When asked about my high school experience, I often call to mind Holden Caulfield’s narration of his encounter with an Andover alumnus:
His name was George something--I don't even remember--and he went to Andover. Big, big deal. You should've seen him when old Sally asked him how he liked the play. He was the kind of a phony that have to give themselves room when they answer somebody's question. He stepped back, and stepped right on the lady's foot behind him. He probably broke every toe in her body. He said the play itself was no masterpiece, but that the Lunts, of course, were absolute angels. Angels. For Chrissake. Angels. That killed me.
I feel no desire to contest this unflattering (though technically fictional) characterization; no defense of my school to offer that I would stand behind. In my opinion, Andover’s culture and student body represent the exact pretentiousness that J.D. Salinger, via Holden, conveys.
Since graduating this past June, I have felt more positive emotions towards Andover than I did in all my years there — probably because I know I never have to go back. These emotions include some measure of pride in the name and feelings of accomplishment for having pushed through; in retrospect, I did grow from the experience. But I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else.
Andover’s prestige comes from its history. It has such notable alumni as Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and Morse code; George H.W., George W., and Jeb Bush; Christopher Hughes, co-founder of Facebook; three winners of the Nobel Prize; Humphrey Bogart; and Olivia Wilde. Founded during the American Revolution as a feeder school for Yale, it is one of the oldest boarding school in the United States, and has an endowment slightly above $1 billion. Paul Revere designed Andover’s seal, and George Washington sent his nephews there.
However, a great past does not equal a great present. I was overjoyed when I received my acceptance letter, and counted down the minutes until my first day. Fast forward to my senior year — I had taken two leaves of absence (one year-long), and I looked daily at prom and graduation dresses to ensure myself that the finish line was in sight. I once said that you could tell freshmen and sophomores from upperclassmen by looking into their eyes, as the lights in the eyes of the upperclassmen had gone out. At dorm meetings, or really any situation where a group of people would check in with one another, the conversation would begin with “one more month until break…” or a similar comment accompanied by nervous laughter, serving to emphasize the difficulty and/or misery of what we were going through.
Andover.edu boasts an “extensive and rigorous curriculum… [which] prepares students superbly for intellectual inquiry in college and beyond.” This translates to a consistent five- or six-hour daily workload, in addition to which each student is required to play a sport and is expected to attend dozens of clubs and forums. A symbol of how well the students fared under this pressure is the health center’s well-used “fatigue room,” which contains beds reserved for those students who are simply too exhausted to go to class or sports.
The difference in students attitudes came in whether or not you believed it was all “worth it.” I fell on the extreme low end of that spectrum. I had been sexually assaulted on Andover’s campus just two months before the start of freshman year and was contesting with bipolar disorder, then unknown and untreated. My initial friendships were toxic, marginally abusive, confusing, and short-lived. After they dissolved, I didn’t find new friends until senior year. I felt increasingly alienated from my peers, the vast majority of whom conducted themselves similarly to Holden Caulfield’s “George something.” Even discounting the six hours of homework, I barely slept.
After a few months, I became more aware of issues beyond my peers and my own mental health. Andover has need-blind admission, which, in combination with my dad having taught there for some of my high school years, allowed me to attend. However, the school’s incredibly generous financial aid did not, in my opinion, make the environment more welcoming to students from lower-income backgrounds.
One weekend before a break, I said to some of my dorm mates that I was staying later than everyone else because the cheapest flight I could get was on Monday; they looked at me like I was from another planet. Although our school technically had no uniform, an outsider wouldn’t know this: on rainy days, the paths were swarmed by armies of girls in Lululemon leggings, Hunter boots, and Patagonia jackets. Each of those items alone costs more than the entirety of any of my outfits. I dreaded the first few days after breaks, because of the inevitable “how was your break?” conversations. My classmates had gone to the Bahamas; I had stayed home and worked.
The wealth of my classmates was not an issue — the problem was the stiff and pretentious culture which came along with it. Everyone was very preoccupied with where we were, and who we were supposed to be because of it. I remember clearly the intro-level drawing class I took sophomore year. My classmates couldn’t make a single mark on the paper without raising their hands and asking, “Is it okay if I draw this? How should I draw this? Should my paper be landscape orientation, or portrait orientation? Should my pencil be sharper?” Andover’s statement of purpose challenges students “to see beyond themselves and to go beyond the familiar; to remain committed to developing what is finest in themselves and others, for others and themselves.” In my lived experience, this value of learning and growing for the sake of learning and growing was nowhere to be found.
Even if academic life had been as inspiring and fulfilling as it was supposed to be, I would not have been happy. I realize that it was not the school’s job to take care of me completely, but I did, foolishly, trust them not to make everything worse. From my freshman year, when I was forced into counseling, it was clear that the administration’s only interest was covering their own asses. I was told constantly what I had to do, or not do, in order to keep the powers that be from “recommending a separation.” My student status was dangled over my head like a dog treat; the trick they were trying to teach me was to ignore my problems, smile, and push through in true Andover fashion. Maybe they would have left me alone if I had put on some Vineyard Vines and Sperrys, hung a MacBook Pro over my shoulder in a Longchamp bag, and worked my way up to a Gold level Starbucks rewards card.
A prime example of their unethical practices occurred a mere two weeks before my graduation. I had a rough night mentally, and ended up missing 10pm dorm sign-in. School counselors and nurses wanted me to stay in the health center overnight so that they could keep an eye on me. I thought it was in my best interests to comply, so I went to bed there. The next morning, I was awakened with the news that my father had been called out of work and was making the eight-hour drive from our house in Pennsylvania. I was no longer allowed to be in my dorm alone, because I was “a risk to myself and others.” One of the deans accompanied me to my room and waited outside my door while I packed. When I asked why this was all happening, I was told that the fact that I needed to stay in the health center all night, under supervision, meant that I was too unstable to remain at school. Conveniently, this stipulation on the course of action that the nurses and administrators themselves had recommended and enforced had never been explained to me.
My entire senior year, I had maintained a 5.5 GPA in a six-point system, a grade which placed me in the top 14% of students. I was active in the arts, with several sculptures on display in a campus gallery, and I had won a school-wide fiction contest. For the first time since arriving at Andover, I had a few good friends and was enjoying my classes. I was doing better, mentally, than I had been in four years. I was proud of myself; I was borderline content. And they were telling me, once again, that I had to leave.
With just two weeks left to the end. A counselor recommended that I go home and get my GED so as to avoid having to repeat a year of high school. After several hours of frustrating negiotations, I was graciously permitted to remain enrolled in the school, provided I move out of my dorm and remain under parental supervision. My dad and I moved into a nearby Residence Inn, and he shuttled me back and forth from campus in his quickly dying, 15-year-old Toyota Camry.
I remember feeling gratitude. That they had allowed me to get my diploma, that they had “cared” about me enough to call my father, that a dean had taken the time out of her busy day to babysit me so I didn’t off myself while waiting for my dad to pick me up (remember, the only reason they believed me to be suicidal is because they had asked me to stay overnight in the health center). I was grateful for their handling of the situation they had created. The only school rule I broke was missing sign-in, but the administration was all-too-eager to send me packing a mere fourteen days before graduation. Please note that my case is not at all indicative of a strict disciplinary system — there were always plenty of stories circulating about the illicit adventures of my wealthier classmates. These escapades involved drugs and blatant plagiarism and everything in between, but went essentially unpunished, especially in cases of legacies and the children of trustees. I was struggling with mental illness, so I was a liability. I was on financial aid and had not applied to any Ivy League schools, so the school had nothing to gain from me.
We return to the question of whether or not this was all worth it. I did receive an excellent education, and I know I will remember many of my teachers for a very long time. I made a few good friends whom I am happy to know. Overall, however, I don't like or even recognize the person Andover has turned me into. My therapist calls me “resilient” for pushing through, but I no longer feel much satisfaction from that feat. Fighting a system that does not want you, to the end goal of graduation and thus separation, is exhausting rather than empowering. I graduated feeling frustrated, betrayed, and bitter. If I were thirteen again, knowing what I know now, I would run in the other direction. There is no shame in that. It takes a certain kind of person to succeed at Andover, and I am glad I'm not that kind of person. Though beautiful on the outside, Andover has an ugly soul.