Independent Spirit: Noni Thomas López

Winter 2019

Noni Thomas López
Head of School
The Gordon School (RI)


I love going to school. I always have. My parents and grandparents reinforced the importance of education from an early age. My mother taught me to read when I was 3 years old, and I cannot remember a time in my life when I was not surrounded by books. School was a place I was meant to be.

My parents thought our local public school was an unacceptable option. They didn’t make a lot of money, but they found a way to send me to a small private school in first grade and then Catholic school for the remainder of my elementary years. I attended Greensboro Day School (GDS), a traditional K-12 independent school in North Carolina, for middle and high school.

During my years in private and parochial schools, I did not have one teacher of color. As an African-American and Puerto Rican girl, I felt isolated and self-conscious quite often, but I still had no doubt that I belonged at GDS. I have my teachers to thank for this, specifically for the way they engaged me on both a personal and intellectual level. Ms. Wyndham encouraged me to take physics and advanced chemistry (with all boys) even though my favorite class was English. Dr. Snow pushed me to do Model UN and made a point, from time to time, to give me a thumbs-up on my carefully planned but a bit over-the-top outfits (it was the ‘80s!).

I did not plan on becoming an educator when I graduated from college, but—once again, encouraged by a GDS teacher—I found myself back at my alma mater on the other side of the desk. I was immediately interested in the ways the school attended to the needs of culturally diverse students. I wanted to use my experience to create an environment where all students of color felt they belonged.

As a student, the times I felt most comfortable at GDS were when my experiences and ways of being outside of school were affirmed and valued inside of school. My family played a huge role in bridging the cultural gap between school and home by intentionally working to affirm my identity, lining my bookshelves with works by authors of color, and supplementing my social studies lessons with the voices of historically marginalized people. When I became a teacher, I saw the role the school needs to play in building these connections as well.

For me, the best place to act on this understanding is from the leadership table, so that I can have a direct role in effecting positive change in the school communities of which I am a part. From my time as a student to that as a teacher and now a head of school, independent schools have been the place where I could discover my gifts and where I was trusted to act on my own best instincts and abilities. So, happily, school continues to be the place I am meant to be.

What's your independent school journey? Tell us at ismag@nais.org