Monday, April 4, 2011

Prep Schooling

This is obviously not Cocoa,
but almost identical to what she looked like.
 One of the strangest, most surreal years of my life was my freshman year in high school.  That was the year I attended Thacher, a preparatory school in my hometown.  Since I only went for one year, and subsequently went to a public high school the other three, I can mentally compare the two, and definitively say that the experiences are COMPLETE and TOTAL polar opposites of one another.  But there is something to be said for anything relating to a prep school, because, well, prep schools are pretty damn weird, and, as much as I struggled at Thacher, my year there was also peculiarly magical and memorable in a hazy, almost surreal way.  As if the whole thing had been a dream, which, of course, it wasn't, and here are a few of the happenings I remember best to prove it.

First and foremost, your freshman year at Thacher they make you take care of a horse.  Bizarre, I know.  They believe it gives you a sense of responsibility and ownership, yada, yada, yada.  (Although I have to begrudgingly admit that, in hindsight, it kind of did.)  Thacher had these huge stables, and within the first week of school, the staff tested your horsemanship skills, and assigned you a horse based on your ability.  If you were a really, really bad horseback rider, you got an old nag who probably looked like a cross between Mr. Ed and Mr. Magoo.  If you were good, you got a "greener" (meaning less experienced), and perhaps more high-strung horse.  I was intermediate so I was assigned a relatively young horse named Cocoa, who was all black, with a single white star on her forehead, reminiscent of none other than Black Beauty.  Every morning at 6:30, I had to go to Cocoa's stall, feed her, shovel her shit, then immediately rush off to classes all day.  After classes, around 3:00, I had to saddle Cocoa, ride her, clean/brush her, put the saddle away, pick the shit out of her hooves (disgusting, but oddly satisfying), feed her, shovel more shit, then go home and do homework.  Talk about exhausting!  Plus, I was a year young for my grade, so I was doing all this at the ripe old age of 13.

But what made my experience with Cocoa so very memorable was the pure enjoyment of riding her.  She was fast, and we would race around the nearby reservoir at lightening speed with the wind whipping around us.  She would push and gallop herself up impossibly steep hills simply to please me, and when we approached the Gymkhana field (where we had all-school horseback competitions) she would get so excited, she would prance and wheeze.  I once went on a two-night camping trip with Cocoa, and, it sounds so corny, but we bonded like best friends.  We knew each other and trusted each other, and during that camping trip we even went swimming in the depths of a creek together: I riding her bareback, and Cocoa paddling her hooves furiously.  That was one of the most beautiful and memorable moments of my life, and I have rarely felt so intrinsically connected to nature before or since.  I know Cocoa has long since passed away, but a part of me will love her forever, and even though she sustained many Thacher students before me, and many after, I like to think she loved me that year too.

I was a day student at Thacher, and most everyone else boarded, so I was naturally on the outskirts of the social scene there.  While the boarding students were cavorting and giggling in their dorms at night, I was going home to Mommy and Daddy, eating Bayless chicken, and watching "Growing Pains" (who didn't adore Kirk Cameron?).  There was probably an aspect of jealousy there among the boarders, and I was kind of jealous of them too.  I wanted to get dressed up for formal dinners, to get care packages, and to have almost-sex in the chemistry lab after lights-out (because that's what naturally happens when boys and girls are living a few feet away from each other for extended periods of time).  But, again, I was an interloper, and those fantasies were (fortunately!) not in my pre-teen cards.

As I didn't completely fit in among the Thacher students, I naturally attracted fellow schoolboys who also didn't fit in.  One lad in particular, a math wiz named Joshua, was obsessed with two things in life: me and Dungeons and Dragons.  (Seriously, what was the common thread between me and D&D that attracted him to us both?  The only possible link I can think of is that sometimes when I flare my nostrils I can make myself look kind of like a dragon.  Incidentally, this is a huge a crowd pleaser with my kids.)  Anyway, Joshua would write me these verbose and romantic letters in left-sloping red ink declaring his undying love for me.  On one occasion he took me by the hand, led me into the music room and sat me next to him at the upright piano -- I can still see his profile so distinctly!  He proceeded to sing and play me an intensely devotional love song he had painstakenly composed over the course of many late night study halls.  I can't decide if it was the sweetest or most awkward 20 minutes -- yes, 20 minutes! -- of my life.  But, you know what?  I still remember him, and that song, so maybe he had the right idea after all.

The thing about Thacher is it was SO incredibly academically challenging.  I floundered terribly in my classes, could never please my teachers, and don't remember getting a single "A."  Hence, I never really felt all that smart the year I was at Thacher --  I was definitely just about average.  And no matter how hard I tried, or how much I studied, I could never fully catch up.  Furthermore, the pressure to try to fit in socially was overwhelming.  I would spend nights in friends' dorm rooms, I would ask for invitations to dinners, but it just wasn't really possible -- I stuck out like a sore thumb and everybody felt it, especially myself.  So at the end of the year, when it came time for re-enrollment, I opted instead to go to the public high school in town.  It turned out to be one of the best, and ironically, one of the most intelligent, decisions I have ever made in my life.

The truth is, I know many, many people loved their prep school experience, but it just wasn't for me.  Had I not tried it though, I always would have wondered what it was all about.   And I guess what the whole thing taught me is that, really, why does quitting have to be a bad thing?  I wasn't "giving up," so to speak, I was simply taking care of myself.  Even today, if I'm reading a book or watching a movie or doing anything I'm not enjoying, I'll stop as soon as I know I'm unhappy -- well, if I can help it, that is.  I'm not going to suddenly quit bathing my children simply because I don't feel like it.

Oh, but wouldn't that be fun?  Maybe tomorrow I'll quit laundry.


  1. Who are you don't do your laundry!! Great post. I can totally identify. I chose to go to public school even though my three sisters went to an amazing private school. Maybe tomorrow you should book a horse back riding lesson. It is supossed to be a great workout!

  2. Ahhh sweet know you is to love you.