This past week, I came home from work to find on my kitchen counter a 50th-birthday card from Landon School, the boys’ prep school I attended — which is just down the road, and not all that different, from Georgetown Prep, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s alma mater. On the front was a picture of a much younger me in a coat and tie, the dress code. Inside, six of my former instructors, all terrific teachers who have dedicated many decades to the school for mediocre pay, had written short greetings. It was a charming reminder of all that I liked about the place.
But the greeting landed one day after Christine Blasey Ford said in The Washington Post that Kavanaugh had drunkenly pinned her on her back and groped her when he was a high school junior. Ford had attended Holton-Arms, Landon’s sister school. I have no special knowledge about that night many decades ago — I never knew Ford or Kavanaugh, a man three years my senior who vehemently denies the allegation — but I do remember plenty about the culture of these same-sex programs, not all of it good. I began reaching out to old friends from Landon and Prep to see if they recalled the same misogynistic culture that I did.
All of the teachers who signed my 50th-birthday card were men. The few women who signed it all worked as administrators. This fact was no doubt a product of Landon’s culture in the 1980s: In my memory, we tested and terrorized the female teachers with petty acts of harassment, such as collectively staring at an eighth-grade earth science teacher’s breasts or dropping our pencils in unison at a specific time in the middle of her class (a feat we did not repeat for any male instructors). After several days of this behavior, the young science teacher broke down in tears. The reason I can recall only the names of my male teachers from that period is because the women usually didn’t stay long. (Today, Landon says that about one-third of its upper-school teachers are women, a big and welcome increase from my time at the school.)
“We definitely were terrible to the female teachers,” said Patrick Breen, a lifelong friend who is now a history professor at Providence College in Rhode Island. He remembered the middle-school Spanish teacher who felt angry and harassed when someone from my class put a jock strap on her dog, which she brought to school.
A few of the male teachers contributed to this culture. One U.S. history teacher introduced us to women’s suffrage by calling on a student who was often unprepared for class and asking him to tell us all he knew about the movement. The student stuttered and stammered for a few seconds. “That’s enough,” the teacher declared with finality, in a way that made clear he was dispensing with the subject, not the student.
A childhood friend, who asked not to be named, attended Georgetown Prep and remembered Kavanaugh as a decent and “very conservative” person. His memories of Prep were less rosy. He recalled the Friday morning announcements, usually delivered by a high school senior. “After the [football] game, there will be a mixer. Girls from Holy Cross, Holy Child and Visitation . . . will . . . be . . . available,” he remembered the announcer saying lasciviously. The joke, my friend said, was a part of daily life, accepted by teachers and students. “It was gross,” he said. “I remember nothing else from high school. But I remember that.”
The girls — now women — of Holton-Arms have been wrestling with their own memories of that time and have come up with a definitive assessment of the culture. This past week more than 1,000 Holton alumnae signed a letter in support of Ford. Her account of being attacked was “all too consistent with stories we heard and lived while attending Holton,” their letter said.
One friend who attended Holton-Arms commuted to Landon to take a high school French class as part of an early experiment in co-education. “I loved Holton, and I loved French, and that experience stuck out in my mind as horrific,” she told me, asking to remain anonymous out of concern that her family would be harassed. She recalled being shoved off the bleachers at a football game by one Landon student and thrown, fully clothed, into a swimming pool by another. Several of her friends in recent days remembered Landon students driving past the Holton campus and screaming “beaver” from their car. “I hated it,” she told me by email, “but thought it was just normal.”
My memories of Landon aren’t all dark; there was a great deal of good, too. Maybe because it was an all-boys school, and we didn’t need to prove ourselves to girls, there seemed to be less bullying. For a prep school, the student body was diverse, with a heavy concentration of Jews and Muslims whose parents did not want them attending religiously affiliated programs. Many years later, when I headed off to report from Iraq and Afghanistan, I already knew a little bit about Islam from my fellow students, who fasted during Ramadan, wore special uniforms to cover their arms and legs at cross-country meets and used an empty biology classroom to pray. In my memory, their identity as valued classmates was more important than any differences between us.
And while the place was about as homophobic as you’d expect for a school full of insecure teenage boys in the 1980s — I didn’t blink when someone casually used a gay slur — the students from my era who have come out as gay seem like they’ve been embraced by their fellow classmates. “I knew I couldn’t be gay [at Landon]. It took me 21 years to get comfortable with who I was,” said Vincent Santillo, an old friend who is now a primary-care physician in New York. “I was able to pass, which kept me safe. But happily the world changed on our watch, and my classmates changed as well.” For years he has been disappointed by invitations that asked alumni to bring their “wives or significant others,” overlooking the fact that he has a husband. But he says he and his husband have felt welcomed at these events.
These changes raise the question of whether the culture of casual misogyny and heavy drinking that existed in the 1980s matters today. If an intoxicated Kavanaugh sexually assaulted Ford at a high school party back then, should it affect his suitability for the Supreme Court? Megan Garber, in the Atlantic, writes compellingly of “the deeper venality of the boys-being-boys defense” that has been marshaled in support of the nominee: “It normalizes. It erases the specific details of Christine Blasey Ford’s stated recollections with the soggy mop of generalized male entitlement.”
One way for Kavanaugh to handle the accusations against him would be to admit some boorish behavior decades ago, and then use the rest of his life as an example to prove that he has risen above the toxic sexism and misogyny of his youth. (This, of course, runs counter to President Trump’s advice, as recounted in Bob Woodward’s book “Fear,” about how to deal with such allegations. “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on these women,” he is quoted as telling a friend. “If you admit to anything and any culpability, then you’re dead.”)
But an acknowledge-and-atone approach is not easy for individuals or institutions. Nine years ago, a group of Landon boys was caught devising a game in which they earned points based on sex acts with girls. The incident made headlines around the same time that a former star athlete at the school was arrested, and later convicted, of murdering his ex-girlfriend at the University of Virginia. I told the school’s alumni director then that Landon should publicly own up to the problems with its culture and outline a plan to fix them. As a school dedicated to educating boys, I thought, Landon should be an example. In a frustrating exchange, he brushed off my concerns as overwrought. The school’s response seemed to deny that there was a widespread problem.
In the years since, the school has instituted programs, in coordination with Holton, that emphasize the value of diversity when it comes to race, religion, ethnicity and gender identity. Students are taught about healthy relationships and consent. “Our goal is to produce responsible, caring, compassionate men who make a difference. That’s our reason for being,” said James Neill, the head of school. “All of this work is central to that goal.”
I have no doubt that most of my peers overcame the toxic attitudes that swirled around them during their formative years. We headed off to college and into the workplace and realized that some of the notions we took for granted decades ago could be damaging. I don’t keep in close contact with many of my former classmates, but when I run into them around Washington, I usually find them to be thoughtful, kind and interesting people who recognize the flaws in the Landon we knew. “I loved Landon but looking at it retrospectively through the lens of the father of two daughters, I would not consider sending my son there,” wrote Steve Pokorny, a classmate of mine, thinking back to the sexism that clouded our minds. It’s a widespread sentiment among my peers.
My friend Patrick made the point that in today’s polarized political environment, it might be impossible for Kavanaugh to acknowledge mistakes and receive the forgiveness he would need to rise to the Supreme Court. “The story of development and growth is not a way that he can cast his story, because the #MeToo world hasn’t really figured out a way to distinguish between events and people.” The facts of an event are frozen in time and never change. People, of course, do.
What happens next is a matter for the Senate and the nation. But one thing should not be in doubt: Ideas that we consider anachronistic today — about women, male entitlement, even what we now call rape culture — were not just common views of that era. They thrived at places like Georgetown Prep, which Kavanaugh, in his confirmation hearing, called “very formative.”
Three years ago, Kavanaugh jokingly said in a speech that “what happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep. That’s been a good thing for all of us.” Today a better accounting of what went on at places like Georgetown Prep might help us all see our flaws more clearly.
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