Oy Vey, This Again

The author, Ben Wallace-Wells (HM ’96, Dartmouth ’00), responds:

By February of my freshman year at Dartmouth, I’d wandered by the Review offices on a couple of occasions, mainly out of boredom and flickering literary yearnings brought on by a too-literal reading of This Side of Paradise. I’d contributed exactly one substantial piece to the Review, in which I’d been dispatched to a College sponsored drag ball, in drag, to report on what went on. What I saw became the irrefutable, though admittedly thin thesis of the article: College-Sponsored Drag Balls Are Lame.

On the basis of this experience, the paper’s editor, James Panero (Trinity ’94), decided that my intellect was perfectly calibrated to tackle the knotty, complex issues of social ambition and cultural gigantism embodied in the New York private school scene. As part of a Worst of Dartmouth issue that never ran (thankfully, since it would have been pretty embarrassingly emblematic of the Review’s attitude-towards-world at that point – a shrill, nasty sneer), he asked me to write an article titled Dartmouth’s Worst Feeder School. The idea was that we knew a lot of kids, like us, from New York prep schools at Dartmouth; that we were, as a group, regarded mostly as charming assholes; and thought it might be funny and interesting to detail the particular roots of that asshole-hood. I picked Horace Mann because I had to pick something; because I figured I was really making fun of myself and my own experience and so I might as well name it as such; and because, well, frankly, because there was at that time at Dartmouth a particular heir and Horace Mann alum who pranced about campus, eyeballs assiduously scanning own rectum, completely oblivious to the fact that he was enacting, in pretty embarrassing thoroughness, the New York Prep Idiom, and to the fact that he had come to define, for a lot of Dartmouth, the schmucky, pretentious prep school fop. Weekends off, he rented a Porsche to visit his girlfriend at Smith. Very Stradlater, with a no-sweat-ethic and an ultramodern twist.

My effort, “Dartmouth’s Worst Feeder School,” was pretty amateurish and unduly nasty. It was also a little too serious towards the end, in its sociological pretensions – I should have made it more self-evident that this was to be taken as a joke. My article didn’t break much new journalistic ground – at that point in the mid-90s, New York Magazine devoted a full two-thirds of its staff to the making-fun-of NY-Prep-School-Kids beat. This story was different in that it named one school as emblematic of that whole culture, and that it was written by an 18-year old first-timer, me, who wasn’t too good at what he was doing.

People at Horace Mann got mad; they wrote letters, they wrote e-mails, they called me anti-Semitic, they complained to the parents of my friends, who by way of reply said things like “He seemed like such a nice guy,” which is the thing people say about someone who’s just pulled a Gary Gilmore. It bugged me for a little while, but in the end I mostly laughed. Here’s why: There are some things which are unmatchably glorious about schools like Horace Mann. In dozens of different ways and for dozens of different reasons these schools deliver to their graduates a sense that what they have to say is essentially important – metaphysically important, nearly – and what they think about issues, the world, may not only echo but may lead broader opinion. That’s an intoxicating, exciting and wonderful thing for a 17-year old to be exposed to. I’m grateful for it. But the endless primping and constant buffering that schools like Horace Mann provide is a little much, (black tie parties at the Plaza for 13-year olds? a 35-million dollar capital campaign for a day school?), and can also be aesthetically off-putting and socially problematic, mostly because the kids believe the hype. And so we land at 18 full of the sense that we are really really important, with all the attendant positive and negative repercussions. I wouldn’t trade having gone to Horace Mann for anything. But it would be nice if the $250,000 of education could buy us all a dash of self-awareness, too.

So I was a jerk, it was a nasty and not very good article, and, yes, it probably would have been a little more merited if I’d written the story about Dalton. But six years on, its time to stop getting so huffy about this. Horace Mann is an institution far more robust than I, and with a remade, $35 million campus and a current ranking as the seventh best feeder school in the country, its hardly suffered a death blow from the story.

It’s also true that if I’d written this about Dalton everyone at Horace Mann would be nodding very gravely about the story – it’s the naming that hurts.

Since I’m pretty much out of touch with most people from the Review at this point, I’d like to wish you all well and plug my essay, Creating September 12, which appears in a book called At Ground Zero, edited by Chris Bull and Sam Erman and available at Barnes and Noble’s (look for the pupil-burstingly-bright 9/11 display), on Amazon, and at fine and mediocre bookstores everywhere. Buy the book. I could use the royalties to help get my Ford out of hock.