Teachers’ Lifelong Friendship Began with Shared Experience of Racism

Teachers’ Lifelong Friendship Began with Shared Experience of Racism

Dawn Axam and Jenny Gould are celebrating 50 years of friendship this year. They met in 1971, in first grade at Morris Brandon Elementary. A classmate, “Stacy” (not her real name), had invited them both to her birthday party. 

Dawn and Jenny brought their gifts; they were excited and eagerly awaited the end of school that sunny fall Friday. They waited with the other girls as Stacy’s mom drove up to pick them up in her car. After speaking with her mom, Stacy approached them and told them they couldn’t come to her party because, “I was a Jew, and Dawn was an N-word,” said Jenny. “She took our gifts and piled into her mom’s car with the other girls. We were left behind, not really understanding why.”

Without acknowledging what happened or even saying a word, their teacher escorted them to the front office to call their mothers. “Our moms had spoken to each other, and Dawn was to go home with me, where her mom would pick her up later,” Jenny said. “I remember hearing the tires of my mother’s bright yellow station wagon roll up to a hasty stop on the gravel driveway. First, she had to speak to the principal. ‘Get in the car girls, I’ll be right back,’ she said in a very serious tone. We got into the station wagon, sitting in the big back seat, with our little legs dangling over, not yet reaching the floor. Dawn and I had just begun our friendship, and we felt an instant kinship that we did not yet understand.”

Fast forward to today, and they are both teaching dance at Woodward, Jenny in the Upper School and Dawn in the Lower School. During Week of Understanding, they shared with Lower School students the story of how their friendship began and how it became an important source of emotional support and artistic inspiration and validation for each of them. 

They each spent only one year at Morris Brandon, with Jenny moving on to the Galloway School and Dawn to Garden Hills Elementary. Five years later, they met again on the first day of eighth grade at Sutton Middle School and then attended Northside High School of the Performing Arts together. They shared a love of dance and performed together in school productions. “In the winter of our senior year, we went on a college road trip together for auditions, together again in the back of Jen’s mother’s station wagon in the middle of a snowstorm,” Dawn said. “We both attended colleges in New York.” 

Jenny studied at SUNY Purchase, and Dawn enrolled in the dance and theatre program at NYU. After college, they lived and worked in New York City until Dawn returned to Atlanta in 1991 to become director of dance and musical theatre at Tri-Cities Visual and Performing Arts Magnet High School, and Jenny moved to San Francisco in 1994 to join the cast of “Phantom of the Opera.”

They remained connected, with Jenny visiting and doing workshops for Dawn’s students at Tri-Cities. In 2000, Jenny moved back to Atlanta and began working for Woodward two years later. Jenny invited Dawn to do workshops and choreograph at Woodward. In 2007, Dawn received her master’s degree in arts and education from Lesley University and encouraged Jenny to get her as well. A few years later, Dawn invited Jenny to teach with her at the Governor’s Honors Program, where Dawn is the director of dance. In 2010, Jenny also received her master’s from Lesley University, and, in 2013, Dawn asked Jenny to be associate director of her company, Axam Dance Theater. The next year, Jenny recommended Dawn for the Lower School dance director position at Woodward. 

During their Zoom presentation, students asked Dawn and Jenny to reflect on the moment that brought them together in first grade and their feelings about Stacy and her mom. “We are not born prejudiced or racist. That is a taught behavior,” Dawn said. “You can teach hate, but we would rather teach love to everybody. Our parents did not teach us that way, and that is why it was so jarring for us when Stacy said we couldn’t go.”

Dawn added that Stacy was a high school classmate; they saw her every day. “I don’t even know that she remembered because she had been 6 years old. Looking back now, in hindsight as an adult, she was taught that behavior. Even in high school, we weren’t angry with her. The experience brought Jenny and I together.”

In fact, they didn’t talk with each other about this story through high school, college, and early adulthood, until Dawn’s daughter asked how they met. “We both started to reminisce about it,” Dawn said. 

What would Dawn and Jenny do if confronted with the same situation today? 

“I would be very offended but I would probably try to communicate in an open way to the person and ask them why they would feel that way and maybe enlighten them a little. I would do my best to enlighten them in a nonviolent way,” Jenny said.

Dawn and Jenny said they confronted racism at other times in their lives, but they will not be defeated or divided. “We are different, but alike. We have mutual respect and love for each other, and we will continue to model the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as we have done for many years.”

These days, Dawn and Jenny collaborate on many projects, both at school and in the professional dance world. Most importantly, their friendship sustains them through everything that life sends their way. “Even when obstacles tried to separate our friendship in our personal and professional lives, we have remained solid,” said Dawn. 

“We’ll be friends forever. She’s like a sister to me, and she’s like part of my family,” Jenny said. Dawn added, “as well as mine.”