“Is that what it is really like?” It’s a question that knows no bounds—friends, parents, cousins; it makes no difference. It’s also a question I’ve been asked more times since I arrived at Deerfield than ever before. For those who want the simple answer, “Boarding School life is and isn’t like what you think.”
The easiest way to address the question in a more in-depth way is to make it more familiar. Another place often ridiculed, questioned, and parodied unfairly, especially at Deerfield: The Buckley School in New York City.
Unlike the norm at Deerfield, when you say you go to Buckley in New York, no one snickers or makes a joke about waiters or ties or whatever the particular snipe of the day may be. It’s roughly the equivalent of meeting someone who says they go to Hotchkiss. For those who think otherwise, Buckley is very much like Deerfield. It’s competitive, the kids are driven, the athletic teams are successful, it is traditional in all respects—the list can go on and on. Yet myths persist about the school even at Deerfield. It seems the question of “what it’s really like” will never fully be put to rest.
I know that Deerfield students who come here from places where people infrequently go to boarding schools are faced with similar myths and questions surrounding Deerfield. “Do you really have to wear a jacket and tie?” “Do you really have curfews on weekends, even as seniors?” “Is it only rich white kids?” It doesn’t matter what you say. The rumors and incredulousness still persists.
The criticism isn’t limited to small circles. The media have increasingly taken interest in continuing these stereotypes to satisfy what seems to be an unending hunger for “elitism” on display.
This came to my attention this summer with the airing of the show NYC Prep. Given that I grew up in New York and went to school there through 9th grade, I feel that I have a somewhat unique perspective especially given that I am now an outsider looking in. NYC Prep is a show that purportedly follows a year in the life of five kids who go to “elite private schools” in New York. Yet the show is complete fabrication.
Of the five, only two knew one another before the start of the show. They all go to schools that rarely overlap: Dwight, Nightingale, Birch Wathen Lenox, and the Ross School (which, by the way, is not in New York City). And none of people on the show—not Sebastian, not P.C, not Kelli, not Jessie, and especially not Taylor—are the type of people the show is trying to target. This makes sense since anyone who should actually be on the show has no interest in being portrayed as an insensitive jerk—the show’s objective.
Sure, there were bits and pieces of the show that were accurate just as there are parts of any reality show that are true, but, ultimately, the overall message was more or less flat out wrong. Just because it’s New York doesn’t mean that all of a sudden the kids there are not fairly standard teenagers. There are, after all, more new students from New York than other state this year.
By being at the top is to accept that those very people who are captivated by, and have an insatiable thirst for things such as “Housewives,” “Sweet 16’s,” and the Donald Trumps of the world—essentially all the fake elitism they can get their hands on—are the first to say how fake the people are without any real interaction with the people. Just because you’ve seen Harry Potter doesn’t make you intimate with wizards. Just because you’ve seen NYC Prep doesn’t make you intimate with New York. But in the end, as great a video and as intimate as 10 Things I Love about Deerfield may make you with the school, it wouldn’t make for a good TV show.
Essentially, what it means to go to an “elite” school in New York is what it means to go to Deerfield—is what it means to be at the top of anything. It means being criticized, stigmatized, and ridiculed unfairly, as it’s easy to point fingers at entities that pride themselves on their competence or their being the “best.” That paradigm extends to individuals, to sports teams, to companies, to dance troupes, to anything that can in some way be ranked.
In the end I pose this question: recognizing that there are some aspects to stereotypes that make them true, but putting them aside because it makes dismissal too easy, what is it about so many Americans that causes them to fall in love with what is ostensibly portrayed as “elitism,” but couldn’t be farther from it?