Suicide, Secrecy and Bones: A Night at the Andover Bookstore

We all know what it’s like to be a prep school student: work overload, sports pressure and potentially dull weekends are expected. However, no one talks about the sinister hazing, framed suicides and secret societies running rampant just beyond the eyes of the school administration – no one, that is, except for Randall Peffer, an Instructor in English at Phillips Academy. This past Thursday, October 2, Peffer read some passages from his latest novel, “Old School Bones,” to a packed crowd of Phillips Academy students, faculty, alumni and townspeople at the Andover Bookstore. The reading consisted of two chapters from early on in the story that gave the audience a good feel of what was to come later on. The story, a mix of mystery and thrills, is set at the Tolchester-Coates School, a New England boarding school, not unlike our own, with it’s fair share of scandal. The plot revolves around Tolchester-Coates’s underworld, which is filled with secret societies, racist pigs and even murder. When asked about similarities between Tolchester and Phillips, Peffer described his creation as “everything Andover tries really hard not to be.” Andover students played a big role in realizing Peffer’s “Old School Bones.” Ironically, Peffer originally swore to never write a prep school book. This assertion has clearly been revoked, appropriately because of an Andover student. When one of Mr. Peffer’s students decided to do some in depth research on secret societies at Phillips Academy for a paper, Peffer got very interested in the idea. The book came next. The student’s enthusiasm for an independent project on secret societies helped establish the design of the story. Later, while writing the novel, Peffer asked his classes how one might get away with framing a suicide without any sign of struggle or anything that would show up on a drug test – an important plot point in “Old School Bones.” Always the bright ones, they replied, “Roofies.” “I thought it was cool that Peffer’s students inspired his book and gave him ideas for the plot line,” said Aubrey Zimmerling ’09 in an email to The Phillipian. It turns out that secret societies at Phillips Academy are not as much of a myth as they may seem. They existed on campus up until the 1940s when a fraternity hazing ended fatally for one student, causing the societies to be banned indefinitely. This tragic turn of events is echoed in the first chapter of “Old School Bones” when one of the primary characters, Gracie Liu, has a dream of a terrifying hazing ceremony. In her nightmare, she and a group are forced to swim out in the freezing cold waters of Lake Hourglass (read Rabbit Pond) at night while the older kids throw rocks at them from the shore. I suppose it is dreams and haunting descriptions like that one that are the reasons for the anti-hazing forms all students must sign at the beginning of each year. At the end of the talk, many students grabbed their own personal, signed copies of “Old School Bones,” myself included. I found that I’d learned a bit about the story, a bit about the writing process and a lot about Phillips Academy lore. It was a great reading, and it was chilling to say the least to discover both the unnerving hidden chapters of Andover’s history and the chapters of Peffer’s new novel.