Miss Porter's & Me

Monday, December 15, 2008

As the author of a current memoir on elite prep schools (CONFESSIONS OF A PREP SCHOOL MOMMY HANDLER), I have, naturally, been transfixed by the current scandal at Miss Porter’s School. For those who are not familiar, here is a link to a newspaper report (http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/education/hc-portersuit1210.artdec10,0,7535792.story).

In a nutshell, a girl is suing Miss Porter’s after she was expelled, allegedly for cheating on a test, violating school rules, etc. The girl, however, says she reacted this way after being taunted and tormented for months by a group of girls that called itself “The Oprichniki,” apparently named after the 16th-century Russian secret police that brutally eliminated Ivan the Terrible’s enemies.

Miss Porter’s, btw, is one of the nation’s oldest, most elite, most expensive prep school’s, boasting an eye-popping A-List of alumnae, from Jackie O to Gloria Vanderbilt.

The truth will certainly play out, in some form.

I know.

I once served as the PR Director for one of the nation’s oldest prep schools and understand the drama now unfolding around very expensive conference tables. Right now, Miss Porter’s alumnae, who had a great experience at the school, are rushing to their alma mater’s defense. Right now, PR specialists are working to mitigate the potential damage to the school. Right now, children are upset, asking questions, and the faculty is working OT to keep everyone on track. And right now, attorneys for both sides are battling, each wanting to score points but knowing this will probably never reach court, because the public damage would be too steep.

Mostly, however, right this very moment, a lot of girls are hurt. And messed up. And will probably never be the same.

We all know what high school (private or public) can be like. We know girls (and boys) can be mean and vicious. We’ve seen Mean Girls. But it’s more than this. There is a sad cycle too often at work here.

As I wrote in CONFESSIONS, kids, especially in private schools, are no longer allowed to be kids. I used to lament my rural childhood, but I now know that I was allowed to fail, to take risks, to fall and get back up, to be a kid.

Too many prep school children are pressured at too early an age to succeed: By age two, they must be accepted into the best pre-school; by age four, the best private elementary school; age 8, the top prep school; by 18, Ivy League; 22, top grad school; 25, the top law firm. But is this really what they want? I’ve talked to too many demoralized 40-year-olds who have everything but happiness.

Often, these kids are the children of a subset of parents (the “five percent rule,” I call it), who wield money and power and status, and, thus, rule the roost at private schools.

Some of these parents are not just helicopter parents; they rappel into the school’s halls and bully administrators and faculty and board members, until they get their way. Their children are simply mirror images of these “Mean Mommies and Daddies.”

Private schools provide an incredible education to its students. The faculty are typically gifted miracle workers. And most of the parents are wonderful people. But there is always this subset that doesn’t like change, that refuses to adapt. And this is what seems to have happened at Miss Porter’s, when a group of girls decided to hold a multi-school prom. (CONFESSIONS reveals what happens when change is introduced at a prep school.)

Too many schools today bandy the word “inclusive” around with great pride, not really understanding its true meaning and challenge: It is more than about numbers and percentages. If you bring a vast array of children together from many different backgrounds, races, areas, and economic stratospheres, you must work – every day – to make sure the goldfish and koi are not simply tossed into the aquarium with the sharks and the piranha, and believe your work is done. Or there is bound to be blood.

The goldfish need to understand how the sharks operate, and the sharks need to see the beauty of the goldfish. But that, sadly, is sometimes not possible.

Which is why on rare occasions, we see the flow of red from the aquarium– like at Miss Porter’s, screaming out in newspaper headlines – but more often that not we do not see a thing, until many years later, because all of the bleeding has happened internally, slowly, bump by bump to the goldfish.

I should know. I’ve been there. Which is why I pray for all the girls involved.


My Holiday Gift to You: No Form Letter, Just Free Reading!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

I just received my first holiday letter in the mail ... you know, the form letter from "friends" that not only signals the holidays are near but also, I believe, the Apocalypse is as well.

The holiday letter breaks down the senders' lives in excruciating detail. You know: "My hubby just took me to Applebee's. You all know how much I LOVE the riblet platter!"

No holiday letter for you this year (or ever), I promise; but I do give you the gift of me, which I hope is slightly funnier and way less painful.

I was just informed that the first part of my essay, "Sears, Sbarro's, Sayonara," which kicks off the fabulous essay collection, THE CUSTOMER IS ALWAYS WRONG: THE RETAIL CHRONICLES, can be read by going to Amazon and searching inside the book. Or just use the following link:


The essay will give you a good idea of what this funny, little essay collection is all about (and it's gotten great buzz, including a Black Friday feature on NPR, and a Wall Street Journal review). If you've ever worked retail (and we all have, haven't we, from slinging ice cream at Baskin & Robbins, like my partner, Gary, to working at Sears, the Husky Hell of my youth), or, better yet, been a pain-in-the-ass shopper, get this book.

And don't forget to give a book -- any book (even, SHAMELESS PLUG, mine, or those from my publisher, Random House) -- as a gift this holiday. They truly are gifts that will last forever. In fact, I'll post a blog as the holidays near about the book I received one Christmas that changed my life. And I'd like to hear about books you all have received over the holidays that impacted your lives.

Happy holidays, happy shopping, happy reading,