Judging the judge

Anyone who has attended high school knows that bad things happen there sometimes. Boys know it. Girls know it. We all know it.

Bad things happen in public schools and private schools. They happen in your neighborhood school attended by the children you grew up with. And they happen in the most elite schools in the United States, where the best and the brightest gather.

Students from all 50 states and scores of foreign countries attend these elite schools. Their teachers tell them that they are being educated to become the future leaders of the world, and those teachers are 100 percent correct.

Being smart or being rich or being smart and rich does not make you any less of a teenager. All of us are subject to the foibles—or worse—of adolescence. I want to tell you a story about my high school. It’s a story that in its full outline I have never told anybody.

I attended Philips Exeter Academy, in Exeter, N.H. for four years. Exeter was then a unique place. It was an all-boys school. Many boys from rich families were students. But so were many who were not rich. Unusual for that time, there were even a minority of blacks, Asians and American Indians. And there were a lot of students who were far from rich.

The school’s endowment was enormous, by far the largest of any secondary school in the world. It was comparable to that of major universities. The school used a major part of its endowment to subsidize the cost of students’ education. The principal bragged to us that we paid for only one-third of the cost of our schooling; the rest was paid by the endowment fund. In essence, all its students were on scholarship.

Moreover, the administration boasted that no one was denied an Exeter education for financial reasons. If you couldn’t afford  to pay anything at all, you received a full scholarship, which included everything.

One of my closest friends at Exeter was a classics scholar—I use the word advisedly. He wrote a Latin text book that I was told was used by Harvard, and he did it while still a student. He was so poor that he could afford only one tie and one sports jacket. This was important, because we were required to wear a tie and jacket to all classes, all assemblies and most meals. Some friends and I finally got together and bought him a couple of additional ties.

Another of my friends was a black track star that we called Bo. He was also a brilliant student and a leader of our class. I know of no other elite prep school whose student body had a black leader in the 1950s.

Exeter was, at least at that time, the opposite of a party school. We were there to work, and we all knew it. Social standing in the student body depended more on academic performance than athletics or pedigree or other qualities. We were highly competitive with each other, but primarily in grades and intellectual achievements.

The work was demanding, grueling, overwhelming and oppressive. We had very little social life. The Exeter campus, on the edge of a small town of about 5,000 people, about 50 miles from Boston, was its own world. Only a handful of students dated girls from the local high school. No students had cars. Perhaps a few times a year, students might take the commuter train into Boston for a date, a dinner, a play or a movie. On Saturday nights, a big time on the town was going to a nearby greasy spoon for a hamburger and fries.

We lived like monks. There was little to spend money on, which was a good thing because none of us had any money. My parents gave me an allowance of $20 a month. I had a friend who was a member of the Rockefeller family; his allowance was less than mine.

At the end of our senior year, in June 1958, we had scheduled a beach party in Rye, N.H., but it was canceled by a late snow storm, the kind of thing that, before global warming, used to happen all the time in New England. We rescheduled our graduation party at a private house.

My graduating class consisted of about 150 boys. Nearly all of them attended the party, and some brought along their girlfriends. There must have been 200 teenagers in the big house, which had several floors, including a basement recreation room with a pool table.

We all drank a lot at that party. I don’t know where we got the liquor from, because the drinking age was 21 and none of the students was that old. It must have come from older siblings, friends or parents of some of the students. But whatever its origin, alcohol flowed freely, not just beer or wine but the hard stuff. Those were still comparatively innocent days, and aside from a small amount of marijuana, there were no drugs that I was aware of.

I drank nothing but a couple of beers, due to an earlier escapade. When I’d been a sophomore, I had been able to steal a bottle of gin from my parents in New York and squirreled it away in the closet in my dorm room. During a weekend when my friends were in Boston and I was alone and depressed, I started drinking the warm gin straight. I became terribly sick, vomited all over the place, and had a headache and indigestion for days afterward. That was the last time in my life that I tried to get drunk.

At the graduation party the drinking got out of hand. Many students were getting seriously inebriated, including my friend Bo. On some kind of dare, he grabbed a fifth of vodka and proceeded to drink the entire bottle straight. He passed out and was taken to a hospital. I heard later he was temporarily paralyzed, may have suffered brain damage and almost died. He eventually recovered.

Late at night, a boy I knew slightly started circulating around groups of kids listening to music in the living room. He was urging boys to come downstairs. He said a girl was passed out on the pool table. She was drunk and needed to get home. The only way to sober her up, he announced, was to stimulate an orgasm. A large number of students, which did not include me, trooped downstairs to “come to the rescue” of the poor girl. I don’t think any of us defined this action as what it was—rape.

That this kind of thing could happen with the kind of boys who attended Exeter in the conservative 1950s, I believe, tells you a lot about the likely behavior of a future nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court attending what has been widely described as a party school in the far less celibate 1980s. Not for one minute do I believe Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s denials of obnoxious drunkenness and sexual assault. He, like the rest of us, was once a teenager. Had he confessed to his behavior, apologized for it and said he had spent the rest of his life making amends (which may well be the case), there would be plausible grounds for forgiving him. Instead, he committed perjury, a crime.