What is the dark side of American boarding school life?
June 7, 2016 8:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm seeking stories, preferably non-fiction ones, that explore the negative side of the boarding school experience from the student's point of view: bullying and other forms of harassment isolation, emotional neglect, hypocrisy, classism and so forth. I'm not looking for accounts of sexual assault.

The trope about elite American boarding schools is that they give students a competitive advantage in college admissions and they offer a chance to make valuable contacts with people from important families who will go on to become important in their own right.

That may well be how some students experience boarding schools, but human nature being what it is, I suspect that others come out of boarding school with wounds that may take a long time to heal.

They're the ones whose stories I'd like to hear.
posted by A. Davey to Education (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to start with this Buzzfeed article (of all things). One of the older blogs it links to, The Assimilated Negro, had some very funny bits about his Choate experience.
posted by praemunire at 8:26 AM on June 7, 2016

Black Ice by Lorene Cary is the author's memoir of her time at St. Paul's (my alma mater) - she was the 2nd black female student to attend SPS, which had only gone co-ed a few years prior. As you might expect, not all her experiences were positive (neither were mine for that matter, but I haven't gotten around to my memoirs yet).
posted by Aubergine at 8:29 AM on June 7, 2016

Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep is fiction, but is based on her own experiences/observations in prep school, and touches on some of the issues you mention.
posted by bearette at 8:35 AM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

This New Yorker biography of Madeleine L'Engle briefly discusses her difficulties at different schools. Some of the characters in her novels are lonely girls who are miserable at boarding schools and are considered autobiographical, especially "The Small Rain." I think she did write down in detail what the specific problems were (she didn't fit in, was unathletic, etc.) but I can't remember where just now.
posted by Melismata at 8:35 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

You might like Perfectly Prep. It might be more academic than you're looking for (it's sort of an anthropological study), but it has some good negative stories.
posted by actionstations at 8:37 AM on June 7, 2016

Kendra James wrote a great essay for The Toast called "A Black Girl's Manual to Attending a New England Boarding School" that fits what you're looking for.
posted by Owl of Athena at 9:27 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Casualties of Privilege edited by Louis M. Crosier is a collection of essays that is a classic on this topic.
posted by Jahaza at 9:43 AM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Prep School rather than Boarding School might be your search term of choice. I went to an American boarding school that wasn't a prep school, and my experience was vastly different than the things I hear about New England Prep Schools. (Not necessarily negative vs. positive, just a different kind of experience.)

My high school had approximately the same "down sides" as all other high schools, except that you lived there so there was A) less opportunity to get away from it, and B) a lot of the parental type roles fell to grad student aged residential life staff who were not only inexperienced but spread really thin (one 22 year old RA to 30-40 students).

On the other hand, when I ended up in a severe bullying situation that was exacerbated by living with the girls who were bullying me, I was able to report it to res life and have action taken immediately. Precisely because there was an expectation that the RAs were young and inexperienced and spread thin, and thus attention needed to be paid by higher ups when there was an issue. Whereas every time I told my parents I was being bullied at my regular non-residential schools, they just sort of gave a kneejerk "sticks and stones" response and ignored me. Because they were able to make a lot of assumptions the school couldn't afford to make.

One thing I'm aware of, but which didn't affect me directly, is that a lot of students of color, or from poorer backgrounds, and especially both, were systematically discriminated against by the school administration. However, ours was a public boarding school with negligible fees to attend (basically just the meal plan) and need-based financial aid offered when necessary. Which meant that there were a lot more poor students of color than you'll probably find at Choate and the like. My guess is that Phillips Exeter discriminates against poor students of color by not admitting them.
posted by Sara C. at 9:58 AM on June 7, 2016

The classic is probably "Such, Such Were the Joys..." by George Orwell. Caveat: although it's written as non-fiction, it's generally held that Orwell's rendering of his time at boarding school is not entirely accurate. Still, it's extremely well-written, and accuracy isn't the important thing about memoir anyway, so.
posted by holborne at 10:03 AM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Oh, one other thing: it was obviously an English boarding school, not an American one.
posted by holborne at 10:04 AM on June 7, 2016

On the other hand, Number 11 in Owl of Athena's link is SPOT ON.
posted by Sara C. at 10:14 AM on June 7, 2016

Actually, schools like Exeter, Andover, and the like, are generally need-blind as far as admissions is concerned; moreover, these schools have massive endowments and are in a position to offer full financial aid to admitted students (I went on a full scholarship and I was not an exceptional applicant).

Of course, there is a bigger factor in terms of poor students of color attending these schools, which is that their families are probably less likely to be familiar with the process of applying to these schools, getting their kid to prepare for the PSAT, etc etc. And in general, I found that there were broad, class-based differences in how people responded when I told them I was at boarding school - some people assumed it meant some sort of serious juvenile detention, while those with more cultural capital were familiar with the social and educational advantages supposedly conferred by these schools.
posted by Aubergine at 10:16 AM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

My guess is that Phillips Exeter discriminates against poor students of color by not admitting them.

Just FYI, 48% of the student body at Exeter are students of color/do not identify as white, and admission is need-blind.

A. Davey, you might want to look at the archives of Vanity Fair for stories on Groton, Choate, and SPS; they do love their salacious boarding school scandals. They have published several long-form investigation pieces over the past fifteen years, at least two of them focusing on hazing.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 11:02 AM on June 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

Ah, and it's possible that the bibliography in Shamus Khan's ethnography of St. Paul's (Privilege) may offer some good leads on scholarly studies about everyday life at boarding schools.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 11:04 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

About 20 years ago I read "Old School" by Tobias Wolff. The only part that has stuck with me is a hilarious and prescient piece about Ayn Rand's visit to the school. But I enjoyed it enough that I got a copy for my younger daughter, who loved Wolff's "This Boy's Life" (the opposite of what you're looking for, but still great).

Wolff's school was a classic snotty New England prep school. I think you'll find what you're looking for in his book.
posted by morspin at 11:26 AM on June 7, 2016

My dearest friend boarded at a top tier school. Her life quickly devolved into hell, beginning with her first roommate, a girl who stole from her constantly and made violent threats. Sophomore and junior years saw her victimized by a classic group of mean girls. She ended up hospitalized several with an eating disorder she acquired at this school. The administration was unsympathetic and never did anything to stop the bullying. Friend graduated early and separately from her class. Took years recovering from the eating disorder.
(Note: friend is a person of color, but also from a wealthy family.)
I still use the school's name as a synonym for Gehenna.
posted by heigh-hothederryo at 12:17 PM on June 7, 2016

48% of the student body at Exeter are students of color/do not identify as white, and admission is need-blind

I'm assuming that you aren't familiar with how U.S. educational institutions fudge reporting these numbers; in 2013, only about 17.5% of students from the U.S. were African-American, Hispanic, or Native American.

Also, while need-blindness is a good policy, you don't have to explicitly say "no poor kids allowed" to keep that population down. 46% of the student body could afford to pay full freight tuition and fees, either $47.5K (boarding) or $38.7K (day). I sometimes wonder how Harry Potter would have turned out if he hadn't turned out to have a pile of galleons at Gringotts. He might have burned the whole place down.
posted by praemunire at 12:29 PM on June 7, 2016

I was a student of the Vershire School in Vermont before it was shut down in 1986 or 7 due to poor conditions. It was in many ways the antithesis of the prep school culture. I'm on my phone and can't hunt for links now but try doing a google search. I may have some additional resources available later if you memail me.
posted by lester at 12:45 PM on June 7, 2016

Private schools, painful secrets
More than 200 victims. At least 90 legal claims. At least 67 private schools in New England. This is the story of hundreds of students sexually abused by staffers, and emerging from decades of silence today.

posted by The corpse in the library at 1:13 PM on June 7, 2016

Prep School rather than Boarding School might be your search term of choice.

Thank you - I should have said New England prep school, because that's the niche I am interested in.
posted by A. Davey at 1:14 PM on June 7, 2016

Sorry, I missed that you're not interested in reading about sexual assault; that's what the Boston Globe article is mostly about.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:20 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

A recent film called The Preppie Connection is based on a true story of a cocaine selling scandal at Choate.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:40 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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