In the spring of 1984, my parents received a letter giving me the opportunity to opt out of attending Choate Rosemary Hall and receive help getting admitted to another boarding school for my freshman year.
The events that precipitated this letter were singular and startling, and are told through a specific point of view in the recently released movie, The Preppie Connection. A POV that I don’t find startling or singular, but which has inspired some animated discussion amongst many of us who attended Choate around that time.
On April 23 of 1984, two Choate students had been arrested at JFK International Airport for the possession of 350 grams of uncut cocaine they (allegedly, at the time) smuggled in from Venezuela. A devastating blow, mind the puns, to an almost 100 year old school that boasts the education of JFK himself, as well as Edward Albee, Adlai Stevenson, Glenn Close and thousands upon thousands of successful graduates. The story would be featured on 60 Minutes with Ed Bradley in the fall. The school was juggling devastating press, internal and external investigations, disciplinary actions, new policy decisions, and not least on its mind was its students – current and incoming. The school was dedicated to our futures even if it meant giving us up.
I was the googly-eyed 13 year old you’d be terrified to send into a hotbed of temptation, bad influences and international crime. But that wasn’t where I was going. I was going to the place I liked best – and of course I still wanted to go! Picking a boarding school wasn’t easy, but after narrowing down the specific offerings that were best for me, I was stuck on them, and I couldn’t wait. Regarding the cocaine scandal, I didn’t know the difference. People are doing whatever they’re doing. My family felt confident in the school and how they were handling such a complex situation.
When I arrived at Choate, I immediately became consumed with the thousand things of a new bountiful universe. Meeting new friends, trying out for plays and sports, speaking French, finding my classrooms, getting to know my teachers, deciphering what was on the salad bar, figuring out what was going on with Mrs. Havisham, laughing every time my friend told me – Don’t bolt your food Pip! This was an environment of endless promise – new people, new stories, new concepts, vast green fields – each class, activity or encounter a world of its own. There was a future Academy Award nominee playing 20 roles in a play he produced for his senior project. I thought, Wow! If he can do that..
None of these kinds of things are represented in the recent film nor in the press surrounding it. “He went from outsider to cocaine kingpin at this elite prep school” writes the NYPost about The Preppie Connection. This describes the film well and is a perfect movie tagline: intriguing, sensational, and most of all, ironic – (1) Outsider attains singularly elite position amongst the elite (2) by doing something you don’t expect in the given environment. In order to tell this kind of story, you have to draw clear and exaggerated lines between the world of the outsider and the world of the elite. Lines that may exist but that leave a gaping hole where the general populace lives. As one classmate posted on Facebook, it looks like there’s Choate billionaires, and then him.
This framing makes for good dramatic tension (and a strategic criminal defense) but it leaves out my entire experience. Four years that landed me in the most renown university in the world, and cherishing deep, lifelong friendships with people I never would have met otherwise.
Certainly as teenagers, we all feel like outsiders in a world in which we don’t belong. This may have been very acute for the party involved, but that doesn’t negate the existence of the thousands of other things that happen at boarding school and the stabilizing effect of a moderate middle. I heard the Dalai Lama speak of his first visit to New York City. He was young and expected an enlightened metropolis paved with gold. But he found such a great disparity of wealth, he said such a society could never rest until the poor no longer needed what the rich possessed and the rich no longer worried the poor would steal it from them. Enter manipulation and corruption.
But a moderate middle did and does exist at Choate – in several ways. There was/is a middle and upper middle class demographic – it’s where I came from. But more specifically to the nature of boarding school, those thousands of other things that happen are the moderate middle. All the activities and classes – sports, projects, assemblies, farming, work crew, mug nights, etc – these create as good a leveled playing ground as you’re ever going to find. Everyone has the opportunity to participate. These structures operate by their own rules. Those who are good in a particular field will excel there, and those who aren’t, keep looking. I tried a lot of things before I landed upon my true talents. I was a teenager! Who knows what you can do yet. Boarding school specifically gives you the opportunity to find that out. Though social tensions and cultural differences exist and always will when different groups are brought together, boarding school by its very nature is its own world, a protected environment, with its own structures and mores that signal a (relatively) clear path to self-discovery.
There will be mischief. And mischief got way out of hand in the 1980s. Pretty much everywhere. We saw a huge demographic division in the US and we see that again now in the current presidential election. The United States has always had a tug-of-war between “one nation, indivisible” and socio-economic class conflict. A lot can be said about that, but suffice for here, I object to the culture of disparity being grafted onto boarding school, even at the most “elite” institutions. With many schools now having up to 20% international enrollment, there is great emphasis on orientation and inclusion, community building that celebrates diversity, debunks stereotypes and fosters communication.
There are a lot of steps between feeling alienated and smuggling $300,000 street value of cocaine into the United States. A lot of plot development in between. At each step the protagonist makes a choice. At Convocation, Headmaster Charles Dey welcomed the student body, faculty and staff, saying…
Last spring when we expelled fourteen students for trafficking in cocaine, we were front page news across the country – because of our reputation. I assume that you, no more than I, wish to identified with the newspaper language used to indict us all – spoiled preppies, too much privilege, too much cash, adolescent pawns for criminals, self-centered elites. But unless we can demonstrate convincingly that those words do not accurately characterize us, they may in fact – become our reputation.
My class grew up forced to examine the choices we made. We had a fast and early understanding that each decision carved our character and the reputation we forged for ourselves and our community. We heard Grand Master Flash White Lines at every Saturday night dance – for four years. We remain a close community almost 3 decades later. Our attendance record for alumni weekend is almost flawless. The school, our families and we as students, responded to the aftermath of crisis by focusing on the values, the goals and the promise that brought us all together in the first place. I wouldn’t do anything differently.