Two Fridays ago, my friend Nora and I met for our bi-monthly coffee. She and I go all the way back to prep school, where we met on the debate team, as protégés of the charismatic, neurotic, predatory (and to some, beloved) coach and English teacher. We also went to Princeton together, although she was a varsity rower and I was into performing arts, so our university lives touched each other only tangentially. She hung out with a lot of intimidatingly tall, supercharged people, but I was always happy when we ran into each other. After graduation, we lost touch, reconnecting in our early thirties, when John and I relocated to Boston. She lives in nearby Wellesley with her husband Tim, who in that “small world” way, John knew a bit when they were undergrads at Dartmouth.
Nora and I have been meeting off and on for coffee since our kids were little. Our sons, my Nate, and her Jonathan, both now 23, are just six months apart in age. In very different ways, they’ve each been intense kids, so we’ve had plenty to discuss over the years. Our daughters definitely have not gotten as much airtime. Usually our coffees are spent catching up on the kids’ news, each other’s work lives and volunteer pursuits. The husbands take a back seat. Only occasionally does the topic of our prep school years come up, although we are deeply bonded by our common experience. The fact that we shared those three years together in the rarified air of St. Paul’s School is a nearly umbilical connection, invisibly feeding our friendship as we’ve grown and changed. Even well into our 50’s, our sixteen year-old selves shadow us, sipping cappuccinos, nibbling around the edges of the scones.
When we last met, we talked at length about St. Paul’s. Unless you’ve been living under a media rock, in which case I commend you, you will be aware of a shameful rape case that took place at the school two years ago: a senior boy was accused of sexually assaulting a freshman girl, possibly as part of an alleged tradition in which seniors targeted younger students for hook-ups. The case famously went to trial, sordid details emerged about secret keys to a clandestine room, tallies of conquests shared online and painted on utility room walls, body parts, bite marks, panties, pain and shame. St. Paul’s alums have gotten their dander up on all sides of this sad story. The trial concluded with guilty verdicts for statutory rape (the girl was 15, the boy 18 at the time of the assault), and lifetime sex offender status because the young man used the Internet (in this case, Facebook) to compel the girl to meet with him. The jury fell short, however, of convicting the defendant of straight-up rape: The victim did consent to go with the boy to an isolated spot; her social media messages afterwards gave mixed messages; her “no” must have been understood by the jury to have come too late, or with insufficient clarity for Mr. Labrie, who had gotten up a pretty good head of steam. I don’t intend to argue the merits of the case here, although I will go on record stating that I absolutely believe in the authenticity of the victim’s experience that she was assaulted. I don’t care when a woman says “no,” whatever the circumstances, whether with a giggle or a scream, or how she later parses it. So much of the victim’s description rings true.
Nora and I got round to talking about it because our friend and classmate, the journalist Todd Purdum, had recently written a Vanity Fair article about the case. His piece raised questions about inadequacies in the school’s response, in particular, an inability to properly protect the victim. Nora and Todd are in close contact, and I asked her how he was doing in the wake of the article’s publication. The alumni community can be a wolf pack, with some ardently feeling wronged by the media coverage and baring their teeth. I haven’t seen Todd since college, but from what I knew of him in youth, he is decent and ethical down to his bones. There’s no question in my mind that when writing about our alma mater, his integrity was impeccable. His article got us onto the topic of our high school years. What’s interesting is where it took us.
I first read about the rape case in August 2014, when the Boston Globe reported the arrest of the senior in question, Owen Labrie. The Globe published a mug shot of a tan, athletic-looking young man with a thick cowlick of reddish hair and a sleepy, arrogant expression. He looked like what my daughters would call (politely) a “lax bro” or (less politely) a “fuckboy.” It’s a type: hyper-masculine, athletic, smart, the big-man-on-campus. He rolls with a posse of other guys like him–the Duke lacrosse team, the Milton Academy ice hockey team; the NFL; certain members of Congress—men who believe their power and status privileges them to your adulation and sexual submission. If you asked me to describe him in one word, that word would be “entitled.” Entitled to your attention, your admiration, and a blow job. In fact, HE is doing YOU a favor letting you suck his dick. Ask any woman: she’s known at least one or two of his ilk. She’ll also tell you that the majority of men are not like him. Far from it. My response to the photo of Mr. Labrie, was visceral, pre-verbal, swimming up from the depths of a lifetime of having known such alpha-males: I shivered. Yet I acknowledge it’s possible he is as much a victim of a broken system as the young woman in this case.
I had an experience with a St. Paul’s fuckboy in my day, and while it was pale in comparison to the Labrie case, it’s of a theme. It happened in 1976, when I was new “fourth former,” which means that I was one of sixty or so students who matriculated in tenth grade, rather than starting in ninth grade, as a freshman. New girls (in any grade) at the time were immediately evaluated for our sex appeal and distributed into groups of varying desirability, kind of like the sorting hat at Hogwarts. The sorting ritual, rarely spoken of, but widely acknowledged, took place in the common area after school-wide dinners, when certain guys would slouch against the far wall and check out the girls as we left the dining hall. Apparently, we were rated on a scale of one to ten. The fit, self-assured athletic girls, and the sexy sophisticates from Manhattan and its close-in suburbs fared the “best.” A pretty wide swath of us didn’t even rank. Believe me, you knew where you stood. The pecking order affected your relationships with girls and guys alike.
One night during the winter of my first year, I went out into the hallway of my dormitory to make a phone call. Like many other lonely Hufflepuffs, I was calling the local cab company to pick up some ice cream from the Friendly’s in downtown Concord for me and some friends. My dorm was one of the newer ones on campus, a contemporary brick structure that housed two boys’ dorms and one girls’ dorm, all connected by a long, wide corridor with shared common rooms. If you left your actual dorm and went out into the hall, you were in co-ed territory. As I was gathering my coins to make the call, an upperclassman from one of the boys’ dorms, a popular, good-looking ice hockey player, pushed his way into the phone booth with me, felt my breasts, agressively kissed me, and left. He smelled a little boozy, although I was inexperienced with alcohol, so I couldn’t be sure. He never spoke a word to me, not before, not then, not since. Here’s what I thought:
Maybe he likes me.
For the next week or so, I kept looking for him, waiting for him to seek me out and declare himself. Before the phone booth encounter, I had noticed him around, but he had just been one of a clutch of icy cool, sought-after athletes, not my type, then or ever. We were galaxies away in the prep school hierarchy of who matters, for one thing. He was a little scary, for another. One evening, about a week later, we passed each other alone on the secluded path that connected our dorm to the dining hall. I saw him coming towards me from twenty feet away and I thought, “Oh, now he’ll say something to me.” But he didn’t. He looked right at me with a smirk and passed on by. Humiliation overcame me. Obviously, I was nothing to him. I was just a pudgily pretty, studious and insecure new girl.
Now I can say it: What a prick.
So this guy was no Owen Labrie, a phone booth feel-up was not a “senior salute.” But it was coerced. It hadn’t dawned on me until the Labrie case that this relatively minor incident in my own experience oozed with era-appropriate male entitlement: naïve younger girl, unsure and eager to please, meets popular and studly upperclassman jock, misinterpreting his interest as something romantic. Who’s to say that the player-not-to-be-named didn’t push his way into the phone booth on a dare, or that he didn’t later draw a black line on the wall behind a washing machine, adding me to his tally of phone booth “conquests.”
It’s small story, so resonant of experiences we had, or friends of ours did, at St. Paul’s. My story led to one from Nora, something she had recently learned about a classmate she couldn’t name who had reportedly been raped by an upperclassman. Which reminded us both of a different classmate we thought had perhaps been sexually assaulted, and that maybe we did know, but it was shrouded in mystery at the time, and further obscured by the fog of memory now. Nora said her name, and the hairs stood up on my forearms. My eyes teared up. Of course I remembered her, of course. Something had happened to her, something bad. I never quite knew what. I had forgotten. Driving home after coffee, yet another memory rose up from the murky depths, of a third classmate, a socially vulnerable girl who’d gotten into something over her head, and money needed for an abortion.
How can it be that Nora and I, over twenty years of coffee dates, had never discussed these things? Not with each other, or with anyone else? Did we, as she recently wondered in an email, somehow sympathetically “group-think” these experiences into being? This self-doubt, I propose to you, is exactly what happens to women who have been systemically marginalized.
Here’s my theory: the institutional ethos of St. Paul’s is hyper-masculine, an identity that has constrained the well-being of not only five decades of girls, but also countless young men who don’t fit the alpha mold. This is a 150 year-old boys school, after all. The accrual of fifty years of co-education does not mean that the deep yang of St. Paul’s culture has been erased. It’s been overlaid with decades of girls and women on campus, like powdered sugar sprinkled on a flourless chocolate cake. But has the school fully integrated feminine values, female ways of thinking and feeling? Are these modes of being baked in?
Here’s another St. Paul’s story: my junior year, I was a volunteer admissions tour guide. One morning when I was scheduled for a tour, I awoke with pelvis-cracking menstrual cramps. (In the era before ibuprofen, I often got cramps so intense they caused vomiting, and on two occasions, I passed out from the pain, including once on a crowded Long Island commuter train.) I went to the infirmary. The nurse there gave me some useless Midol and told me I should report for my tour and see if they’d give me a pass. Or I could just take a “cut,” go back to the dorm and sleep, accepting a detention as the consequence. Gingerly, I minced to the admissions office, where I asked the male teacher on duty if I could please not give my tour because I was feeling sick. The answer was no. The touring family was from my hometown and had specifically requested me (ironically, the parents and younger brother of my ninth grade boyfriend.) He was sure my ailment would pass. I told him it wouldn’t, and why. His response: “You’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t. Touring the science building, I fainted, going down like a ton of bricks in the chem lab. I remember the teacher, crew-cutted, ex-military “Rock” Gillespie, looking down on me with concern as I swam back to consciousness. Somebody escorted me to the infirmary, where I slept off the worst of the cramps. And two days later, in my post office box, I got a notice that I had to report for work duty for failing to complete my tour.
So these were early days in St. Paul’s history of co-education, and of course, the institution has made great strides since then. But what, they couldn’t have put in a call to someone at Miss Porter’s or Ethel Walker or some other all-girl’s school for a few tips on the basics, like menstruation? I’m sure they weren’t willfully opposed to meeting the needs of girls, just clueless. I can only imagine how students of color must have felt at that time, if I, a privileged white girl, was so poorly served in my core identity.
Fast-forward forty years. I like the current Rector (that’s WASP for “principal.”) He is earnestly trying to steer a very large ship through extremely rocky shoals with as much sensitivity to diversity and equity as one white man can muster. Yet in spite of the best efforts of St. Paul’s leadership, I often see the cultural myopia of my youth borne out now in the school’s communications. One small but telling example: the accomplishments of St. Paul’s alumnae are insufficiently recognized and celebrated. The 80’s actress Catherine Oxenberg is the woman most often cited among the school’s notable alumni, even in Todd’s article.
I was in a French class with Catherine for two years. She was intelligent, gracious and funny. I always liked her, and I wasn’t at all surprised when she went on to Hollywood success. But also in that French class? Alexandra Wettlaufer, now a Professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas. Sarah Chubb Sauvayre, executive VP of marketing for Gilt.com and the former CEO of Condé Nast digital. Lisa Hughes, the publisher of the freakin’ New Yorker, for Chrissake. The school’s Wiki page (which cites only four women in its notable alumni list) names writer Rick Moody, but not his classmate Rosemary Mahoney, equally honored, deeply thoughtful, and less controversially reviewed. There are a lot of kickass women alums, is my point. I realize Wikipedia is user-edited, but I was a school communications director for years, and if the person in that position at St. Paul’s is not generating content for sites like Wikipedia, then he or she needs either more staff or a stiffer performance review. It’s the same story all over, by the way: I checked out a couple of prep schools, Groton and Middlesex, and only a handful of females make their lists of notable alumni.
Sincere efforts have been made and are being made to do better by girls at St. Paul’s. But it is difficult to see your blind spots, and few institutions are adept at achieving bone-deep systemic change. Feminine values aren’t very well integrated into any power structure in our society, so it’s not like St. Paul’s is beyond the pale. But I’m not willing to let it off the hook either. I’m not gonna cry me a river because the school is trying so hard and being misunderstood. I have always felt ambivalent about my years there. I was well-prepared for college, and also for a career in a male-dominated workplace. But St. Paul’s did nothing to help me understand and prize my female-ness, and the particular skills and mindset that pertain. Moreover, the school had no sense that co-education might require instructing boys about the importance of internalizing feminist values. I spent years reconstructing this essential piece of my identity. Maybe that’s every woman’s path in our culture, and it has nothing to do with St. Paul’s. But for me, there’s no untangling the personal and the institutional.
I’m a solutions-oriented person, so let me tell you what I believe would be helpful to St. Paul’s. Their response to the Labrie debacle thus far has been a good deal of bottom-up/outside-in oriented activity, working with current students on their attitudes and beliefs, both from within the community, and by bringing in outside consultants and experts. This is worthwhile, and necessary, but incomplete. Current students, having grown up in a far more diverse social culture than I (although still not an equitable one), are more likely to be keyed in to third-wave feminist values. As well, they are more exposed than prior generations to the notion of the systemic sway of white privilege.
What’s also required is top-down change. To start, more females and people of color are needed in leadership, to legitimize and deepen perspectives other than those representing 150 years of white dudes. Whenever the current Rector moves on, the Board needs to bring in a woman or a non-white individual as its next Rector. In the last Rector search, the finalists included both a woman and an African-American, but the Board blinked. I was deeply disappointed and completely unsurprised. Likewise, the Trustees need to aggressively pursue diversity and equity in their own membership, as well as on the faculty. A good goal would be to seek a balance where white men only comprise a fraction of these groups, say 25%. LOLZ, that’ll never happen. As we’ve seen (code word: “Trump”), white guys don’t much like to give up their toys. That’s understandable – no one in our culture is good at renouncing personal power to advance the greater good. But I’d like to see it.
Lastly, women alumni have a role to play. There are five decades worth of us now. We’ve run companies and written books. We are highly placed in media, in medicine, in education, in the arts. We are mothers of sons and daughters, wives of husbands, wives of wives, and single working women. We’ve had to push back on many fronts in our lives. Perhaps, like me, some of us have opted for spaces where our yin doesn’t have to compromise quite so much, like parenting, freelancing, dancing. Together, we might flush out the secrets of how we were underserved, or belittled, or harmed, and in so doing, help the institution that formed us see itself through a new lens. We can bring “inside-in” perspective to bear, if we care to.
I don’t know that I do: I’ve kept St. Paul’s at emotional arms length for much of my life, perhaps carrying forward not only the hurts of the male culture, but also the divisions among different groups of women that resulted from it. The school may not be worth it to me, quite frankly. But the young people who attend it are.