Prep School, Privilege, and the Past

If I cared to attend, this year (2018) would have been my 30th high school reunion. But I don’t care to attend. I don’t like to dwell on the past or to reminisce. But as I get older, it seems more and more likely that current events will spark a memory or trigger a recollection.

And so I find myself thinking about prep school.

Kiski boys on their way to class. From the school’s website

The prep school, America’s version of the English Public school, is so well established as a trope that we build entire literary and movie franchises around the idea. It is onto that background that the rest of America is reading about the the real-life exploits from 35 years ago of some boys from Georgetown Prep and girls from Holton-Arms, two elite private schools in Bethesda Maryland.

But this isn’t a story about Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Not entirely. This is a story about me and what I remember from that same era and the same environment. And why it’s so easy for me believe Dr. Blasey Ford’s version of events. Like Judge Kavanaugh, I attended a prep school in the early 1980s. Unlike Judge Kavanaugh, I was not in the inner group. I was in the small group of poorer local kids on a scholarship. I was an outsider on the inside. I was there, but did not belong.

The Old School

The Kiskiminetas Springs school, aka “The Kiski School” or “Kiski Prep” as we called it, was founded in 1888 on a bluff high above the spot where the Kiskiminetas river was formed by the confluence of the Conemaugh and Loyalhanna rivers. The site was already established as a spa and mineral springs resort that catered to the wealthy members of Pittsburgh’s industrial elite. It must have been so hard and stressful being a wealthy industrialist. For they needed many country escapes from the grime of the city. It was the same class of people who, many miles up stream on the very same Conemaugh river, had built the South Fork dam for their private county lake and fishing club. The wealthy industrialists had ignored repeated warnings to fix the poorly-constructed dam. The dam breached in 1889, causing the Johnstown Flood, killing over 2000 residents. The wealthy industrialists took no responsibility for the tragedy. It was an “Act of God”.

This was my school.

Our school was really “old school”: all boys, mostly boarding but not military. In fact, one of Kiski’s public claims is that they are the oldest remaining non-military all-male boarding school in the United States. And there’s money, prestige, privilege, and power there. Academics were (and are) rigourous. Athletics were encouraged. This school is entirely deserving of its reputation on those grounds.

It looks the part too, with an estate, a golf course and grand old homes for the headmaster and some of the faculty. The headmaster during my days was a prep school boy himself, with George H.W. Bush as a classmate. When I graduated, Jeane Kirkpatrick, an established Reagan aide, proto-neo-con, and former US ambassador to the UN was a speaker. You get the picture.

But we were also “county”. A quick glance of the demographics of the surrounding town of Saltsburg with its declining population and median income of $27,000 a year reveals that there are few if any monied families close by. The small handful of day students, of which I was one, were mostly on scholarship. We were second class students. We were local and less well off. Farm kids. Blue collar. And without the dorm life and the prep culture, we were outsiders times two.

Embarrassingly, my hard-working teamster father lost his trucking job the first year I was enrolled, and rather than transfer to the free public school, my parents continued to pretend that we belonged at a prep school. At one point, I was terrified that my classmates would find out that while we were in school up on the hill, he was working part-time as a labourer in the local grist mill that was within view of the school. Not that anyone would use up valuable off campus privilege to visit the old feed mill. But just knowing he was there, literally grinding chicken feed to support us, while I went to school with kids who had parents who owned multinational businesses, was the first of many high school anxieties.

The old feed mill in Saltsburg where my father worked for a time. It could be seen from the Kiski School bluff

The Preppie Culture

There was a culture there that clearly favoured a certain kind of student. Legacies were celebrated and untouchable. We were surrounded by conservative ideals and the trappings of country clubs. Athletes and especially swimmers were the elite of the elite and the 1–2 boys that went on to attend the Naval Academy were celebrated in a special dinner. These boys were in the headmaster’s own image, himself a former swimmer and Navy man.

But there was a darker side and the privileged preppies were often at the centre of things. The headmaster’s car was stolen and crashed. His golf cart, that he used to drive around campus, was stolen and wrecked. Nearly always by a handful of the most Draco Malfoyish boys at the school. They were hauled to the headmaster’s residence for some kind of discipline but never expelled. Students hid booze and drugs in the tiles of the dorm rooms.

There was a culture of stealing, too. That shocked me to no end, but kids stole things from each other and from the school all the time. Leave your hoodie unattended? Kids would steal it and wear it in front of you. Kids stole mail from each other. They stole cassette tapes and money. Kids with with trust funds stealing from each other. It was bizarre. I can imagine easily what Judge Kavanaugh and his ribald band of preppie school mates might have been like. An outsider like me might have called them “phonies” but I knew they still have the power, the clout, the good breeding.

The Glee Club

Sports and clubs were encouraged. “A well-rounded boy became a well rounded gentleman”. Though I played football, wrestled, and debated, I really loved singing. So I was in the Glee Club, which might today evoke a slightly nerdy, earnest theatre type. It was true then, too of course. But at a boys’ school, the Glee Club was one of the few activities that guaranteed some interaction, a joint concert, with one of the regional girls’ schools: Winchester Thurston, a Pittsburgh-based school whose name is almost a parody of upper class, the Grier School, isolated in central PA and still run the same family (the Griers) that founded it, the Ellis School in Pittsburgh, and of course the Holton-Arms Academy.

Holton-Arms, being in Bethesda was high class. We talked about our school’s history and legacy but nothing can really compare to the wealth and power of the DC area.

We were to sing a joint concert at the school with their choir, a performance of Faure’s elegant Requiem, a majestic piece that premiered in 1888, the year my old school was founded. It will bring chills (seriously, listen to that link) . And we then sang with their choir at a church service the next day. We were going to be there for a few days for rehearsal and the performances, and were housed with girl’s families. Bethesda is enormously wealthy so it’s easy to imagine what these accommodations would be like. The other boys probably felt comfortable. I tried to be nonchalant, but having grown up in a dilapidated farm house and being driven to school in a old ford Bronco, I was not prepared for the opulent settings, the 16–17 year old girls with Saabs, BMWs, and Jeeps, the promise of catered parties. I had never attended an event that was catered by non-relatives before.

On the first night, we met the girls that we’d be staying with. I don’t recall the name of the girl whose family I was going to stay with, but she was attractive. She was blond, athletic-seeming and very outgoing and she was fun to talk to. I though “how lucky, I’ll get to hang out with her”. She was flirtatious too, which stoked my ego a bit because I was going to be paired with a girl that was the centre of a lot of attention. At a social gathering at her elegant old home after the first rehearsal, she and he friends were hosting me and about 4–5 other boys and not more than 20 minutes, the dynamic changed. One of the other boys, an old-money prep, took an aggressive interest in her and I was just in the way. He and his friends pressured me into switching host families — something we were expressly forbidden to do — so that he could stay with her and I’d stay with his host family. Which, of course, was with a less popular, less outgoing, and less attractive student. I left the party right away. I was embarrassed to be there after that. I still had a fun time singing the Requiem, and the family I stayed with were really nice academics. Both of her parents worked at NIH and I talked at length with them about their cancer research.

The popular preps found each other. The nerdy academics found each other. The natural order of things was restored.

Of course they had a sexual encounter (and of course I didn’t). Or at least that’s what he told all the rest of the boys. By all accounts, they both had fun. No stories of anything inappropriate.

So why should this even matter?

In retrospect, there was so much entitlement in that small episode: “She’s prettier than the girl I have, so I want her instead”, “You can have this one,” “We’re not going to get in trouble”, “She wants switch anyway, she’s into me not you”, “You’d like this other girl better, she’s into science”.

Who made the decisions? No me. Not the girls. Not the teachers. It was the preps. They decided everything. They got everything. They got away with everything.

Looking back on the privilege

I don’t necessarily regret the time I spent in a prep school. It was a good education. And when people asked me: “What are some of the life lessons you learned at a place like Kiski?” I always answered that I learned that there was no point in feeling envious of those with privilege. I knew despite our backgrounds that we were all mostly good boys. The kids who grew up with a private plane missed their families and struggled in math class. We had things in common despite out diverse backgrounds. What could be wrong with that?

But it’s more complicated than that, I think. And looking back with 30 years distance, I have questions. When does that lack of envy turn to complacency? What if I were angrier about the inequity? What if I fought against it? What if I were hungrier to take on the rich kids? The teflon exterior that I developed as a way to protect my own sense of self-worth, was that really the point of prep school? Maybe I just learned to accept my role, to stay in my lane. I never belonged there. Maybe I was just fooling myself by hiding those feelings of envy, injustice, and anger.

What does this have to do with Judge Kavanaugh and Dr. Blasey Ford? Nothing directly. These are episodes that converge in the space-time of the past, that’s all. My mundane story comes 2–3 years after their more consequential one. But I recognize the preppie in Judge Kavanaugh and his friends. I recognize that privilege. The ease with with some people just take what they want. Their satisfaction that there will be no personal consequences to anything.

Maybe he’s a great judge. Maybe he’s a good father. Maybe. But it’s all a reminder of how things are. A reminder that I’m tired of seeing the privileged and powerful so often escape scrutiny for these things. Tired of seeing the scions of wealth and power coast through life unaccountable for the way they sometime treat others. Tired of preppies and privilege.

Author and Professor of Psychology at Western University. I write about Cognitive Science, Psychology, and Higher Education.

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