Have you ever had the feeling that, for the majority of the country, rural New England exists primarily as a collection of elite and picturesque yet vaguely sinister private boarding schools?
In movies and novels, the New England prep school is not merely a setting but a hermetic, lyrically genteel genre unto itself, with its own peculiar storytelling conventions and visual/prose style; Hollywood examples that come to mind for me include “Dead Poets Society” (1989), “Scent of a Woman” (1992), “School Ties” (1992), “Outside Providence” (1999), and “The Emperor’s Club” (2002). The real foundation of the genre, however, is John Knowles’s beautiful 1959 novel “A Separate Peace,” a WWII-era period piece in which, within the scenic haven of Phillips Exeter, a subtler heart of darkness asserts itself.
In “A Separate Peace,” the boys aren’t evil because they’re rich; they just happen to be rich, and in fact they’re not even evil. Still, the nasty little psychological hothouse that forms during Gene and Finny’s summer session may have ultimately paved the way for the murderous Greek-quoting coterie of Hampden College in Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History.”
By the time Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep” rolled up, one of the primary conventions of the genre was for the main character to be an outsider not merely by temperament (like Holden Caulfield) but more importantly by socioeconomic status (like Chris O’Donnell in “Scent of a Woman”): a transplant from the unglamorous end of the middle class. The idea, I guess, is that mass audiences would not, by this stage in our national “class war,” sympathize with a genuine blueblood.
Of the 50 most expensive U.S. boarding schools, 29 are located in New England.
One institution in particular—St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H.—has been in the news a lot lately. St. Paul’s is one of those stereotypically WASP-y establishments where, if you had to guess randomly which products of Northeastern old money went to school there, you’d always be right.
Did John Kerry go there? Yes. Did any of the Kennedys go there? Yes. Did any of the Vanderbilts go there? Yes. Did Rick Moody, author of “The Ice Storm,” go there? Yes. Did Brat Packer Judd Nelson, star of “St. Elmo’s Fire,” go there? Obviously he did.
St. Paul’s School is receiving headlines today not because of any of its highly decorated alumni but because of the actions of a recent graduate: teenager Owen Labrie of Tunbridge, Vt., whom a former classmate recently accused of rape.
This past Friday, Aug. 28, Labrie was controversially acquitted of felony charges but convicted on several misdemeanors; however, well before the end of the trial, the court of public opinion had already turned in its verdict on the school at large. The behavior of Labrie, it seems, took place under the auspices of a treasured St. Paul’s tradition of the spring semester called the “Senior Salute,” wherein male upperclassmen compete with one another to notch as many sexual conquests among the female underclassman as possible before graduation. The predatory nature of this practice would be obvious even if it had not resulted in an affirmed nonconsensual encounter between an 18-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl, yet the culture of St. Paul’s has long tolerated it.
Horrendous sexual behavior perpetrated by teenage boys is not exclusive to posh boarding schools. It’s everywhere. Articles covering the St. Paul’s case, however, have homed in on aspects of the situation that seem particular to its milieu—specifically the meticulous, conspiratorial nature of this certain brand of male violence: from the reports, we’re to glean that the elites of New England’s private schools tend to commit sexual assault not as a crime of passion but within a junior-Illuminati ethos of calculated gamesmanship, wherein plots to take advantage of freshman girls are hatched months ahead of time and valued as much for their cunning as for their cruelty. Labrie wrote French-infused letters to his victim and later bragged to his friends that he’d used “every trick in the book” to snag her. He’d already been accepted to Harvard, and we’re to assume that, with the evil skill-set he’d acquired at St. Paul’s, he’d have gone on to do big things if his victim had not come forward.
For me, this caricature (or perhaps understatement—who knows) of Labrie brings to mind a gruesome version of Emile Hirsch’s character, a Machiavellian prankster, in “The Emperor’s Club.” So the question to which I’m finally arriving is: if we all know from the movies that preppie boarding schools are, at best, stuffy white bastions of conformity and antisemitism and, at worst, the vicious training ground for America’s corrupt plutocracy, then why do parents spend $60,000 a year to send their kids there?
When we imagine the ideal future for our nation, it is essentially the opposite of these places. Don’t these parents want their kids to be decent people?
Well, of course they do, and this whole line of inquiry may sound a bit naïve, but it points to a paradox that runs throughout American culture, wherein our millionaires and billionaires are routinely viewed as greedy, joyless, and amoral, yet virtually everybody aspires to become one. We want to have what they have but not to be what they are: hence, the above-mentioned sympathetic stock character of the boarding-school “outsider,” who presumably will succeed on the WASPs’ plush turf without succumbing to their values.
But does it really make sense to spend one’s adolescence in a place where, in order to maintain one’s integrity, one must shield oneself from the dominant culture, rather than embrace it? Is this just the experience of trying to be a good person in any sort of place? To some extent I think so, but it’s probably safe to assume that most large public schools are not as fascistically monocultural as tiny, exclusive St. Paul’s—which, for all I know, may nevertheless be a wonderful place. Still, my personal, largely ignorant take: go to public school, kids.