Better Than You: How We Should Talk About High School

Let’s be clear here: I went to a fantastic school, a New England boarding school in a colonial village. I went abroad twice, once for a homestay in France and again to study at Oxford over spring break. I met two poet laureates and took private ballet coaching twice a week. Did I deserve this education? Maybe. Does everyone deserve to be able to pursue the opportunities I could pursue? Definitely.

That’s why talking about high school sometimes makes me sad. My school handed me the opportunities of which I took advantage. Sure, I had to maintain a certain GPA, show up to class, and act a certain way. But I wouldn’t necessarily call my trips to Europe, colonial-style dorms, big-band formal dances, or homemade dessert with every meal a product of my hard work. I got lucky on the SSAT (the SAT for prep school) in 8th grade, happened to work for the middle school newspaper, and was involved with a few other extracurriculars. That was about it. Then the school gave me some money to attend and I jumped on it.

For this reason, I highly respected my friends at boarding school who had worked hard to get there—my roommate from Tennessee who had written a fantastic admissions essay about ballroom dancing with her dad, or my friends from Chicago, New York, and Texas who had gone to intense after-school programs and strict charter schools. These people seemed like they deserved the education they got.

So when someone told me my “school sucked” a few weeks ago, I bristled a little bit. They rattled off statistics from their boarding school, saying that they had “better academics, more diversity, and happier students.” Those statistics may be true, or they may be conflated. Either way, they only reflected both institutions on a surface level, not a personal one. These observations seemed completely irrelevant. The interaction also made my friends, who had both attended public schools, completely uncomfortable.

This isn’t the conversation we should be having about high schools, private or public. We should talk about diversity, sure, but maybe we should tackle why boarding school (and high-ranking public school) diversity doesn’t represent the greater demographics of the country whatsoever. Maybe we should talk about how my school had fantastic financial aid (and apparently so did hers) and how we should extend those programs to give even more students more opportunity. Maybe we should talk about how much I miss walking across the frost-bitten quad before breakfast on an October morning, or eating cookies on the floor of a freshman dorm with twenty other hyper, lanky 14-year-old girls. Maybe we should talk about what makes a teacher great, and how my English teachers taught me that I had a voice in classroom discussion because of my difference, not in spite of it. In fact, we should talk about how my high school teachers made me want to inspire other kids like they inspired me. Maybe we should talk about the tough, complicated, and joyful experiences we had as teenagers, and how to give those experiences to a new generation. Maybe we should just talk about how we miss it all, or talk about what we do and don’t miss.

I don’t mean to end rivalries: rivalries are incredibly fun and a valuable tradition of school spirit. But there is a difference between rivalries and actually believing that you are inherently superior by attending one school that you basically got into by chance or luck. Comparing schools won’t get us anywhere if it’s just to show off. It seems especially redundant between two people at the same selective college. The truth is, most private schools do a great job. Many public schools also do a great job. Some public schools don’t, but those students have just as much of a right to education as the rest of us. Talking about how one school is “better” and another school “sucks” sounds a little bit like a game of “my house is bigger than yours.” Maybe we should be inviting other people over to these houses. Maybe we should go fix the broken houses down the street.


All that said: beat Choate.


Image Credit: Lena Mazel