North of the Bible Belt and east of the Borscht Belt lies the Boarding School Belt. Of the 300 or so boarding schools in the U.S., 120 are in the Northeast, what might be called the Eden of American education. You know, that magical place where Andover and Exeter lead inexorably to Yale and Harvard.
Every fall, parents from all over the world descend on the region for the Tour de Boarding Schools, a grueling épreuve that can require three or more rounds before a match is found. Some foreign kids go alone in hired cars, which has a 19th-century sound, though it reflects a very 21st century phenomenon, Asian parents’ determination to get their children a rigorous, English-language education. On the Sunday of Columbus Day Weekend, we set off from Canaan, New Hampshire where our ninth-grader, Gabriel, attends a junior boarding school (grades 6 to 9) for our own version of the Tour—five schools in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Massachusetts. On the map, our itinerary looked like it had been planned by a drunken ping-pong player, despite my efforts to rationalize interview schedule and geography. There are services that do this for a fee. But I couldn’t see how they could do any better, given the variables.
Unlike many parents we crossed in admissions offices that weekend and later in the fall, we were familiar with boarding school life. We’ve accepted the long drives and the wardrobe requirements (resist requests for new blazer until buttons pop). We’ve steeled ourselves against those chirpy sports accident calls. (“Hi, Mrs. Lichtblau, nothing to worry about except Gabe’s in the hospital…”)
We were mostly very happy with his school, which has a crisp Yankee style, leavened by goofy antics such as the Cardboard Boat Regatta. Now we were moving up to prep school, an educational category that has its own fiction subgenre where suicidal misfits compete with ruthless social climbers and cruelly handsome student-athletes whose parents have their own planes and polo ponies.
Our two kids have gone to six schools between them, two public and four private. We have loved some and hated others, but the inescapable problem with private schools is figuring out whether they’re worth the money. They have to offer a lot and they have to look good. Every plaque, named building, piece of equipment, and sports facility makes you ask: Will all this make any difference to my kid?
Online, the schools tend to blur. They have crests and Latin mottos, and navy or burgundy trimmed brochures, showing kids with perfect teeth in multi-racial groups on verdant campuses. They sound traditional and progressive, exclusive and inclusive. They promise a Happy Outcome. But it’s hard to get past that desperate supplicant feeling. What if it all went horribly wrong, and he didn’t like any of the places we visited? Or none of the places he liked accepted him?
We were haunted by one colossal mistake—we had moved Gabe from our beloved neighborhood public school to a private one in Brooklyn in fourth grade out of concerns that he was slipping behind. We had misgivings, but the place came so highly recommended, we set them aside. On the first day, the school head told assembled parents that every child in a class had to be invited to any private party or outing involving more than one other classmate. “Because exclusion hurts! And if you try to sneak around us, we will hunt you down, and we will embarrass you!” she brayed.
I turned to my neighbor and said, “I’m going to be that parent with a bad attitude.” Fourth-graders were treated to phase-in days, like in nursery school, half days at the start of the school year to get the child used to the trauma of a new classroom.
Every time I entered the building, I became depressed or furious or both. How could he grow in this infantilizing culture? He needed academic help, not to be wrapped in swaddling clothes. It is not easy to undo school mistakes. The institutional doors creak open but once a year. We tried to get our son back into his old school, but his slot was gone. By the time we extracted him, he was two years behind grade level. We were determined not to make a mistake like that again.
Gabe had some of his own ideas about which prep school he wanted to go to. He would have a great chat with a friendly rep at the high school fairs, not realizing that the rep’s job is to be nice to everyone while discreetly scouting for students who fit their profile best. A Wisconsin school sent him so many letters that I thought of the scene in the first Harry Potter book, where letters from Hogwarts pour in constantly, overwhelming Uncle Vernon’s attempts to get rid of them. Muggle boarding schools cast their nets very wide these days. Chinese and Korean students are the growth market. Coming from China, Wisconsin is closer than New England. For us—having no Midwestern connections, sending our Brooklyn boy to Wisconsin sounded a little like—well, sending him to China.
Our first visit on Round One of last fall’s Tour was to a school in southern Vermont. Leaving Interstate 91, the area seemed deserted, even for Vermont. Judging by the products and customers in the general store where we stopped for coffee, the town had been colonized by hippies in the 1970s. Tall, dark pines gave the campus a somber feel. The main building was tall, red brick, late-19th-century, business-like, and functional. The school had a hockey rink. Gabe had taken to hockey, and on visits home enjoyed showing off his ice-spraying stops in the rink in Prospect Park, where he’d clung to my hand as a little kid on double blades.
He looked manly and handsome in his new grey suit. He gave the admissions director a firm handshake and made eye contact. A hockey player from Québec showed us around. An admissions officer interviewed him, then spoke to us. Gabe had been forthcoming and friendly. We were heartened.
“Whaddaya think?” we asked, as we pulled away.
“I don’t like the campus.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“The buildings are old.”
“They’re nice,” I said.
We argued about this. He fell asleep.
The next school, a two-hour drive south, was in a northern Massachusetts town with that classic New England mix of historic homes, rundown clapboard apartments, and package stores. The rolling lawn in front of the admissions building was a golf course. The website said so. But we’d forgotten. The admissions office lobby had a grand piano and French doors that looked over the golf course. It resembled a hotel. That line from the Paul Simon song “I Know What I Know” went through my head: “There’s something about you that really reminds me of money.”
Gabe went off with a Russian hockey player, while we followed a young woman with marketing functions in the opposite direction; this was the only school we toured where kid and parents toured separately. The campus, with its new or freshly renovated beige clapboard buildings, resembled a gated luxury subdivision. A particularly distinctive building turned out to be the sports equipment shed. The trustees had voted to invest in a turf baseball field, the young woman told us. Every teacher evaluated every student every day, which sounded like an awful burden. Yet, we found ourselves succumbing to the onslaught of offerings, services, and opportunities our son would benefit from. What’s not to like, right?
In the car, we woke from our trance. I thought of the spiels I got looking for assisted living for my mother. They hadn’t referred to Gabe as “our loved one,” had they? (No. It only felt that way.)
“What do you think, Gabe?”
“I liked the buildings. Really nice.”
The tour guide had been recruited to play professional hockey in Russia. One student was a Saudi prince, he told Gabe. He was impressed, and why not?
I was getting angry at my 14-year-old for not seeing that the school with the old red brick buildings was a good solid school, and this was—well, whatever it was. A lot of grownups loved it, and showed their appreciation with millions of dollars.
Like most boys his age, he likes brand-name sneakers, headphones, and clothes. But we want him to be skeptical of marketing. We tried to explain our views of the two schools gently, so he wouldn’t withdraw from this difficult process, which made us all feel exposed, judged, and vulnerable in 3-D. We were assessing the schools, trying to get him to see what we liked (or didn’t) about them, and trying to see the schools through his eyes. Meanwhile, the schools were assessing Gabe, and we were trying to see him as they saw him (and help them see what a great kid he is). Looming over the procedings was the shadow of The-School-That-Had-Been-A-Mistake—ours. The day’s visits felt like a test of our parenting. It didn’t feel as though we were succeeding, in this department anyway.
Our next appointment was in St. Johnsbury, the largest town in Vermont’s Northern Kingdom, 50 miles from Canada. The sky turned pewter as we drove north, and we were annoyed at ourselves for considering a school so far away. As a family, we hate highway driving. We don’t even own a car. The seven-hour shlep from Brooklyn to Canaan, New Hampshire was grueling enough. What made us think another hour and a half was no big deal?
A few artsy-crafty businesses in an old mercantile block suggested a hipster rebirth, but after a few passes on Main Street, we could see that the town, like most of Vermont, was squeaking by. It would be a hard place to winter. But here we were.
My husband had picked this school for what seemed like an innovative combination of academic and hands-on classes like automotive technology. The sprawling brick building with its white cupola looked like a big regional high school—which it turned out to be. Students wore casual clothes, no blazers or ties. “Oh my God, I’m totally overdressed,” Gabe said through gritted teeth as he got out of the car. He was furious at us for dragging him all this way for such a down-market school. We were mad at him for being ungracious.
“I can tell you, you’re the sharpest man on campus,” said the teacher who showed us around. Gabe’s eyes narrowed. The man explained that the school was a town academy, a private school that serves towns that don’t have public high schools, including St. Johnsbury. Their school districts pay the tuition. None of this was apparent from the website. Maybe that’s because everyone in the area already knows this. But, the school also seemed to have shaped its presentation to appeal to the growth market, Asian students. The full-time boarders were Chinese. Local students went home on weekends. Gabe would have been the only American full-time boarder.
Of course, it made no sense to pay tuition to send Gabe to public school in Northern Vermont. But we didn’t want to walk out. The teacher was gracious if understandably prickly. Here were these people from New York who considered themselves too good for his school. We were overdressed among the parents in their parkas and wool shirts, too conspicuous to walk out. The school served dinner in the cafeteria for all the open house attendees. Though we were hungry, we only drank tea and nibbled cookies. It didn’t feel right to cadge a free meal and leave. When everyone got up for the presentations, we slipped away, feeling like insufferable snobs and hypocrites.
Gabe refused to go to dinner with us. At the hotel, I handed him a pack of notecards and told him to write thank you notes to all the schools, including the last. When we came back, he had written neat, respectful expressions of appreciation and hopes for acceptance to all.
Of the three more schools on the trip, we all loved one. It had beautiful (old) buildings, a genuine vibe, and a killer hockey team. It was a stretch academically, but they seemed open to Gabe. For the first time, we didn’t feel as if we were shouting at him through soundproof glass. He probably felt the same way about us.
There was still another batch of schools to see. Round Two of the Tour started inauspiciously the Monday after Thanksgiving from Brooklyn. We had spent the week squabbling over the essays to be written. Gabe, manly in suit and tie, was acting—let’s say—much younger. “Mom, what is this place? None of my friends are applying there. They don’t have hockey or football. I’m not going.”
This school was in another constellation of boarding schools in western Connecticut. We got lost. We passed the hockey rink of a famous school.
“How come we aren’t applying here?”
“You need higher test scores, Gabe.”
We arrived late and frazzled. The school was a cluster of one-story buildings of various styles, mid-century modern and traditional brick and white clapboard. There was a pond.
Our exuberant tour guides, two boys, were roommates and best friends. They started us off in a music class—a percussion lesson using musical scores. The teacher asked Gabe to join. He had five years of violin, but had dropped it to our chagrin. He demurred. We insisted. Worse, we told the teacher about his extensive music training, and the teacher got excited. Cornered, he took a turn on the congas.
After touring the campus, the boys went off to a science class, while we talked to the admissions counselor. We liked the vibe. But there was the no-hockey problem. What would Gabe think? The admissions counselor was apologetic. They played pond hockey sometimes. They had lacrosse. There was soccer and basketball, but Gabe had dropped those sports in favor of football and hockey after he developed his massive chest and shoulders.
As we got in the car, he said, “You know —–,” referring to one of the boys, “he’s exactly like me.” Surprised, his father and I waited for an elaboration. Hard to imagine two more different kids. The other boy was tall, thin, and effusive. Gabe is on the short side, solidly built, and tends not to divulge his feelings.
We hoped Gabe might elaborate. He didn’t really. He liked the science class, his hardest subject. The buildings didn’t come up. The lack of hockey suddenly seemed negotiable.
We toured three more schools, before dropping Gabe off at his present boarding school in New Hampshire in time for hockey practice, drove to the Hanover-Lebanon airport, turned in the rental car, and took a prop plane flight to Westchester Airport, outside New York City. We felt a surprising sense of satisfaction. Gabe had accomplished something by knocking on the doors of all these schools. He had learned that there’s culture and history encoded in the architecture of a place, as well as in the demeanor of the people. We felt proud of him and reassured. Much of our anxiety about making another bad choice had dissipated.
When we touched down, I turned on my cell phone. It rang immediately. “Mom,” my daughter said. “Call Gabe’s hockey coach.” Gabe had broken both bones in his right leg above the ankle. The next morning, I flew back to New Hampshire. As these things go, it was routine. But the timing was terrible. The last week of the term was a washout. His grades, which had been on an upswing, dropped along with his morale. He missed the entire hockey season. He did keep a sense of humor. In his poetry project for English, entitled “Crutches,” he wrote:
Do you think that you can just take my crutches
Do you not notice it’s not a joke
It’s not the pain that makes me annoyed
It’s the people that pass and say, “Are your toes cold?”
Still we began to worry that all those hours of driving and interviewing—not to mention essay-writing and form-filling—might not yield much. The second-term grades were the clincher. On March 6, the responses began to roll in. Three said yes, including the school with the old buildings and the hockey rink and the one in Connecticut. Next fall, he’ll be in Connecticut, and hopefully, the pond will freeze.
Julia Lichtblau is the Book Review Editor for The Common.