To Board or Not to Board


High school is an embarrassing time. Bad hair, bad clothes, bad crushes -- imagine compounding the situation by living in dormitories with your teachers only a few footsteps away. You can see why telling people I went to boarding school is embarrassing. After all, I went to a school with a strict dress code, classes on Saturdays and a mandatory 8 PM check-in and I did all this of my own free will. In fact I went to (gulp) Phillips Exeter Academy, the dorkiest boarding school in a New England full of dorky boarding schools.

Before Exeter, all off my boarding school knowledge came from movies, books and pop culture, I arrived at school feeling unprepared to deal with the realities. But that's not to say I didn't get a lot out of it.

In fact, that's why I'm writing about it now. I want to address some myths about New England prep schools. Don't start rolling your eyes already -- there's a chance that you might be a fine candidate for a high school experience with a dining hall and a dorm, not to mention a roommate. But before I begin to examine some ideas about boarding school, I should warn you: My experience attending Exeter is specific to me. The generalizations I may be about to make are just that generalizations. My perspective is bound to my background as an upper middle-class sort-of white girl from rural Pennsylvania. Most of my classmates had rather different roots, which helps explain how my reaction to prep school falls somewhere between those who loved it and those who loathed it.

Oh, man. Boarding school? Is that like military school? What did you do?

It's strange to me but many people seem to think boarding school and military school are the same thing. No. A thousand times no. Military school is where you go after you have been kicked out of at least three boarding schools. Someone who went to military school needs to correct some myths in my head about military school, since I picture sadistic drill sergeants, child abuse, and no contact with the outside world for the poor souls held there.

I've read "The Catcher in the Rye". Boarding school is just a receptacle for "phonies" whose parents drop them off in September and pick them up in June.

Unlike the days of yore, when a well-placed phone call could guarantee admission into your father's prep school, upper echelon boarding schools are extremely competitive. There is no way that parents could ship away their children without their active participation. Admission procedures differ from school to school, but almost every boarding school requires an entrance exam (SSAT), good grades, an essay, the school's application form, teacher recommendations, and in many cases, an interview. In 1956 fewer than 5,000 students took the SSAT. In 1999, approximately 51,000 students sat for the exam. If you are at boarding school, it isn't just because your parents had to refurnish their Upper East Side apartment without you around.
Strangely enough, in the realm of independent, i.e. private, schools in the United States, boarding schools are the most diverse. According to The Association of Boarding Schools, over 16,600 students of color attended over 300 different boarding schools in the 1998-99 school year, representing the highest percentage of non-white students in private schools.

I've seen "School Ties". I know how it is. Poor Brendan Fraser, who is cuter, smarter, and better at football than all the evil white boys, is tormented because he is poor and Jewish. Why would I want to go to school with those mean WASPs?

Strangely enough, in the realm of independent, i.e. private, schools in the United States, boarding schools are the most diverse. According to The Association of Boarding Schools, over 16,600 students of color attended over 300 different boarding schools in the 1998-99 school year, representing the highest percentage of non-white students in private schools. This does not mean that boarding schools are the bastions of multiculturalism that their admission literature would like you to believe. But the backgrounds of the students at Exeter did reflect the school's effort to look beyond "legacy" applicants (those lucky few whose fathers and grandfathers had attended the school). And something has to be said for the experience of the dormitories; people forced to share bathrooms tend to find more in common than one might initially believe.

The idea that boarding school students are white goes hand-in-hand with the assumption that they are rich. Much has changed for boarding schools over the past thirty years, and they are not only filled with people who can dish out thirty grand a year. Of the 334 new students entering Exeter in 1999, 55 percent came from public schools. In that same year, 35 percent of the student body received financial assistance grants, with the average grant being around $18,000. Outside grants and student loans can also fill in the missing links in financial aid. That said, I did meet some trust fund kids with amazing summer houses. They just weren't the norm.

Two organizations in particular have been instrumental in getting kids who have had fewer opportunities into these institutions. A Better Chance (ABC) and Prep-for-Prep actively recruit promising (and willing) minority youth to attend prep schools, of both the boarding and the non-boarding varieties. The effort to build a more diverse student body is an ongoing one. It's imperfect, but I believe that boarding schools are extremely conscious of their image as racist dinosaurs. Many boarding schools now even go out and recruit from urban areas and foreign countries.

After watching "School Ties" and "Dead Poet's Society", I noticed that something was missing. What is it? Oh, right. GIRLS.

During my time at Exeter, the school celebrated 25 years of coeducation by changing the Latin motto over the Assembly Hall from, roughly, "Come hither, boys, that you may become men," to "Come hither, boys and girls, that you may become men." It seems like a fitting way to commemorate coeducation at a school which still didn't feel entirely comfortable with girls.

Converting an all-male school, with male teachers and male alumni, into a coeducational institution doesn't happen over night. I had teachers who admitted to voting not to let girls in. (According to a particularly crusty instructor of mine, girls "softened" up the place. That was good, he said, since the dining hall food got much better after Exeter went coed. Did he think the girls were sneaking into the kitchens and cooking at night?)

Like many American institutions shaken by the women's liberation movement, Coed boarding schools have had a much harder time changing the intangible elements of sexism than the concrete policies. I felt the weight of a male tradition of achievement every time I looked around the walls of Exeter's Assembly Hall, which were covered with oil portraits of former principals. Making women part of that legacy will simply take time.

Well, at least you're guaranteed admission into the Ivy League college of your choice. Isn't that the perk of an Old Boys Network?
Rumor had it that in the good ole days the most prestigious colleges had sign-up sheets in the Exeter mailroom, so you could just write your name down on either the Harvard list or the Yale list.

Not exactly. One of the most hotly debated topics at Exeter was whether going to such a fine preparatory school helped or hurt your chances to get into a really tough college.

Rumor had it that in the good ole days the most prestigious colleges had sign-up sheets in the Exeter mailroom, so you could just write your name down on either the Harvard list or the Yale list.

Today, boarding schools devote a tremendous amount of resources to college counseling but if you are going away from home for high school just to get into an Ivy League college, don't bother. The exceptional (and exceptionally annoying) people who cannot live if they don't "go Ivy" would probably get in without the reputation of their high school. It is also worth pointing out that certain quotas exist; otherwise how could you explain that, since the Seventies, eighteen to twenty people out of every graduating class at Exeter have gone to Harvard?

OK, so not every boarding school isn't as awful as the movies But what's the point? Is it really worth leaving home?

There are potentially many arguments for or against going away from home to high school; most of them are specific to one's family situation, location, educational goals, and accessibility to good local schooling. One of the more interesting benefits of attending a prestigious high school or college, though, are the people you meet. Studies have shown that the people who can be most helpful later in life in getting a job aren't your family or your close friends. In terms of tangible benefits, this means that even if you went to boarding school and chose not to attend Harvard, you may still be helped later on through being exposed to social networks still present in boarding schools. Simply put, it's who, not what, you know. Careerism aside, boarding school has merits as one way to experience the growing pains of high school. Self-reliance and independence are a given as you navigate relationships with roommates and faculty members on your own. In an informal poll of my friends who went away for high school, most said that their relationship with their parents improved as a result of the separation. One friend who went to school some 5,000 miles away from her childhood home said that it helped her see her parents as people, and created a mutually respectful relationship in the ninth grade that would have been impossible in the eighth grade. Not everyone craves an intensely competitive and demanding way of life through high school, though; the most successful kids at boarding school often lose sight of many important, non-graded events in a sixteen year-old's life. Socially, boarding school feels like a weird experiment, where you shove all these awkward and reasonably intelligent people in dorms during some very sensitive ages to see what happens. It is intense. You build relationships in the dorm quickly, with the potential for them to unravel at the same speed. My feeling for boys in high school was that they were a foreign species, like giant insects, to be examined in class and in dining hall, but not be approached. In the dorm, we often likened Exeter's campus to that of two separate single-sex schools sharing classes. Boarding school social environments range wildly from hippie-permissive to school-marm-strict, so it is very important to figure out what kind of environment you are looking for before you attend. On the whole, though, I just don't think that any group of kids facing the academic time constraints and the pressure of dorm life can develop friendships/romantic relationships in way that approximates "normal." I have met very few people, though, who went to public high school with normal cars and lockers, and described their normal experience as ideal. When the dust settles on the discussion of the merits and the disadvantages of boarding school life, one fact emerges: no matter how you tell it, it's still high school.

Below are some resources if you are interested in learning more about boarding school:

--The Association of Boarding Schools website. Helpful listing of over 300 boarding schools.

--"Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger, 1951. Duh.

--"Black Ice," by Loren Carey, 1992. About an African-American girl's experience at St. Paul's School in 1972.

--"A Separate Peace" by John Knowles. Reissued in 1985. Boarding school classic. Male bonding at its most moving.

--Peterson's 2002 American and Canadian Boarding Schools and Worldwide Enrichment Programs (American and Canadian) (2002). Just in case you want to go to boarding Canada.

--"Dead Poet's Society", 1989. Robin Williams inspires a class of prep school boys. The world meets Ethan Hawke.

--"School Ties", 1992. Poor Jewish boy is asked to hide his religious identity at prep school until a jealous classmate discovers dirty secret.

-- "Toy Soldiers"(my favorite), 1991. Quite possibly the best war/boarding school movie ever made. Crazed drug lord holds boarding school hostage in an attempt to get his father out of jail. Priceless.


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