Over the course of my childhood I read hundreds of pages on the boarding school experience—and they hadn’t even all been Harry Potter, though the friendship that Harry, Ron, and Hermione cemented during their first year studying the magical arts at Hogwarts wasn’t too far off from what I was expecting from my own boarding school life. It seemed obvious to me that friendships made at boarding school would be the most intense, magical, meaningful, and, most important, solid friendships of my lifetime. Fourteen years of New Jersey friendships be damned.
Everything I’d read and heard about boarding school reinforced this. I had always preferred the boarding school setting of Little Men to the original Little Women. As a World War II–obsessed tween, I’d devoured Spying on Miss Müller, a YA novel about students at a British boarding school who suspected their teacher was a German spy and banded together to flush her out. Sarah Crewe’s life in A Little Princess had its share of strife, but in the end she and her maid and confidante, Becky, emerge wealthy and friends for life. The girls at St. Trinian’s, a mid-century British series of books and films that I discovered sometime in middle school, were constantly up to one wild scheme after another that always left them closer than ever before, even if someone suffered a very unfortunate archery accident to get there. I saw the same in my future, puncture wounds and all.
No matter where you went, as long as you were leaving home, you were in for something special—especially where friendship was concerned. My expectations were high, and I was not open for follow-up questions or revisions.
Here is what I failed to consider in my boarding school media diet:
- Once every eight months, give or take, Harry, Ron, and Hermione found themselves staring down imminent death at the hands of a near immortal magical supervillain. Mutual trauma is a great, if not healthy, relationship adhesive.
- The students in Spying on Miss Müller were trying to cope as they lived through several bombings amid the largest war the world had ever seen. That trauma caused a mass delusion that, understandably, had them convinced that their teacher was a German Remember when George W. Bush’s approval rating peaked at 92 percent after 9/11? Again, trauma unites us all, for a time.
- Sarah Crewe and Becky grew close only after Sarah’s father’s death in the Boer War left her demoted from student to servant, living under Miss Minchin’s tyranny right alongside The very moment money allowed, Sarah got the fuck out of there, and sure, the little princess brought Becky along too . . . as her servant. Still. This was not a friendship to aspire to.
- Many of the friendships in Trinian’s were cemented after some act of violence, quickly turning the idea of an ideal boarding school friendship into an ideal Goodfellas friendship, and I had overestimated the level of actual cutthroat villainy I was willing to dabble in for new friends.
But these revelations would come only with time. When I arrived on Taft’s campus that August, it was with the intention of meeting my new, lifelong best friend in that assigned Congdon double.
by Kendra James
A sharp-witted and deeply insightful look into the storied world of elite prep schools from the first African-American legacy student to graduate from The Taft School.
Early on in Kendra James’ professional life, she began to feel like she was selling a lie. As an admissions officer specializing in diversity recruitment for independent prep schools, she persuaded students and families to embark on the same perilous journey she herself had made—to attend cutthroat and largely white schools similar to The Taft School, where she had been the first African-American legacy student only a few years earlier. Her new job forced her to reflect on her own elite education experience, and to realize how disillusioned she had become with America’s inequitable system.
In ADMISSIONS, Kendra looks back at the three years she spent at Taft, chronicling clashes with her lily-white roommate, how she had to unlearn the respectability politics she'd been raised with, and the fall-out from a horrifying article in the student newspaper that accused Black and Latinx students of being responsible for segregation of campus. Through these stories, some troubling, others hilarious, she deconstructs the lies and half-truths she herself would later tell as an admissions professional, in addition to the myths about boarding schools perpetuated by popular culture.
With its combination of incisive social critique and uproarious depictions of elite nonsense, ADMISSIONS will resonate with anyone who has ever been The Only One in a room, dealt with racial microaggressions, or even just suffered from an extreme case of homesickness.