Exhuming the Tomb

detail of the khan library at phillips exeter academy

I have no idea how to write this mess. I mean, in my head the narrator sounds a bit like Holden Caufield and a bit like one of Wes Anderson’s characters. I’m not really meaning to do an oration or anything, just get this thing out. I guess I’m stalling a bit…

One of the first parts of prep school that warped my mind was breakfast in the cafeteria between Merrill and Langdell. There was this huge picturesque wall of windows, floor to ceiling, like scene out of a Rockwell painting or something. I don’t remember now if we had to wear a tie to all meals or just to dinner. And I don’t know how Dwight convinced me to try coffee, but it was terrible. I know now, that it was also probably really bad coffee, actually. Like “diner coffee.” Folders probably. And I didn’t take to the taste at all. Even with a lot of milk and sugar, it was bad. I stuck with frosted flakes and a blast of whole milk from the dispenser machine, just like out of a Luby’s, all you can drink.

After breakfast with Dwight, it was on to math class, my first class. A bit boring, mostly introductions and stuff. On to English, where we started right off talking about The Oddessy. We were going to read the classic Fitzgerald translation. There are some much better ones these days, more modern. They didn’t try to make all this ancient Greek rhyme in English. But, I don’t read Greek, so I can’t even compare it with the English version, but the rhyming has always seemed a bit of a stretch. Did the Greek rhyme? I mean, really. Did it?

Then we had assembly in the main building. Preps were relegated to the nosebleed section in the balcony. The place seemed much smaller, a few years ago when I went back to retrace a few of my memories in the physical world. These days, it feels cozy, maybe a bit moldy, and full of ghosts. In the fall of 1978 it was alive with boisterous preps, boys in ties and sport coats, girls in dresses. Chatter at 110% volume as everyone piled into the pews. The spirit of the place was heavy with presidents and famous people. Zuckerberg would pass through a number of years after me. And tons of famous and rich people. The kids, I guess, of the famous and rich as well. Entitlement and generational wealth making up 80% of the student body. The rest of the mix was 10% ethic additions and 10% financial aid additions. I know that sounds kind of mean, but preps were mainly white rich kids. My tribe. I could feel the potential in all of us. I could feel my excitement for the coming semester. I was even a bit interested in old Homer, the way my teacher talked about the writing and the adventure we were on. The first morning was electric with buzz, new coffee drinkers like myself, and a lot of bravado from the returning students in the upper classes. It was a party. A celebration. Like, right out of those movies about it, Dead Poets, and stuff. It really was like that.

Today, my prep school is still spinning its reputation due to some teachers being charged and convicted of sexually abusing some of the students. It’s an ongoing issue, I guess. But our school, many years after I was done, appeared to harbor some of the most extensive pervs. I only tell you because there’s a new Facebook group that was announced in the Class of ’81 group, dealing with the ongoing fallout and dialogue around the sexy stuff. It’s sad, really. The eventual truth revealed was that several of the teachers at the school while I was there were using their power to get favors from their students. Boys and girls apparently. I didn’t experience any of the shenanigans myself.

From assembly, that first Monday morning, most of us walked across campus, past the library, to the main dining hall for lunch. No coffee for me this time. I found Dwight and we ranted on and on about the adventure ahead. It really felt like I was heading into an epic adventure, not unlike Oedipus. Wait, I mean, Odysseus. The guy who sailed the boat, not the stabby-eye guy.

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