Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Oversized Rock

My wife is in a discussion group for parents of gifted children, and the topic of Simon's Rock College came up. Since I attended SRC, she asked if I wanted to chime in. The result is too long for the venue in which the discussion is being held, so I am posting it on my blog so that it can be linked to. My wife asked if it wasn't a bit too self-revealing for sharing with strangers, and I reminded her that I am a writer. Even if the things I publish are nominally "fiction," I am in the business of revealing the darker crevices of my psyche to strangers all the time. Compared to that, the things that have actually happened to me are relatively tame.

Getting accepted to Simon's Rock was the second-best thing to ever happen to me. The best thing was getting kicked out. Another way to put this is that it was a bad experience, but that it was likely a better bad experience than staying in high school would have been.

I was a gifted child attending a magnet high school that had both an International Baccalaureate curriculum and an advanced Math-Science-Engineering program. I was the only student who was in both these curricula. I was one of only two students who, in math, was a year advanced even of the MSE program (the other being my friend T.), such that we had completed the equivalent of 3 semesters of college calculus by the end of sophomore year. If I had stayed in high school, then T. and I were going to have to start attending advanced math classes at a local university, but how the school was going to work it logistically with my participation in the IB program, they couldn't figure out. I didn't want to quit the IB program, because pesky me I enjoyed the humanities. I had friends, who were either older than me or dated back to my middle school participation in county-wide academic competitions, but my social life consisted mainly of afterschool extracurriculars and riding the resulting late bus, which because it had to traverse half of Palm Beach County, took a while.

Did I mention I was in Florida? I hated Florida. I still hate Florida.

I had no prospect of a sex life, because girls (justifiably) found me creepy, and I had not yet acknowledged my attraction to other boys. The fact that my physics teachers were in the habit of making sexist and homophobic jeers didn't exactly contribute to me wanting to be openly non-conforming to gendered expectations of maleness. Not only had my parents not saved any money for college, but they were facing imminent bankruptcy. And my abusive father had punched me in the face and broken my nose. This was before Columbine, but already I stalked the halls fantasizing about carrying weaponry advanced enough to blow all my classmates and teachers away, not out of any particular individualized animus (though there were plenty of individuals who had earned such hatred) so much as an expression of generalized rage. So when Simon's Rock recruited me, with a full scholarship for the first two years, there was never really any question of me not accepting.

The year before I arrived at the Rock, however, there had been a tragedy. Wayne Lo, a self-described "Asian supremacist," came onto campus heavily armed and shot six people, killing two of them, a student and a professor. Like I said, this was before Columbine. School shootings had not yet become a routinized American rite of passage. The faculty, staff, and returning students were all survivors of a novel trauma, on edge, and on the alert for anyone who might be at risk. Even though, unlike Lo, my political extremism leaned toward the left rather than the right, and I had no prior familiarity with the use of guns, I suspect I was marked as one of the people "at risk." See above, under "generalized rage." This was compounded by the fact that, by the end of Freshman Orientation activities in a forest somewhere in New Hampshire, I had alienated most of my classmates with generally odd and pompous behavior, and earned myself a humiliating nickname: "The Naked Man." This was because, prior to my arrival, my parents had been too broke to even buy me a pair of swim trunks that fit, but when I saw everyone enjoying the lake, I couldn't not join in, so I did. In my white briefs. Which, when wet, became nearly transparent. In a small school, especially in a small school where entering students range in age from 15 to 17 and thus, however smart they are, fundamentally have the emotional maturity of teenagers, people split off rapidly into cliques. All the freaks who had been excluded from cliques in high school had gathered in one place and replicated the very same structure that had once alienated them. I was left, as in high school, with the people too freakish, even among freaks, to be accepted into a clique. And when things got bad, since were united by little more than our rejection by others, we ultimately turned on one another.

Some good things happened while I was at Simon's Rock: I had sex, finally! Unfortunately, it was with someone with more than her share of problems. I also, ultimately, came out as bi, though too late in the year to be able to do anything fun with it. I got to probe into advanced math, for example, setting up a 3-student independent study in symbolic logic and set theory, and I also got to take things like art history courses in which I explored the esoteric realms of poststructuralist theory and discovered the works of people like Robert Rauschenberg and Cindy Sherman. I began the lengthy, painful process of coming to terms with my abused childhood. Best of all, were long, meandering conversations about life, the universe, and everything in the common areas of Kendrick Hall until 4 or 5 in the morning. And did I mention the sex?

But that's where it all falls apart. [Incorrect info about K., my on-and-off girlfriend of the first year, redacted. It wasn't essential to the argument.] The friend of mine with whom she cheated, H., also assigned male, has since come out as genderqueer. I suspect that the ill-starred evening in which the three of us tried and failed to have a threesome plays a role in H.'s coming-out story just as it does in mine. Maybe if we three all met now we'd laugh and bond over it. Or maybe we'd find new reasons to hate each other: One was emotionally abusive, the other a pompous jerk, and if I am being honest with myself I have to concede that I was both, a Hegelian synthesis of the two. What got me kicked out and stripped of my scholarship was not even a suicide attempt, it was more like a suicide threat. A pretty classic case of a cry for help. But with the college staff on edge, the overreaction was swift and, to anyone but a naive and emotionally unstable 16-year-old, predictable.

The end could have played out worse for me. My father--for a change making himself useful--negotiated an arrangement where I would be limited in my opportunities to come on campus but would be able to finish my coursework. (It helped that for financial reasons my parents had moved to the Albany, NY area, so I wasn't far from SRC and was able to make use of the SUNY Albany library for free.) My grades suffered that semester but not as badly as one might expect: I ended up getting a 3.8 GPA for the year. It was hardest though to focus on my math and physics coursework, and that may have contributed to my ultimate decision to stick with the humanities. Because New York State will accord a GED to anyone with a year's worth of college credit, I got my GED and promptly transferred to SUNY Binghamton. There, surrounded not only by people of more traditional college age, but also older, adult students, I was forced to mature fast. And I flourished.

SRC may be better now. Another person in my entering cohort has written a coming-out story in Psychology Today that credits their Residence Director of the time, Leslie Davidson, with having been very supportive. Leslie is now SRC's Dean of the College, the most important day-to-day leadership position for student support on campus. That story contrasts sharply with my RD of the time, who made all sorts of sexist and homophobic jeers aimed at K., me, and others. Another friend of mine ended up staying at SRC all four years, loved it, is active on the alumni council, and seems to be a pretty well-adjusted, successful person. Clearly it works for some kids, and it may work better now than it did in the immediate aftermath of Lo's massacre.

This account has so far been written from the point-of-view of 16-year-old me, with the aid of 20/20 hindsight. What do I, as a parent, make of it all, and what would I tell other parents whose kids are considering SRC?

  1. Make sure you are comfortable with the idea of your kid having sex. If you're not, they will give you so many reasons to overreact. The residue of in loco parentis rules that SRC has to maintain to appeal to parents forces students to sneak around and retards their emotional development. It's bad enough that the school does that; if kids feel like they have to hide things from you, then they may not be able to come to you for emotional support when they need it.
  2. Do you have reason to believe that your kid may be gay, bi, trans, or otherwise gender non-conforming? If so, is your kid out to you? If not, why not? A wildly disproportionate number of the people I've known at or through SRC turned out to be gay, bi, genderqueer, trans, or some combination thereof. This is probably because, in the 1990s, high school was a really lousy place to be LGBTQ. Academically talented students who were straight might have been able to stick it out in high school, but academically talented LGBTQ kids were in most cases going through hell. The problem was that, at SRC, straights were still in the numerical majority and in positions of institutional power. So the LGBTQ kids who flourished there were the ones who were already out before they went to SRC. In most such cases, I suspect these kids were the ones who knew, deep down, that their parents would always love and support them no matter what. Though I have reason to believe that both high schools and SRC are better environments than they were 20 years ago, this is still the case.
  3. Make sure you understand why your kid wants to go. If one of their reasons is that they want to get away from you, then congratulations, you're like my father--and the parents of most of the maladjusted folks I was "friends" with at SRC. In that case, they may have to go, but odds are they're in for a series of personal and emotional crises, and SRC is probably best as a quick stepping stone to other, better places where they can mature faster and get more social support. If your kid is relatively socially adjusted (for a gifted kid) and their primary motivations are academic, then they may be able to flourish at SRC. But a cautionary note is that they may also be able to flourish even more in a larger institution with greater resources.
  4. Which leads into a point I make from the standpoint of now working in higher education administration. SRC joined Bard to get greater financial stability. Which is a bit like a woman fleeing from ISIS to Saudi Arabia to find a less repressive environment. Bard is notorious for having a very small endowment. Leon Botstein is visionary, but he's also mercurial, something that his personal friendship with George Soros has been able to paper over--basically, if he has a big project in mind, he gets Soros or one of his rich buddies to bankroll it. Bard is now in the midst of a capital campaign, which will hopefully make it (and SRC) more financially stable over the long term. But if the campaign fails and/or Leon, at his advanced age, passes away, Bard may soon be looking to unload a valuable piece of real estate in the Berkshires.

SRC treated me horribly. I will never give them a penny. If my daughter, a few years from now, were to express interest in going to SRC, I would help her research what her options might be for graduating high school early and/or gaining early admission to other colleges. Incidentally, for those of you in the Boston area, a friend of mine operates a local non-profit that does exactly that with local high-school-aged kids, called Rise Out. I recommend it. I do not recommend Simon's Rock.

After I did my first draft, my wife reported that people were already chiming in to talk about sex and drugs and "lack of supervision." In case it's not obvious from what I already wrote, let me stress that the problem with SRC is not too little supervision, but too much, which retards rather than promotes the students' emotional development. The kids who benefit from it could benefit more from engaging in their inevitable experimentation in a more standard college environment. That may not be a popular position among parents, I acknowledge. And for what it's worth, my time at SRC was the only year I spent drug-free as a teenager. Maybe the experience would have gone better if I'd gotten high once in a while. Or maybe, just maybe, drug use is more a symptom of emotional dysregulation than a cause.

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