Funny. My devoted wife objected to this post. She’s an FDR (Groton boy) advocate, but she objected to a post that said there used to be prep schools which consecrated the middle rather than an upper class. We were yelling at each other at one point. What we finally agreed on was that Mercersburg is beautiful, and all other prep schools are Stalinist-looking.
She was irate. Don’t blame her. Catholic high schools are folding all over the country. Meanwhile, prep schools like Mercersburg are thriving. Where we got sideways was my point that the Mercersburg I went to was not about building new generations of the power elite. It was about building decent men. Hence my old post from the original Instapunk:
It all comes down to specifics. And maybe in this respect, old-time Mercersburg boys do have a lasting advantage. None of us claims the stamp of our school as some kind of badge, a logo we’d put on a business card. We didn’t think of ourselves as the latest version of some grand tradition. We weren’t in awe of Mercersburg; we were just enrolled there. We were the Cleveland Indians of prep schools, perpetual doormats for the Yankees of our kind. Mercersburg regarded the Hill School as its great rival in football, while Hill cared only about Lawrenceville. We regarded Lawrenceville as our great rival in swimming, but in ten years we beat them only once. We were the poor relation of elite mid-atlantic prep schools. Of all the American writers who ever wrote tedious books about going to prep school, only one ever gave us a mention, dismissively, in a John O’Hara story that referenced a song called “I’m Only a Mercersburg Boy.”
No disrespect to O’Hara. The song had it right. We didn’t feel rich, privileged, elite, or superior. Typically, our class presidents were dumb jocks who had been kicked out of more famous prep schools for various sins against good taste, sobriety, and female modesty. We weren’t really trying to live up to anything — we were in a constant state of low-grade rebellion that occasionally got the whole school smacked down. (Some commenter could ask me about Penny Sunday, which was hilarious but not germane to this post.) My freshman year, a field trip by the French Club turned into a scandal when every senior on the trip sneaked out of a Moliere play in DC to go drinking in Georgetown. Four of them were expelled.
Ah yes. The only tragedy ever recognized at Mercersburg was the expulsion of a “four year boy,” of which there were never more than about twenty-five in a graduating class. Rare birds, the four year boys. Who could put up with it all, the whole four-year sentence? Many didn’t. Four-year boys had a way of getting expelled in their final semester. We always mourned their loss.
Today, there’s this: Mercersburg 360. Enjoy. If you want, I have abundant recollections of life in a place without cellphones or easy resort to helicopter parents. Just ask.
We existed in a place that housed equally the smart and the dumb. And many of the dumb went on to have great lives. That was the state of lives in a place that — when I went to it — cost $2,250 a year in tuition. It was accessible to the great and wonderful middle class. It wasn’t that hard to get into Mercersburg. It was much harder to get into the more famous schools, many of which I scouted after I got unexpectedly into Harvard. (My callow Harvard interviewer sat comfortably in my headmaster’s chair and inquired why I had chosen to attend a bottom-feeding prep school. Later, I sat in the office of the Dean of Harvard Admissions, who wanted to know why the very first and very last of admissions to our class had come from the same bottom-feeding prep school.)
All gone now. Today, Mercersburg tuition is higher than Harvard’s. Over $50,000 a year. Why I wanted to do this post. Never expected my wife to claim that we had always been the power elite, always the heirs to the throne, always the elect, always blessed, always in charge.
In vain I tried to tell her that Mercersburg was different. My dad gave me a choice — not much — between Mercersburg and Exeter. “Do you want to be a man or a Harvard intellectual?” he asked.
Why I made, ultimately, a pilgrimage to Exeter.
Yeah, I’d met them. Harvard accepted one or two of us and 30 a year from Exeter. Back in my day, though, even Exeter wasn’t the professional government class. When our tuition was $2,250, Exeter’s was $1,800. They still wanted the best and brightest. Of course they were all pricks. Never met an Exeter grad I liked. They didn’t like themselves. Their experience at America’s top prep school was all about constant intellectual, personal, and petty warfare. But they were only the tip of the iceberg. Today, the Exeter tuition is $45,000 a year. I’m betting they’re not as smart as they used to be. Just richer. And even snottier.
My wife didn’t want me to show how much uglier other prep schools are. Where I part company with her.
Mercersburg is now in the top ten of prep school endowment dollars per student. Beating out some rivals who used to make us feel small, like Hill and Lawrenceville. And a bunch of New England schools who used to make us feel even smaller. But money isn’t the whole story, no matter what you think. Ranking higher than Mercersburg on the endowment per student chart is Woodberry Forest, a braindead school half our size who used to drub us in football because everybody in the school was required to play football. We beat them once. A great moment of my youth.
All the great prep schools who now cost more than the schools they’re designed to prepare you for. Remember, only a few of them are now better financed than the yuppies of Mercersburg.
Only two competitors to Mercersburg in all this. Sorry, Pat. We were the great American middle class while the rest of them were sheer nonsense. But we still give credit where credit is due. Groton has a decent quadrangle.
And Choate has a nice chapel.
But nothing like this.
It’s not the America I grew up in. Sorry. This was.