It comes somewhere between the stuffing and the cheesecake on Thanksgiving night, after introductions and the convoluted explanation as to why I’m in the Poconos with my cousins’ in-laws rather than home in California for the holidays: The Question.
“I go to a boarding school in Massachusetts,” I find myself telling just about every member of my extended family.
Inevitably, The Question arises.
Since I began the application process over a year ago, I’ve had to face The Question countless times. My teachers asked it when I requested recommendations. My friends asked it when I confided my hopes to them. My interviewers asked it when I came to visit schools last summer.
Some of them are honestly curious. The majority just can’t conceive of anyone wanting to leave home at sixteen. When I tell people I go to Andover, most of them react in one of two ways. They ask, “What did you do?” as if I’ve been sent away. Or they say, “So far from home! Weren’t there any schools in California?” as if the main concern in choosing a prep school is its proximity to home.
In addition to the Question, stereotypes about prep school often come up when visiting home or relatives.
My friends often use reference the stereotype of an overprivileged prep school brat. When I object to their generalizations, they just brush me off with excuses like, “you know what I mean.”
And I did.
The truth is, many people see prep school students as pretentious, privileged youths who have never had to work for anything. They assume we all come from wealthy families, that we’ve had our lives handed to us on gold platters and that we were born with silver spoons. They joke about kids buying their ways into the best schools as though our own merits have bearing on our admission.
I find myself unable to convince people of the truth: That nearly half of Andover students receive financial assistance; That siblings and legacies are turned away each year; That kids are here because they deserve to be, not because their parents have connections. They think I’m here because my parents were tired of dealing with me and had enough money to send me away. I try to tell them I’m here because I want to be.
They never understand.
I did it because I had exhausted the curriculum at my old school. I wanted to get out of California and go to a school where the students weren’t only trying to pass, but also to learn. I wanted to go because I grew up with Harry Potter and A Little Princess and boarding school sounded like an adventure. Because when I was a little girl, my mom took me to Andover (she herself graduated in ‘76) and I fell in love with it. I did it because I was ready to be independent.
As most, if not all, Andover students know, there isn’t an easy answer to The Question. But we’ve all boiled it down to a manageable reply. Most kids have an anecdote they’ve perfected or a joke they’ve adopted. Everyone has a response, because everyone needs one. The Question comes up unfailingly with each new acquaintance.
As we enter extended period week, it’s going to be asked more than ever. But this time, it won’t come in the form of a skeptical query from a relative or classmate. This time, we’ll be asking ourselves as we attempt to make sense of our Chemistry notes or write another paragraph for English.
Why on earth did I come here?
Luckily, we’ve all had to face The Question before. If we know anything, it’s how to find our answer.
Annika Neklason is new Upper from Santa Cruz, CA.