Monday, September 17, 2007

review: "restless virgins: love, sex, and survival at a new england prep school" - abigail jones & marissa miley

"restless virgins: love, sex, and survival at a new england prep school," by abigail jones and marissa miley, attempts to reconstruct the experience of milton academy's senior class of 2005 through the eyes of seven students-- a sampling of jocks, arty kids, popular girls, etc-- as they weather not just their own teen experiences with school, pressure, and sex, but reconcile the events of one monday in january when a sophomore girl performed oral sex on five varsity hockey players in their own locker room; despite its best efforts, however, "virgins" is a bland exercise in teenspoiltation that does no justice to its subjects, the general student body, or the incident it's so sensationally centered around.

see that? that's a (mediocre) thesis statement. it would be followed by three topic sentences, and then those topic sentences would each get their own paragraph of supporting evidence, and then there would be a conclusive paragraph that reiterated by thesis statement in a new and exciting way. if i were to do it for real, without the help of my mom, i would probably get a b or a b+. i was always a solid b+ student. at milton academy. go 'stangs. sup.

but since my reviews are generally a structureless ramble of opinion and bullshit, let's just start with exploring milton academy. the story got picked up by the media-- got turned into this book, and by two fellow graduates no less-- in large part because the lewd act in question took place at 200+ year old milton academy, alma mater of ts elliot, ted kennedy, and james taylor. milton academy, home to the offspring of the east coast elite. milton academy, that prep school that (isn't exeter or st. pauls but) matters for some reason. they find a way to slip these facts in the book at least a couple times. the school mentions these facts every chance they get.

and then there's the truth-- yes, milton is almost 210, but the aging process has been awkward, from being all boys to separate girls and boys schools to a co-ed campus where the p.e. program was the last to integrate (and many, say, those forced to play dodgeball with a bunch of angry he-juniors from wolcott house, wish it stayed single-sex).

ts elliot attended milton for just one year (his senior year), ted kennedy is rumored to have been almost expelled for cheating (just to be saved by his last name), and james taylor spent a year or two at milton before transferring to the arlington school, which is the academic program at mcclean hospital, where he went to overcome a rumored heroin addiction.

so as milton has always struggled to compete with the bigger new england prep schools-- see how many of our students go to ivy league schools, did we mention we educated a kennedy, how about that speech team-- it seems they finally made a name for themselves. as the blow job school.

i didn't know much about the hockey scandal when it broke, just what my parents told me from the globe-- that an underclassman blew a bunch of hockey players on school property, and then the rumor spun out of control, and the hockey players got dc'd (went before a discipline committee made up of faculty, admin, and student leaders), expelled, and were facing possible rape charges and sex offender status. and i believe my reaction james taylor shot up in the library twenty years ago. what else is new.

for the record, i don't hate milton. my college education paled in comparison, i made great friends there who i'm still close with today, and the classic milton 5 paragraph essay (described above) will probably come in handy until i die. there was one thing about milton that always bothered me, though-- one thing that i'm sure hasn't changed, and is true at any competitive place of learning-- and that was the all-or-nothing mentality.

if you have a nice singing voice, that's great, but if you can't hold your own in a 6 part harmony of a song in latin, the only singing you're going to do is in the shower. if you like field hockey, that's good, but if you're not a captain by senior year with field hockey recruiters hounding your parents (if such recruiters exist), then why are you wasting your time? and if you like anything this school has to offer, we're ever so pleased, but if you aren't one of the best people at this school in your field of interest, we encourage you to go fuck yourself.

not meeting the best-or-no-dice standard was just one of the many reasons i felt like an outsider there. then there was the fact i'm a jew, and not just a jew, but a jew who had previously gone to a jewish day school where harsh israeli teachers, women who'd done time in the zahal and spent their finite supply of patience on suicide bombers from hamas, tried to drill hebrew into my brain for seven years with all the gentleness of krav maga.

at milton, if you had to miss a day, even for religious reasons, you had to get a special slip signed by all of your teachers from the classes you'd miss, granting you permission (to attend shul), and, best of all, the slip was routinely printed on the academy's finest marigold paper. that first september, age 12, i was a jew in a sea of wasps, a bat mitzvah in a crowd of coming out parties, clutching my bright yellow third reich paper to be excused for my belief in my bizarro not-jesus-god. it set a girl apart. that and the fact i didn't have the good sense to shop at j. crew.

the biggest reason i didn't fit the milton mold, however, was the unfortunate fact that, in the immortal words of ashlee simpson and her original nose, i am me, and that was really the only thing i excelled at. being good at me, or at least teenaged me, entailed focusing only on subjects i liked, being nice only to the teachers i deemed worthy, and paying attention only to/not heaping scorn upon the people i deemed to be not assholes. it also included being mouthy, not understanding the basic rules of social interaction (i like to thank the israeli-ettes for that-- there is, after all, no hebrew word for tact), and being easily pissed off. oh, and a dude named john fluevog. (get in your time machine, kids, it made sense at the time.)

long story short (and it really was going to be a long story-- how i went off on my journey to rejecting acceptance, even including the heartbreaking story of how hurt i was not to be invited to the south shore plaza to buy sambas with all the popular girls in 7th grade!), i didn't meet the milton standard, and as such, i rejected the standard entirely and found refuge, either in the company of my friends, the tv in my bedroom, or the new releases rack at the newbury comics in harvard square.

there were certainly cliques at milton-- white hats (jocks), nerds, members of the forbes family-- but in my experience, there was no clique envy. between being saved by the pixies thanks to a kind counselor at summer camp when i was 13 and generally being an angry little fucker, i didn't give a shit about going to parties thrown by those assholes on the lacrosse team who all seemed to go clothes shopping together, or at least pass around a catalog.

i had a vague idea of their exploits-- rumors involving beer, vacation homes, almost cartoonish sex acts ("the party on cape cod where dude got so drunk that he fucked girl so hard that her period blood got on the ceiling" was a piece of farrelly-esque gospel)-- but i had no interest in being a part of that world. my major interest was rewatching the "santa claus vs. the martians" episode of mystery science theater. and i'm as unashamed of it now as i was then.

i can't speak for all of my friends (none of whom were as dorky/disaffected as i was), but even if they did yearn to party on weekends in someone's empty mcmansion, they didn't seem unhappy with the world we'd set up for ourselves; formal pot luck dinner parties, concerts/readings at school that we'd organized via the school groups we were a part of, or, most often, just going to chili's in harvard square, seeing a movie, and ending up at elanor's house later that night eating chicken flavored stove top.

(a, chili's was such a great training restaurant, like one step between mcdonalds and an eatery that doesn't have a frialator, i regret none of my crispy chicken sizzlies or whatever, and b, elanor lived on campus because her mom worked at the school, and they shopped at costco and always had warehouse flats-worth of stove top in the basement, no idea why, but thankgiving always makes me think of milton at night).

if it sounds like it wasn't a particularly sexy high school experience, it wasn't, but i don't think mine was the only group that wasn't really getting any. when touré, a fellow milton grad, reviewed "virgins" today in the times, he was baffled by the amount of sex this book depicts-- he admitted to graduating from milton a restless virgin himself. and for the record, my friends, my girls with whom i'm still close, are fuckin' babes. and still, back then, nada.

at 5'8", i'm the shortest of the group (3 outta 5 are close to 6 feet) and also probably the least blonde (as in, i'm not. neither is cristie, but she's so tall and lithe that no one can get close enough to her head to know for sure). yet only one of us had a steady milton bf during our time there. yet yet, it didn't seem that weird back then that none of the almost-models i call friends were always single. a lot of people at milton were single. they weren't happy about it, but they weren't alone in how alone they were.

when people think of prep schools, images of bored girls in plaid skirts and dumb horny heirs often come up (see; this book), but kids that are anything like that make up just a fraction of the milton student body. most are kids that worked hard to get in, study to do well, push themselves to get into college, over-intellectualize everything...nerds, basically. even the cool kids, deep down, were nerds. and i mean the smart kind, not the strictly sci-fi kind (ahem).

granted, the guys involved in this incident were hockey players, who are not traditionally the over-intellectual type, and, even in my day, were part of the group from which the party rumors originated. (very few students are admitted to milton's junior and senior classes, except for hockey players, recruited specially, the more canadian the better.) but they're still being told all the time how special they are for being at milton, how lucky they are to be getting a first-class education, how well they'll do in the world once their days at milton end.

and instead of burying their heads in books, heaping on the extra-curriculars, and generally being in a constant, subconcious state of panic that they can't rise to the challenge (or even, as this young philospher did, responding to the challenge with a whatever, i hate you, is ren and stimpy on), they hear how important the school is, and they think something along the lines of, "fuck, yeah," followed by, "and i'm a hockey player at milton academy, so who wants to show me her tits?" minus the "at milton academy" though, and that sentiment is shared by football players, burnouts, thugs, and basically any hormonally-charged, macho teenager in the country or maybe the world. wealth and privilege don't change much.

[side note: the mascots of young wealth in this country are usually people like paris hilton or those terrifying brats on "my super sweet 16." new england wealth-- old money-- is an entirely different animal. we think of the super rich and curse them and their offspring; they're so ostentatious and snobby, just spoiled trust fun kids who turn their nose up at us for shopping at target and driving passats. images of ye olde john hughes movies (and i guess brand spanking new "gossip girls") still ring true, with the "richies" tormenting our financially-challenged heroine just because she doesn't live in a mansion and her dad is harry dean stanton.

for the record, new england/mayflower rich people like the ones i went to school with don't quite work that way. they don't really mock the poor because they never interact with them; they'd never be snobby about your passat because they don't know what that is and don't understand why you don't just buy a range rover, they're so cute! people that have had money for generations don't really have an perspective on how much money they have, especially when they grow up with other rich kids, are educated alongside more rich kids, and then either go to work for the family biz/their friends' dads they've known since their days at the country club pool, or use their wealth to do something righteous and money-losing, like start a sustainable organic dragonfruit farm near their private expanse of maine coastline or host a few ex-gangbangers as artists in residence on the family island off of martha's vineyard.

sure, teens can get brand snobby-- they go on and on in the book about having just the right expensive bag and jeans-- but that's true at any school to some degree. because when i was at milton, it was fashionable to either dress like you'd just gotten off the ferry from nantucket (it's a prep school, after all) or just returned from a sojourn on the appalachian mountain trail. patagonia was a status brand, which, while expensive (aka patagucci), isn't exactly glamorous. fleece is, as a general rule, never glamorous. in ten years, the kids could be wearing the finest in western gear, who knows, but wealth doesn't necessarily set the style/snobbiness bar.

and i say all this because when i hear people get really bitter about those who have more money, trust fund kinds, etc, i don't get it. yes, i know we all want to be very rich and are bitter about those who get wealth without having to earn it, but to me, it just seems like a waste of energy-- for every minute you spend judging someone based on their obscene wealth, they spend absolutely no seconds acknowledging your existence, let alone making fun of your poverty. at least if they're from the north east. and not on mtv.

oh, and as far as jews go, nothing makes us more uncomfortable than talking about how much money we do or don't have, which, for the record, is almost always described as being "comfortable." sure, we have our million dollar bar mitzvah types, but even if you ask the mother of the boy-to-man-to-be, sitting by the pool of her sopranos-esque manse while her husband pulls up in his lexus hybrid suv that matches her own, she'll probably wave one bejeweled hand and say, "feh, we do ok."

because, deep down, we all think that the minute we freely admit to being wealthly, the russians will want to take us down a peg again and before we know it we're bribing our way into steerage with all cash and jewels we could grab sewed into the linings of our coats and t'filin. correct me if i'm wrong, but no jews have had a super sweet mtv 16, and until they do a super sweet 13 with my chemical romance getting paid to sing a torah portion, i think we're in the clear.]

so i guess this is a really long way of saying that the sampling of students in this book don't accurately reflect the student body, but what's worse, their stories (none of which have direct involvement with the incident) don't do much to explain a damned thing. i might be guilty of overwritting (no, me?), but if you want to know why a bunch of teens did something sexual and stupid, i'll still save you 300 pages of reading; it's because they're teens. a fifteen-year-old who understands camus in the original french at a college level doesn't necessarily understand how to deal with his or her sexual desires at any level at all.

and the issues that are interesting-- what actually happened, the cases for and against expelling the girl in question (she wasn't), why girls so smart value their bodies so little-- are mentioned only in passing, certainly not explored to any satisfying end. it could've been a gripping expose of what's actually a surreal, fascinating little community of students and teachers, the portrait of one girl who decided the only way she could meet the all-or-nothing standard was with her body instead of her mind. instead, it's a novelization of "the hills," all faked teen drama and characters we're encouraged to envy/hate. it exists not to explain, but to titillate. and it doesn't even really do that.

kids generally arrive at college excited, friendly, and open to experience, guards down, because everyone at least shares the core bond of wanting to be where they are, and being grateful to be there. nobody at milton seemed happy to be there, maybe because we were exhausted smartasses who were sick of never being good enough at anything, or maybe just because being excited about school is the least cool thing in the world at that age. but i don't blame the school-- they pushed, but they also offered us the best of everything (and if you chose not to take all you could, like i did, well, your/my loss, thanks for the memories, friends, and the great cd collection).

in an all-or-nothing vortex, the first thing to go is simple appreciation-- not just for the good-not-best, but for other, "grayer" things, like complex human relationships. and i guess i was lucky in some ways for rejecting the hard-line status quo, because complex human relationships, great friends, are the best thing i took away from that school.

there are so many things one could take away from a place like milton, but trying to make sense of that experience via an awkward, imposed structure-- an intricate sociological study as 5 paragraph essay/7 student profile that sums up how the school fails-- is a futile exercise. what i want to know now is, aside from all the stuff this book was supposed to explain but didn't, is what the authors' milton experience was like. what they took way from the school to make this book the thing they give back. i think if they worked together on that book, they'd answer a lot more questions, not just for me, but for themselves.


banana split said...

not painful!

Isabella said...

Excellent review! As someone who spent three years at a similar NE prep school, I can say that your experience matched mine to a tee. It's refreshing to hear someone's prep school story that doesn't sound like it came from this week's episode of Gossip Girl!