks recalling how they used to play hide-and-seek and Monopoly, and how Lee used to roll the dice as if he were shaking a can of spray paint. Lee said he hadn't thought of those games in years.

I asked Brooks what Lee had been like as a kid. Not too athletic, he said, "but he wasn't no cold-blooded nerd, hanging out with a pocket protector on his shirt."

Lee shook his head, laughing.

They joked around some more. Then Brooks jogged away.

Lee was quiet for a moment. "When I went to GFS, it was over for me here," he said. "That's what this movie's been about. Coming back home to a place I ripped myself out of. Losing the shame of where you came from. Making peace with it."