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Posted by gustav at 07:01AM, Friday, December 06th, 2002

Prep School

This week, we got a visit from some friends of Rocky's, who were on their way to a Deerfield reunion. I have suddenly been struck by the very extrovert nature of nearly all the people I've ever met who went to a crusty prep school, including my own.

It's hardly a surprise that there are extroverted people at prep school -- or anywhere else, really. I think I'm just starting to realize that it goes beyond that: I've met confirmed introverts who seem to have affected an extrovert persona to survive places like Deerfield, St. John's, Andover, and Exeter. Meeting these people this week was a bit of a shock to me. I've come to expect Rocky's friends to be a little dopey, silly, and moderately interactive. Meeting these particular friends for the first time, I'm struck by how little they have in common with his college friends. This is not to say that they're bad people, or uninteresting. They do, though, have a knack for Holding Forth. And suddenly I've realized one of the things that's bugged me about any Hollywood portrayal I've ever seen of upper-crust East Coast Eton-wannabe schooling.

Hollywood likes to depict snobbiness and privilege, but always gets it wrong. It's not just that. It's also those things that Salinger painted so well in Catcher in the Rye -- the disaffection, cynicism, and isolation. But it's still more. There's this very peculiar social situation at prep school that I think selects for certain types of extrovert behavior, either innate or learned -- and affected.

I think back to English classes at Exeter, with one particular teacher. I recently decided that one reason for Exeter's promotion of their much-vaunted Harkness system, where students sit around a table "discussing" with one another, rather than listening to lectures, is that it lets Exeter, to a degree, get away with hiring pretty damn uninspiring teachers -- teachers who would never cut it in decent universities or liberal arts colleges, because they're incapable of providing interesting lectures, and have little original insight into or passion about the subjects they teach. I never, not once, got excited about an academic subject in the way I would in college when a music professor started talking animatedly about the aspects of romanticism in 19th-Century Western music, and how it related to German literature, or when an English professor started talking about Stevenson and homosexuality. Instead, at Exeter, the onus to bring great insight and cross-disciplinary parallels to the discussion was all on the inexperienced teenagers with other things to worry about.

Sadly, what you get when you put a bunch of over-privileged white and Asian kids, many of whom have been shuffled around from boarding school to summer camp since they left their nannies' arms, together in a "discussion," is a lot of idiotic prattle from people desperately wanting attention, and who've been trained to out-shout one another for it from an early age. The occasional individual one of these kids is bad enough. But when you have a micro-society consisting of about 50% of them, things get pretty bizarre. We all know adolescents act out. We all know there are weird little cliques and prestige battles. But when it's this intense, you get the intensely extroverted performers (and there may be a sort of darwinian selection for extroversion here: most of the successful money-mongering businessmen and politicians I've known have been true extroverts, and are likely to raise their offspring to be that way too; and like it or not, this is a huge demographic slice of the Exeter student body), who seem to have a pretty uninteresting internal dialog; and you get introverts who, through long association, have started mimicing extrovert behavior.

Which leads me back to that English class. This one particular teacher had some little banal catch-phrase on his door about how some people talked a lot but had nothing to say, and others didn't talk a lot, but had a world of ideas upstairs. Unfortunately, the guy was a fucking hypocrite, and in the dreaded (by me, anyway) end-of-term review, always wrote what a poor student I was because I didn't feel like interacting with the witless wonders that made up the class discussions. I just didn't feel like shouting above all the other hacks who didn't have a thing to say, but certainly liked the sounds of their own voices, and for that I got punished over and over. It wasn't until I got to college that I realized things could be different, and academics could actually be *fun*, when you listen to professionals who have insight and experience to bring to their lectures, rather than raving teenagers bickering at one another.

Anyway, at Exeter, even the relatively nice kids were stuck for years in this hyper-competitive environment, where kids competed not just for grades and academic, athletic, and social prestige -- though there was certainly inordinate amounts of all that -- but for attention and affection, both from the teachers and their fellow students. They come out with some pretty peculiar modes of social interaction -- even while having a great deal more drive than most, and a fascinating ability to stand out from the rest. I get the feeling that when any sizeable chunk of these people are put together, even in their late 20s, all the mannerisms and habits acquired in four (or twelve) years of this bullshit suddenly rear up again. It was disconcerting for me, particularly as I was used to a certain Type of Rocky's other friends -- very chill, sociable but not loud per se, engaging and endearing and very suited to one-on-one discourse even amidst a group of people. And here suddenly everything was about competing for the best story, the most time holding forth -- all one-person-talking-to-many, rather than one-to-one in serial or parallel. Once again, I found myself the quiet corner of the Harkness table, the one with the internal dialog, yet uncompelled to be the center of attention. I'm still an introvert just as I was then, and just as I think many of these people are. The difference perhaps is that I've never been able to fool myself into acting like a huge extrovert. That's not something I'm particularly sad about; in fact, I'm kind of happy to have met these people, if only to finally figure out how to articulate something about that bizarre world which the back of my brain has been cranking away on for eleven years.

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