Dear High School, you were the biggest Bully of them all.
An open letter to Trinity High School.
When the administration and faculty of your school chooses to ignore the cause, but punish the symptoms, they become the cause. The only one that pays is the child.
I graduated from the exclusive Trinity High School in New York in 1990, 25 years ago; long enough ago to be told on numerous occasions “it was just high school.” I went to my reunion recently where I saw an old teacher who apologized to me. He is the only person to ever say he was sorry for the nearly four years of torture I suffered by the hands of students and the administration of that institution. An apology I thought I didn’t need any longer.
Trinity High School has been consistently in the top 10 high schools in the country. It boasts some of the most powerful parents and richest children in the United States. Its acceptance rate into Ivy League colleges is unparalleled, as is its tuition. Currently tuition for the first 3 years of high school is $44,570 annually. Your senior year at Trinity will be $45,130 dollars. As a teen I took a loan to attend. I received a good amount of financial aid and was considered fortunate for the gift of education Trinity would grant me. Every Wednesday of my high school career I spent 45 minutes in an auditorium with a giant cross looming above my head while various privileged kids, parents and faculty reminded me that we were there to continue the long tradition of “pursuing excellence” Trinity had forged since 1709.
I grew up in downtown Manhattan, in the 70s. A time of great divide. I was an exceptionally bright child and attended special city programs for the gifted. I was admitted into an incredible private grade school with almost a full tuition ride. As a child it was instilled in me the importance of not only my education, but the name brands behind it. The essays you read about competitive nursery schools being the spring board into the elite New York private school world are 100% accurate. From the time I was in 1st grade it was made clear to me that my school brand choices would be the difference between an adult life of success (post Ivy-league acceptance) or mediocrity. I decided at the age of 8 I wanted to be a mathematician and go to Harvard.
I was accepted into every elite high-school that was part of the 7 inter-school system in New York City. Scholarships and financial aid given to me because of my grades and achievements through the age of 13, I chose Trinity because it was the best. As long as I continued to perform as I always had, Harvard would be a formality.
My first day of high-school three young men approached me in a hall where I was quietly waiting for my next class. They asked if I was free that period and wanted to hang out in the park. I was flattered, as any 13 year old girl would be. I explained I couldn’t leave the building as I was a freshman. It didn’t occur to me the boys knew this, why would it? Why would anyone want to play a prank on a perfect stranger the very first 6 hours of the school year? My explanation resulted in three of the most popular boys in school running down the halls screaming “NERD” over and over alerting everyone that I was clearly worthless. Those three boys continued to recruit others over the years to join in the spectacle that would be my daily humiliation. Until eventually I found myself 3 years later trapped on a bus with 45 teen age boys and two faculty members for 3 hours. I was threatened, had my property ripped from me and stolen, abused and tortured without aid thanks to a traffic jam in a tunnel.
My situation was not unknown. As I know for many children who are bullied, the administration and faculty were painfully aware of the treatment I was receiving. But I “didn’t fit in” so it was really on me, according to my Dean, to try and change so I could make it work. The longer I proceeded to be, “as I was”, the more I had to accept it was my fault. I “was” a downtown kid with a dad who drove a cab for a living, and a mother who wrote educational textbooks that didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the picture my high-school painted.
The gang of boys (and yes, boys in a dress code can be a gang) would call my home regularly between 2 and 3am using new found conference call technology to conference in my Dean as well. They would scream that I was a bitch, a whore, that I was a fat cunt. My Dean, the woman assigned to keep order and protect the students, let me know if she received another call at 3am from the boys tormenting me I would suffer disciplinary action. As the years went on I was labelled angry, rude, withdrawn. My teachers were instructed prior to a new school year that I was not to be tolerated, and any sense of insubordination by me was to be handled by the then Dean. I was in her office weekly. She pulled me out of classes, she insisted I see the school guidance counselor, and then had the counselor share the details of our sessions — made aware to me when I was forced to sit in her office with the guidance counselor to explain why I felt like my Dean was singling me out — something told in confidence.
The gang of boys in their teens who thought stealing my belongings, threatening my safety, isolating me as someone to avoid I can forgive. And for the most part have, not to their awareness, and for my own growth. The faculty and administration of the Trinity School, which tried to expel me, leave me back, push me out by harassing me and my family, I will never.
I’m often asked why I didn’t leave. My grades suffered so dramatically because of the systematic abuse that my option to switch to a school of equal caliber was lost. I was either going to graduate from Trinity and hope to god the name of the school would hold enough weight to counter my performance, or I would never see a decent college. At least that is what was ingrained in me. So I stayed.
Despite all the efforts of my Dean to get me to leave, including multiple conversations with my parents about how: I wasn’t suited for the school, my admission was a mistake, and if they didn’t pull me out there was no way I would succeed there; I stayed. This affront to her authority turned out to be significantly worse than any bullying a 15 year old child could do.
Being bullied is horrifying. You fear getting up in the morning. You dread walking down hallways, you show up to school at 6am so you can be in a classroom before the rest of the students arrive to avoid confrontation. You hide your belongings. You leave the building every chance you can. You sit in the back of the class and hope to just not be noticed. You suffer. Everything suffers. You become depressed, you become alone, you start to fail at everything you do, you stop loving the things you loved, and everyone around you begins to doubt you because “at a certain point you must have done something to deserve this”. When you fight back, you’re a troublemaker, you’re belligerent, you’re unwilling to compromise, you are difficult. In my case, you are subjected to 8 weeks of Saturday detention for skipping the class a gauntlet of boys crowded in front of to spit on you and trip you as you tried to get to the door. When the administration and faculty of your school choose to ignore the cause, but punish the symptoms, they become the cause. The only one that pays is the child; and I paid. I paid in cash, in time, in grades, and most of all in confidence.
The day after I was tortured on that bus, a bus I begged in advance not to be on because I knew exactly what would happen, I stayed home, paralyzed in fear. The boys on that bus called my home all night telling me that they would kill me, beat me, if I showed up the next day without a cassette they claim I stole — Gun’s and Roses’ Appetite for Destruction — I never had it. I bought a copy the following day while I was out of school so I could return with it and just give it to the gang so I could be left alone. The day I returned to school I was surrounded by the boys, they chanted, pulled, poked while I found the cassette copy to give them so I could just be left in peace. Just one day of being left alone is all I wanted. They ripped it from me, laughed, and stomped on it till it cracked. “Stupid fat bitch. Why the fuck would we want anything from you?” I refused to cry. I spent a great deal of High School refusing to cry.
Later that day my Dean called me to her office, pulled me out of French class to tell me that as a result of my absence the prior day I had reached the maximum of 7 days absent during a semester and per Trinity rules I was to be expelled. This was a rule from the 1700s she decided to invoke. My closest friend in high-school had missed a total of 32 days that year, we counted. I explained to the Dean what happened, and she curtly responded “I know, Harrison told me yesterday, but that is no excuse for you to miss the school day. You need to take your attendance here seriously.” I sat shocked. I asked if she was doing anything to punish the others, what was going to be done to help me? The answer was simple, nothing, there was nothing to be done, I should have known better to than to be on that bus antagonizing those kids, “why must I always blame others for my defiant attitude.” An attitude I’m still asking myself right now if maybe she was right about.
Weeks proceeded as she held over my head that any day I could be escorted from school. I continued to be harassed with impunity because it was clear to everyone there were no consequences except to me. It was my Junior year of high-school. The year at Trinity where they hammer into your head the thing between you and the ‘pursuit of excellence’ was your performance. As a representative of Trinity your failure was a blemish they would not accept. The dean held weekly meetings with the faculty arguing for my expulsion, if I was lucky I would be left back.
After months the decision came down that I would not be expelled, or left back, I would be given a second chance. As punishment for my attendance issues I would fail my Junior year. My grades, exams, tests, homework, everything that year was irrelevant. The days I had showed up to be accosted, the nights I would endure grotesque calls from drunken teen boys just to get into college were worthless. I would complete a “semester” of work assigned to me by teachers during the first 3 weeks of summer after the school session had ended. The grades I received during that time would be averaged into the failing grades to be my final record for the year. My Biology teacher at the time refused to give an assignment. My first day of the punishment, working in a supply closet next to the Dean’s office, the Dean let me know she left my biology teacher a message saying if he didn’t come up with an assignment, she would come up with one that would make me cry. He never called her back. Her assignment was I write a paragraph on every paragraph in my Biology textbook. I could not complete the assignment. My Junior year was on record ruined. My family wanted to sue. I declined as I just wanted it over.
Colleges rejected me; as we knew they would. The school counselor recommendation letter that was required was written by my Dean explaining that I was terminal disciplinary problem. That was all. No kind words, no stories of redemption, just proceed at your own risk. A few teachers came to support me. Wrote additional letters countering. I could not tell admissions interviewers that I was harassed for years and my prestigious school not only did nothing, they contributed, who would believe a desperate kid trying to cover up three years of poor performance?
I graduated. I was luckily accepted to Kenyon College after being wait-listed thanks to personal recommendations, my creative writing skills, and my relentless pursuit to be accepted. I was offered no financial aid my Freshman year of college as a test. If I performed well, the following years would be met with assistance. No matter what my high school would report, I was smart. I have always been smart and strong, so my Freshman year of college was met with great success leading to a great experience in Ohio where I could be academic again. When I was to be featured by Trinity for my success in technology and the internet as an adult, my former dean, now Head of the School, protested. I was 26 and still considered a blemish in her eyes.
I am in my 40s now. I am successful, loved, challenged properly, and when I attended my 25th year high school reunion I was absolved by one theater teacher in a moment he probably won’t remember.
The Dean of my school eventually retired, a lauded educator responsible for generations of industry titans.
I write this with little hope of anything changing, with a great deal of awareness that the problem for children who are bullied lies with the adults who reinforce the torture through inaction, acceptance, and what becomes silent encouragement. You are responsible for the lives of children, children are not a brand, they are not a statistic, and they are not responsible for your ranking in U.S. News and World Report. They are precious malleable minds that you fail. You failed me Trinity. My success and my happiness is in spite of all your efforts to the contrary. To my former Dean: Suellyn Preston (Scull) I suspect you will chalk this up to “she was always an angry youth”, and I was, I was very angry — one day I hope you answer for that because it took me 25 years to finally hear it wasn’t my fault.
Please note, the views and opinion reflected in this essay are solely my own.