Friday, March 24, 2006

My boarding school (paca)

So Sammy asked in a comment about my boarding school and offers some perspective on his, which was LSMSA. He mentions that he thought of LSMSA as more like a residential high school than a boarding school, a term he reserves for something like a military school, or a school for the highly affluent. I was using the term for any school where the majority of students live there. That said, Lawrenceville in Lawrenceville, NJ, would be considered one of those schools for the affluent. It's a private prep school about 5 miles down the street from Princeton. In the prep school rankings, it traditionally came in 3rd in the nation behind Andover and Exeter. Some of our more famous alumni include Malcolm Forbes (the dad), Michael Eisner (of Disney), and... Huey Lewis. The last did not graduate, however. Thornton Wilder, who wrote "Our Town" and "The Matchmaker" which Hello Dolly is based on and some other famous stuf,f was a teacher there. We are one of those prep schools where all the buildings are named after donors like at a college. So the Bunn Library can hold 100,000 volumes. The A.P. Kirby Arts Center where I built sets had a 900-seat proscenium theatre that was good enough that the New Jersey State Opera installed itself there over the summer. The original campus was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead who laid out Central Park in NYC and is on the National Historic Register. The school was started in 1810 and has been periodically used for movie and commercial shoots. You can study Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, and German. The endowment is over $200 million. So, yeah, it's one of those boarding schools.

Now, is it simply a school for the affluent? Certainly more than your average high school. When I was there the tuition the first year (1985) was $10,000 and it was $15,000 when I left 5 years later. (I broke a lot of stuff.) I believe the annual tuition is now over $20,000. But just like today's private colleges, it isn't only the affluent who go there. Over half the students are on some sort of financial support, and the admissions policy is supposed to be blind to financial need. I will confess, however, that I was not on financial aid myself. Somehow, my mom as a librarian and grad student and my dad running the family building materials store was enough to handle the tuition.

How did I end up there? I don't really know the whole story. I had an older brother who also went to boarding school - Groton in Massachusetts, whose most famous alumnus is FDR. Yeah, that FDR. So all the debates they went through were already done when I came along. I was just the next in line. I wanted to go to boarding school myself because my brother was the coolest thing ever, so I must need to go too. I do know the purpose was to get a better education than could be had in my home town in rural Louisiana. I was at L'ville because only Groton and L'ville, at the time, took kids starting in 8th grade. Groton didn't let me in (my brother broke a lot of stuff too; ok, they said I was too young at 12), so L'ville it was.

What's it like there? L'ville wasn't exactly like Dead Poets Society. I had to go to church 4 times a term, unlike my brother who went several times a week. We always had our own rooms, with or without a roommate. Most of the teachers live on campus and so there is very close contact with them. Of course, it is isolated from much of the world with a gate and security. There were fairly strict rules that loosened up as you moved up in years. So in 8th and 9th grade, there are mandatory study hours for two hours a night, where you were required to be in your room alone. There was a lights out at 10:00 or so, where the teachers who were strict went around enforcing that your lights were actually out. You had to sign out whenever you went somewhere else on campus at night. By the time you were a senior, I vaguely remember signing out, but there were no study hours and no lights out. L'ville was all male from 1810 - 1987, which included my first two years. When it went coed, you had bizarre rules about visitation between boys and girls houses, called parietals. I so rarely went to see a girl outside of the theater that I barely remember these. They involved things like mandatory doors being open and three feet on the floor. Honestly, I don't remember most of the rules, because by 9th grade I spent almost every night in the arts center, hanging out, so who knows what went on in my house. When it was coed, I spend 2-3 hours a night hanging out with girls in the arts center, so the rules to see them in their rooms were largely unnecessary. I do remember that the process of going to a girls dorm and asking to see Girl X was one of the most nerve-wracking events in your life.

I remember classes and my friends. By your senior year, you get to take some pretty cool electives like, for me, Chinese, Women Writing about Women, Southern Lit, AP European history, Russian history, Intro to Directing. There were even classes after BC Calc, but I didn't make it past Calculus myself. Working at the soup kitchen in Trenton in the basement of a Catholic church was a pretty important experience for me. My friend Steve, and a faculty member, organized a Spring Break trip to go to a soup kitchen in DC for a week, but my parents didn't allow me to go for safety reasons. I did two marches on Washington, as those were my radical days. One was to encourage free emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union. I went to that one because Jesse told me to. I don't remember much except for this cute girl on the subway. I also did a march in DC about Homelessness. I knew a wee bit more about this issue, but I mostly went because Steve told me to. I remember all the people, hanging out with my friend Phia, lots of bands, and the inane things that celebritites came out to say.

We had some cool speakers come through. There was Betty Williams who had won the Nobel Peace Prize for work in Northern Ireland. I remember that Jesse's mom, who was genuinely affluent, somehow got a special Torah dedication organized and Elie Weisel was involved. Why don't I remember any of that? I would remember Elie Weisel. I certainly remember "Night". I guess one of the reasons I am always going off about gay marriage rights is because of L'ville. My closest faculty mentor was the Big O, who was one of the two teachers in the theater. He did most of the technical work, and some directing, and I probably spent 10 hours a week or more with the man working with my friends. He had a partner who I don't think I ever met, and he was rarely mentioned. They lived off-campus. I met most other faculty spouses, why not his? I guess, since my first experience, that I knew of, with a man with a male partner was the guy who spent most of his day helping me and my friends grow up and that after all that he kept his private life almost completely private..., well it affects the way you think.

Of course, most of my life at L'Ville was about homework and girls and hanging out with friends, but that is the part we all share.

1 comment:

kristybox said...

Thank you for this entry. I am fascinated by boarding schools.

"Prep" by Curtis Sitterfeld is an excellent account of boarding school life. And I've actually heard of many of the schools that you mentioned, which proves I'm a total nerd.