by James Killough
The other day I received a highly unusual email from the alumni association of my alma mater, Trinity School in New York City:
You may have read or heard about an article which appears on The Daily Beast as well as allegations which have been posted on a variety of social networking websites by a Trinity parent. We regret any confusion or discomfort these postings may have caused you. The School’s responsibility to maintain the privacy of individuals and the confidentiality which must surround our conversations with students and families, even now, precludes our giving you a full account of this matter. That said, we assure you that Trinity has acted appropriately in every respect and that any and all allegations and insinuations being made concerning Trinity’s trustees, the School’s endowment and finances, and our personnel are, each and every one, entirely baseless and utterly false.
Of course, I dashed to the article in The Daily Beast, a site I read fairly religiously, normally with the hope of catching out my evil twin Andrew Sullivan on some silliness, but his personal daily beast seems to have been tamed since he merged his blog with that site. Under most circumstances, some demented parent’s squabble with the trustees and administration of a school is hardly worth mentioning beyond the fervent gossip around the coffee urn outside a PTA meeting. But Seema Kalia is a demented parent who is taking on “the nation’s number 1 prep school,” as the blurb introducing the article notes. And the nation’s number one school has unleashed its own kraken against her, so if I were Seema Kalia I’d back the fuck down now, maybe go get really shit-faced with a few girlfriends, whine and complain, and then let that rancor go like so many helium balloons… way, way up in the air, floating away… wave bye-bye to your hatred, Seema-jan…
I haven’t researched it, but the attribution of Trinity as the nation’s number one prep school is because Forbes Magazine ranked it that way. Of course, it’s great embellishment for any ranconteur to be able to say, “When I attended the nation’s best prep school, which by extension means it’s the best prep school in the world….” That is all a ranconteur really is, see: a braggart with a sense of plot and a few good punch lines.
As much as I would like to be James Killough, graduate of the Best School In The Whole Wild World, Class of ’81, I’m not sure the criteria by which Forbes measures schools is necessarily correct. For a start, many of the schools on their list are located in New York, which physically can’t offer a student what boarding schools located in rural areas, like Andover or St. Paul’s, can in terms of the facilities, the expansiveness of their campuses. Having said that, New York City in itself is the most expansive and mind-expanding campus a parent could hope for, and it’s no longer the glorified dangerous slum it was when I was a kid, so maybe they have a point.
It’s interesting to read the semi-worshipful tone of the article, which, among other grandiose adjectives, calls the school “tony.” I never thought of it that way. Aside from the Broadway, puttin’-on-the-Ritz images the word tony conjures, strictly speaking it means fashionable, stylish. Trinity is too bedrock musty-crusty to be that, and I know I’m quibbling, but I don’t care. In fact, I’d have to say that when I first transferred there from St. Stephen’s in Rome, I found the place to be rather nebbishy. Trinity is the oldest continuously running school in the New World. It isn’t fashionable, it’s an sensibly hatted institution, like the Queen.
Of the two prep schools I attended for high school, I preferred St. Stephens in Rome for the quality of life, but I got a far better education at Trinity. It was worth every penny, and still is. Fashionable, however, it was not. True, Vanity Fair’s Elizabeth Saltzman, who was my sister’s best friend and shared a yearbook page with her, was there when I was there, and her brother David wasn’t a schlub, either. But the rest of the school? I was from Rome, where even the street sweeper is well dressed. There was nothing stylish or fashionable about Trinity from my point of view.
When they told me there was a dress code at Trinity — jacket and tie, no jeans or sneakers — I dutifully went out and bought two well-made Italian jackets that I would alternate every other day, plus a seven-day rotation of ties according to the basic dictum that a gentleman need never change his suit, just his tie. My shirts were pretty standard Oxfords, some plain, some striped. The most remarkable thing, I suppose, were my tasseled loafers, also Italian. Preppies didn’t wear tasseled Gucci loafers. But preppies are boors, always have been, always will be. Ask Auntie Mame.
Again, I grew up in a culture that used expressions like “being badly dressed is social suicide” more often than they said “dolce vita.” I never removed my jacket or tie while at school, and kept it on until I got home. The knot in my tie wasn’t even loosened a centimeter by the end of the day. The monolingual American crypto-Neanderthals (I thought) who were my classmates at Trinity ripped their ties off the minute they were out of school doors, as if they were nooses around their necks. With the exception of people like Elizabeth Saltzman and her clique, nobody was stylish in a way that I was raised to think of it.
Nick Summers also uses another embarrassing adjective in his TDB article: “The patrician Trinity School is caught in a social media dilemma.…” Italics are mine. At first I thought this was more hyperbole about a fairly normal private school that just happens to be comparatively old in relation to where it is located. Patrician to me is Eton. If it applies at all to Americans, it is to a mercifully dying breed of Knickerbocker Club members and the ilk, people who speak like William F. Buckley or George Plimpton. If they went to Trinity, I never saw them. But true toffs like that tend not to go to Trinity; they go to boarding school and stay there while their parents stay drunk. In any case, Trinity the school is far more diverse now than it was in my day, which was already sixty percent Jewish, a rather high proportion given that the institution’s full name is Trinity Episcopal School, originally the parochial school of the very non-Jewish Trinity Church on Wall Street. Trinity now even has a Director of Diversity, which in cocktail parlance is called a mixologist.
This is because Trinity has always been about academics, which at the end of the day is what makes it if not the best, then among the very best schools in the country. I am fixating on “patrician” meaning an inherited attribute, like a patrician Roman nose. A school like Trinity is a training ground for the plutocracy that rules this country, regardless of ethnic or sociocultural background. So in that sense, which I’m sure is not the sense Mr. Summers means, it is a patrician school: it produces the wealth-producing class who will one day rule us all. And that is no longer the lock-jawed white protestant good old boy, Jesus be praised.
A few months into my junior year, my sartorial fastidiousness and general patrician Roman demeanor was finally remarked upon by Trinity’s administration. I was having a hard time fitting in; I missed my friends in Rome, I had nothing in common with these rather bellicose New York kids who did not appreciate how to turn a dress code into a fashion advantage. But I am not exactly a shrinking violet, and for a long time many of my classmates thought I was some sort of teacher’s assistant. Eventually, I was hauled into the headmaster’s office. He was there with the associate head. They had been discussing me with what appeared to be some gravity.
“How are you getting on, James?”
“You don’t seem to be making any friends.” Well, properly speaking I had two friends, a budding lesbian who never said anything and kept a pet rat, and her best friend, whose brother had really great pot, which we smoked every morning break, which meant I was baked until well after lunch, which definitely contributed to my patrician demeanor. But I couldn’t mention them because unless you smoked cigarettes and weed over morning coffee, you were unlikely to have seen us together. Plus, they were girls and I knew Americans frowned on boys who were probably gay being friends with just girls.
“I have friends in Rome.”
“I suppose what we’re trying to say is you seem to be a bit aloof,” said the headmaster, who was British, so that sounded like an extra really terrible thing to be. The problem is, I had no idea what aloof meant. When you live in a completely bilingual world, some words get dropped. And in a world like Rome’s where everyone is aloof, what’s the point in describing it?
“Yes,” nodded his cohort. “Very aloof.” I let them waffle on about this aloof thing for a while and then promised to reform my evil ways and ran up to the library to look up the word. I saw it meant I was being a snob. Oh. Nothing wrong with that. I was doing well, as far as I was concerned. At least they weren’t worried that I was gay, like I was. That would come later, when Betsy Crane and half the football team would bust me coming out of a gay bar with…. But that’s for another blog post.
The best thing about Nick Summer’s article is the comments Daily Beast readers have left. It’s amazing how much hatred is directed towards the rich. Frankly, I hate the poor even more, because I’m now one of them and it fucking sucks.
Sort of speaking of my memoirs, I’ve started a serialized fiction piece on Diane Pernet’s blog. I’ve known Diane since the 80s, when we were all art/fashion people downtown. This was before they came up with tatty terms like “fashionista.” We were just well dressed and interested. Diane has been a huge supporter of this blog, and she wanted me to write a fiction piece about the fashion world, which at first I thought a bit daunting. What was I supposed to write about? Murder on the runway? Then I just decided to fictionalize those early years when she knew me as a magazine editor. I’m having a blast with it. Definitely a possible book idea.