Naomi Randolph

11 Apr 2019
ByJulia Sonenshein, Assistant Director of Communications, Marketing

As a freshman at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, Naomi Randolph was intrigued by the sound of a piano playing one afternoon. She meandered around campus, following the hypnotic music, until she arrived at the library’s archway. There, she found a man playing on a weathered upright piano as students rushed past on their way to class. Randolph couldn’t resist joining in, so she started singing along and improvising a melody. Wowed by her talent, the man begged her to join his band. “It’s the best thing in St. Paul,” he told her. “You’re going to start tomorrow.”

Soon thereafter, Randolph began singing rock songs in grimy basement bars with the band. She had to sneak in and out back doors to play the shows, since she was only 18 and not allowed in the venues legally. “It was St. Paul, so you never had to get dressed up. We were grunge,” she says.

Singing with the band came at a critical point in her life. She was away from home for the first time and beginning to define herself as an adult. Returning to music felt like coming home. “It was amazing,” she says.

When Randolph was a sophomore, a friend introduced her to an a cappella group called the Macalester Sirens, whose members were “always super pretty and super glam,” she says. The group sang pop songs like Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” in perfect harmony. “I was looking for a family and the a cappella group became my family — my home away from home. I pretty much didn’t stop singing after that.”

As the Assistant Principal at Fieldston Lower, Randolph often turns to song as a means to meet her students’ unique needs. “I sing to [them] a lot,” she says. “I sing to them when they come in from the bus, and we sing together as a big group: everything from ‘This Little Light of Mine’ to silly call-and-response camp songs. If I have to discipline a Pre-K kid, I usually sing to them.”

I always considered myself kind of this black swan that just stepped into her glory and stepped into her black beauty.

She starts singing, her voice gentle and her face fixed with a serene expression: “Remember that time when you hit Susie? How do you think she felt?” It’s a novel approach to discipline, one that’s built on her almost 20 years of experience as a teacher. “I try not to overwhelm young ones, and so if I need to, I use the power of song. I use the power of melody.”

Randolph’s voice is musical even when she’s not singing — she takes rests, floats up and down the scale, and alternates between pianissimo and mezzo-forte. The effect is spellbinding. You find yourself swaying to her rhythm.

“Music has given me the opportunity to find my identity, to learn my identity, to play with my identities, to figure out who I am,” she says. “Music is like my family. It is my inner meditation. It is the thing that sits with me in my solitude. It got me through labor. Music is the thing that gets me through my worst life pain, and it's always there during the highest of highs. Music is my friend.”

Randolph was born in New York City and raised in Washington Heights. She went to independent schools beginning in Kindergarten. After being “über-social” in 5th and 6th Grades, her life was upended in 7th: her father passed away. Randolph’s father came to the United States at age 11 from Costa Rica, where his only exposure to English was during Bible study. He was able to improve his English at a public school in the Bronx, and with the help of his mother, who studied nursing at NYU, attended Princeton and Columbia. Still, he went on to champion the underserved and marginalized populations in Brooklyn as an attorney for the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Project. He eventually opened his own law firm.

Randolph’s father had been “an incredible force and motivator in [her and her brother’s] education,” she says. His death also came as she started a new school — one that was all-girls, nine times the size of her elementary school (she went from a class of four to a class of 36), majority-white, and uniform-mandatory. “I remember feeling a sense of culture shock,” she says.

Again, she found her niche singing, both in Glee Club and as the title role in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. “I remember loving putting on costumes and being other characters and sharing myself in that way,” she says.

But, in 11th Grade, Randolph made the decision to stop singing. Her mother, an original member of The Chantels, encouraged her to shift her priorities. “It’s great that you can sing, but I expect you to do so much more. There are many black entertainers and many black women who can sing, but that doesn't ensure your financial security.”

Reluctantly, Randolph agreed. “I knew that I could do more and that I wanted to do more,” she says. At the same time, she felt she was garnering unwanted attention as a black female performer. “I was becoming keenly aware of being a black person in a majority-white school and being the songstress. Being this song and tap girl. I didn’t want to sing anymore.”

This wrestling over racial and gender identity dovetailed with her involvement in the school’s Cultural Awareness For Everyone (CAFE) club. Even though she attended supportive, progressive academic environments her whole life, she often felt othered. Her teachers were wonderful in many ways, she says, but often “ill-prepared to protect a young girl from teasing and insults and prejudice and discrimination that was coming from [her] peers.” CAFE empowered her to put words to painful childhood experiences and work to advocate for racial equity. “Once I joined that group, I had decided to pretty much become a crusader,” she says. She helped put on assemblies about Black History Month. She made sure Women’s History Month assemblies featured women of color. She wrote articles for the school newspaper. She was tireless.

After college, Randolph returned to New York City to work as a Pre-K and Kindergarten teacher at Columbia Prep. She was there for 18 years in total before joining ECFS in July. Her aunt, Renée T. White ‘83, the provost of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, is a Fieldston alumna.

Naomi Randolph in her office

In her 20’s and 30’s, Randolph sang with one of her best from 4th Grade in a rock-reggae band. Together, they played all the downtown clubs and even won the Bronx Battle of the Bands.

As a member of the band, Randolph’s stage name was Swan — she identified with the story of the ugly duckling’s transformation, which mirrors “finding my black beauty amidst and amongst this glaring master narrative of white beauty,” she says. “I always considered myself kind of this black swan that just stepped into her glory and stepped into her black beauty.” And the story is also part of why she’s stayed in the independent school space. “I’ve always known that I can effect change, knowing what the struggle is for young black girls in independent school settings. I’ve always felt that I could really make a difference and lead and guide and support them on their journey to finding their own beauty.”

Randolph sees a changing tide when it comes to dealing with race, privilege, and oppression in independent schools today. “In order to change the experiences of students that are walking through our halls, we have to systematically break down and rebuild from within. And that’s one of the reasons I’ve come here. I feel that Fieldston is doing just that.”

Randolph describes a four-stranded braid that attacks these issues head-on. Fieldston Lower’s classroom experience; advisory groups; CARe program, for discussions about race and ethnicity; and Bananas Splits program, for children whose parents are divorced or separated, aim to engage students at a young age with questions of identity, disposition, race, and culture.

Supporting those programs, Randolph says, is the core of her work. “I just want to do everything I can to nurture this community, to help them become the best that they can be. And I’m just grateful that we’re allowed to look at all aspects of identity and boldly talk about all aspects of identity,” she says.

Randolph knows she has the power to ignite change and is determined to make sure her high school experiences won’t be repeated for coming generations. “We’re charged with doing so much more. With doing so much better,” she says. She’ll use every tool available to her to make it happen.