• A New Era for Boarding School Literature

    Emma Staffaroni on the End of a (Problematic) Fairy Tale

    Never underestimate a tenacious mystique. Despite my familiarity with the canonical boarding school literature, from A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye to Prep and Old School, somehow I became a teacher at such a school having forgotten that these books were all about bubbles, inside which cultures of silence and protection thrive.

    We start readers young on a slow drip of the boarding school fantasy—often a literal fantasy filled with literal magic. Kendra James, author of Admissions: A Memoir of Surviving Boarding School (2022), fell for it at age 15, even as a legacy student—the Taft School’s first Black legacy student, she discovered while studying there in the early aughts. Inspired by her father’s lore, she’d spent her tween years a “voracious consumer of boarding school literature,” mainly the British children’s flavor à la Harry Potter and St. Trinian’s. She took an English elective on the subject the year Prep came out, acing her paper on the novel’s “themes of class.” Boarding school: the stuff of literature.

    A few years into my own time in the bubble, at a school in Massachusetts, I learned that boarding school stories are also the stuff of front page news. In the spring of 2016, the Boston Globe Spotlight team released its investigative report of over 200 private schools and allegations of sexual abuse. For these places and their long legacies of adherents, so sure of their rightful place atop the hill of education, the Globe’s report was more than a blow; it was proof that the scandals of fiction had been a stylized version of a dark reality.

    Rebecca Makkai’s new boarding school thriller, I Have Some Questions for You, has been heralded as a significant post-MeToo novel. In fact, it’s post a lot of reckonings of recent years: post-Spotlight, post-Black Lives Matter and its prep school corollary, the BlackAt movement of summer 2020. The new boarding school novel (and in James’s case, memoir) must tackle not so much new material, but a new sensibility toward that material—toward bubbles, and the human cost of living inside them.

    What James had needed from her boarding school literature was a roadmap out. “When you’re a Black student attending a white institution like Taft, your Get Out radar is always on,” she writes in Admissions. “We didn’t have such a perfect name for it back in the day.”

    Somehow, we “voracious readers” of the genre, eager consumers of the boarding school mystique, managed to romanticize it all for so long in spite of the quite apparent red flags. Could there finally be a boarding school canon that demystifies these places enough to challenge the power they hold over the cultural imaginary?


    There’s often a young teacher in these stories: sometimes victim, sometimes perpetrator, and always outside of, yet central to, both the romance and the disillusionment. I started out my time in the bubble around the same age as many of the fictional faculty who feature in this latest wave of boarding school fiction. There’s the young theater teacher, Mr. Bloch, in Makkai’s novel; “Miss,” the nonbinary narrator of K Patrick’s new debut, Mrs. S (“What else could I ask them to call me? Matron was the job title,” the novel opens); and Mr. Arcilla, the Spanish teacher found dead—and naked—in the opening scene of Tell Me Who We Were, Kate McQuade’s 2019 story collection. Outside, we teachers were adults. Inside, we were objects of fixation.

    Could there finally be a boarding school canon that demystifies these places enough to challenge the power they hold over the cultural imaginary?

    “What was promised to me?” reflects the narrator of Mrs. S. “A visa, a true English experience, a dead author.” When I was new, I could still tell it was a bubble, probably because I hadn’t yet passed through the almost imperceptible membrane. One colleague had come from Harvard, and even he could feel it: “Sometimes it’s like people here believe they’re breathing rarefied air,” he observed.

    When I bristled at the preternatural professionalism with which my students seemed to know to address me, a colleague told me, “I think you’re describing what Seamus Khan called ease.” So people theorized these places, too? “Oh, I was going to call it ‘bullshitty,’” I remember saying, or maybe just thinking.

    Khan’s book Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School (2011) is a sociological study consisting of a year of embedded interviews at Khan’s alma mater. Ease, he explains, describes a posture the elite learn to possess, practice, and acquire: one of comfort in every social situation, with every kind of person. It is learned at home, or in other prep schools, where youth of the upper classes have “academic culture as their native culture.” With these kinds of observations, Khan’s book performs a similar sleight of hand as the old canonical boarding school novel: it pulls back the curtain on an inscrutable elite while all the time enshrining its position with attentive prose.

    But Khan’s book avows a deep ambivalence about the campus on which he was educated. In a section subtitled “Bullshit,” Khan speaks with George, a white working class student, who tells Khan that his parents’ advice to “work hard” hadn’t held up. “Everyone works hard,” George explains to Khan. “‘But one day I just got it. I was sitting there in Mr. Bellfour’s class… And I just knew what he wanted in the assignment. It was like…someone just turned on the light!’” Khan asks: Giving the teachers exactly what they want; playing the role—isn’t this a kind of bullshitting? George doesn’t understand the question. “I don’t really know how this world works. But I’m beginning to. It’s got nothing to do with bullshit. It’s learning how things work.’”

    Boarding school, of course, thrives on myths. 

    George’s triumph comes out of his individual ambition: the quest to know “how things work.” What to Khan looks fake is for George a hard-won internalized gaze. It’s an empowering familiarity with not just how his authority figures see him, but how to see as they do.

    When we meet Bodie, Makkai’s first-person narrator in I Have Some Questions for You, in a cab en route to her alma mater, Granby, she is bullshitting—or rather, delivering the first of many theatrical performances. The 40-year-old explains to her driver that she’s here to teach a two-week class, then begins her quiet pretense. “I didn’t explain that I’d gone to Granby,” she tells us. “I didn’t explain the concept of a mini-mester, either, because it would sound twee, the exact sort of thing he’d imagine these spoiled kids getting up to.”

    Back in the 90s, Bodie was a white scholarship student from Indiana, so she still remembers what it’s like to be outside of it all, to play both sides. She’s grown up to be a film professor with a popular podcast: a professional storyteller. Now she’s been invited back to facilitate classes in both mediums. She’s compiled a list of Granby-related topics for her young podcasters-to-be, among which she buries the notorious, Dateline-featured murder of her junior year roommate, Thalia Keith, found in the school swimming pool during Bodie’s senior spring in 1995. Thalia: the embodiment of ease, a painful foil to teen Bodie’s effortful and awkward persona.

    One of Bodie’s students is into the podcast idea—less for Thalia than for Omar Evans, the man charged and imprisoned for the murder since the mid-90s: a Black athletic trainer working late on the night of Thalia’s death, whom many believe was wrongfully convicted in a botched investigation. Bodie stays composed with her students. “I was just self-aware enough at this point to clock that I was talking Britt into it, and to wonder why.”


    Can a professional storyteller narrate herself out of the bubble? Just how much self-awareness is possible? This wave of boarding school stories shares an innovative use of narrative point-of-view. I started to suspect that this is because these bubbles do something to us: once inside, the air really does change.

    K Patrick’s Mrs. S, about a queer, Australian “matron” working at an all-girls’ English boarding school, is told in close first-person stream-of-consciousness—a kind of Mrs. Dalloway for the prep school dorm parent. We are as if in the folds of our narrator’s brain, which I was impressed to find filled with neither a desire to be accepted (as mine had been) nor a constant self-conscious attempt to seem at ease, like Bodie. Instead, theirs is a narrative of internal, personal, adult desires. Of inner freedom.

    Patrick’s narrator refers to the school’s charges only ever as an anonymous, singular force: “The Girls.” In a novel about being queer in a traditional bubble, that capital G feels extra exclusionary, even dangerous. There’s something of a double-edge to these kinds of gendered, elite collectives, living together in solidarity, and not the kind of solidarity that liberates; more the kind that protects.

    If we wanted to meet “The Girls,” we could find a version of them in McQuade’s collection Tell Me Who We Were (2019), a mosaic of stories all connected to the same characters. Its opening story, “The Translator’s Daughter,” is told in a fraught “we”: a collective first person squad of six freshmen at the fictional Briarfield School. These Girls, all children of college professors, anoint themselves the “Seven Sisters.” McQuade conjures the solidarity of friendship alongside the enclosure of elitism, her “us” the tenuous beginnings of a lifelong identification: “Actually, there were only six of us, but no one seemed to notice, and Seven Sisters sounded better—like a secret society, the Pleiades, the blue-blooded women’s colleges, scholarly things we knew about and flashed like designer labels … the bloodline of academia to mark us as elite.”

    Several pages into I Have Some Questions for You, Bodie’s point of view reveals itself to be not the first-person account of her prodigal return but rather a story addressed to a you—her theater teacher, Mr. Bloch. Bodie circles around her “you” with all the practiced ease of a trained elite, so when, occasionally and often unexpectedly, she turns to address him, it’s almost cinematic. It’s a you that turns me into Mr. Bloch. Bodie’s you is not George’s empowering you, the one whose expectations construct his belonging at St. Paul’s. Each time Bodie turns to address Mr. Bloch, it is effortful, shot through with betrayal. “I wasn’t furious with you yet,” she says. “That would come later. For now, you were simply an audience.” What belonging had Mr. Bloch conferred?

    There’s always the chance that the stories learned at boarding school will also provide the tools to tear it all down.

    McQuade’s Tell Me Who We Were also explores what gets internalized inside these bubbles in the name of “belonging.” The narrator of “There Will Be A Stranger,” Lilith, addresses a letter to long-dead Mr. Arcilla decades later. “You were a teacher once, in the beginning. You were young and shiny and rumpled, and we loved you only as twelve-year-old schoolgirls can love a boy teacher.” Her you is less portentous than Bodie’s, perhaps, except that they’re both talking to ghosts—living inside parasocial relationships with their former teachers, sending letters that can never reach their destined audience.

    Lilith has grown up to be a boarding school teacher herself, where she tries to use stories for good. She describes her students to Mr. Arcilla: “They believe a fairy tale is anything that smacks of magic. They laugh when I tell them that myths are different because someone, somewhere, long ago, believed them to be true—a way of explaining the universe. But who would believe that?, they say.”

    Boarding school, of course, thrives on myths. The myth of meritocracy. Of being special, of deserving to have more than other people. These are not just the myths that secure boarding school’s mystique; they are foundational to the American class system, reproduced by its education system. Lilith hopes her students can learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and she wants to believe that teachers make a positive difference. Mr. Arcilla’s class was formative to her sense of agency, of identity. “You assigned us Spanish fairy tales to translate,” Lilith recalls, “and chose the darkest stories from the textbook. … Las Brujas, you called us … we were not just princesses watching the kingdom unfold but witches who could change it.”

    There’s always the chance that the stories learned at boarding school will also provide the tools to tear it all down. That seems to be the new question facing boarding school storytellers: what kind of “justice” is possible inside a structure so unjust?

    The question is at the heart of Bodie’s character arc, for as new information comes to light about Thalia’s death, she will contend with her own role in this boarding school story. Despite being a theater kid, she spent her time at Granby avoiding audiences, enjoying instead the vantage of the outsider. If you lurk on the edge of a story, maybe you’ll get out of it unscathed. Makkai puts Bodie backstage on the tech crew, up in the booth running lights. Her senior spring, it’s Thalia on stage for their school production of Camelot. Controlling the spotlight feels like agency, but it can also make you forget that you, too, are part of the production.

    Makkai’s novel stages her narrator’s biases and fixations as signifiers of how a bubble operates on outsiders in particular. The story Bodie has told herself about Granby and her place in it makes it impossible for her to see her role in what happened to Thalia—and to Omar. The greatest price of living in the bubble may, in fact, be your reliability as a narrator. And that’s a problem for a professional storyteller.

    The students behind BlackAt decided not to wait around for “Boarding School Lit” to include their stories on the syllabus.

    It gets a little easier to narrate life in the bubble when the headlines begin to corroborate your story—and when you’ve got the receipts. In Kendra James’s chapter on her senior year, she, too, is working behind the scenes: first, for Taft’s fall production of Grease, sitting behind the spotlight. But also, she and her friends decide to shed another kind of light, after their school paper publishes a student opinion article headlined, “Do We Take Advantage of Our Diversity?” The article’s “we” is a passive-aggressive one; it accuses Black and Latinx students of “segregation”—of, as James paraphrases, “refusing to integrate into the white norm.” The white student writer (whom James and her friends referred to as “Hermione,” subverting a hallowed boarding school heroine) apparently saw assimilation—“belonging,” on Taft’s old-school terms—as a duty.

    Admissions draws upon James’s minutes from months of meetings with her affinity group, TAALSA, and the actions they took on campus that fall: an exhausting churn of gatherings, clarifications, education—the details of which I recognize from my time in the bubble. The difference is that in a pre-social-media age, TAALSA faced their Predominantly White Institution in relative isolation. Jump to the summer of 2020, when “several incredibly brave students and alumni of independent schools across the country took to Instagram” and launched the BlackAt movement, where accounts shared thousands of anonymous stories of the racism they faced at their schools.

    James thought about writing her memoir many times throughout the upheavals of the late 2010s, but it was BlackAt that finally convinced her it was time. “The woke student, the activist student, the empowered student … their emergence is treated like an aberration each time,” James writes. “As if students of color dealing with racism in historically white institutions was unheard of.” The students behind BlackAt decided not to wait around for “Boarding School Lit” to include their stories on the syllabus. Instead, they wondered if their harrowing stories might be powerful enough to end the fairy tale—or is it a myth?—of the multicultural bubble.


    Makkai’s novel tries to synthesize what are often siloed conversations about class, race, and gender at boarding schools. Indeed, Bodie’s biases start to show so that the story can lay bare these intersections: not only how Omar’s race and class make him vulnerable as a scapegoat, but how the story of an outsider-perpetrator serves the boarding school mystique: its myth of safety, its self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Post-MeToo Granby, as Makkai writes it, clearly demonstrates the seismic generational shifts since Bodie was a student—and here I can attest to her verisimilitude. Makkai’s recognizable modern-day young people, “sweet souls who’d been trained in antibullying since kindergarten,” reminded me of some of the sweet souls I worked with inside the bubble. But when Bodie tells her students she admires their sensitivity and kindness, they check her: “‘That’s because of what you’re teaching. You should see who’s taking the stock market class and the, like, Get Your Dad to Fund Your Startup class.’” Inside, like outside, contains many co-existing and contradictory worlds.

    This wave of boarding school fiction isn’t new in analyzing the weight of elitism on the psyche of outsiders. What is new is a more intimate representation of the toll that constant assimilation, performance, and cognitive dissonance can take on one’s ability to make ethical decisions. Bodie and the other white scholarship students might not face the worst of Granby’s exclusions, but they are, Makkai seems to argue, differently vulnerable: they’re susceptible to losing their moral compass as they follow the rich kids into the woods.

    What are bubbles made of? Hazing, disguised as tradition. Land, disguised as grass. Desperation, disguised as ease. Most of all, they’re made of stories: myths disguised as promises, sold at a premium.

    The pristine world inside the bubble does not purify—or to use my colleague’s term, rarify—those inside. Rather, it enlists us into its preservation, promising its beauty in exchange for an agreement not to tarnish it. I’m grateful for this crop of books, whose innovative narrative distortions guide us closer to disavowing bubbles altogether.

    Emma Staffaroni
    Emma Staffaroni
    Emma Staffaroni teaches literature and gender studies, most recently in Andover, Massachusetts. In addition to feminist literature, she works on transgender-inclusive school reform initiatives. Her literary commentary can be found on her blog, Staff Picks.

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