nev­er­the­less, he per­sisted

The Post’s Greg Jaffe says misog­yny ran deep at elite D.C. boys’ schools like his and Brett Ka­vanaugh’s

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @GregJaffe

This past week, I came home from work to find on my kitchen counter a 50th-birth­day card from Lan­don School, the boys’ prep school I at­tended — which is just down the road, and not all that dif­fer­ent, from Ge­orge­town Prep, Supreme Court nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh’s alma mater. On the front was a pic­ture of a much younger me in a coat and tie, the dress code. In­side, six of my for­mer in­struc­tors, all ter­rific teach­ers who have ded­i­cated many decades to the school for medi­ocre pay, had writ­ten short greet­ings. It was a charm­ing re­minder of all that I liked about the place.

But the greet­ing landed one day af­ter Chris­tine Blasey Ford said in The Wash­ing­ton Post that Ka­vanaugh had drunk­enly pinned her on her back and groped her when he was a high school ju­nior. Ford had at­tended HoltonArms, Lan­don’s sis­ter school. I have no spe­cial knowl­edge about that night many decades ago — I never knew Ford or Ka­vanaugh, a man three years my se­nior who ve­he­mently de­nies the al­le­ga­tion — but I do re­mem­ber plenty about the cul­ture of th­ese same-sex pro­grams, not all of it good. I be­gan reach­ing out to old friends from Lan­don

and Prep to see if they re­called the same misog­y­nis­tic cul­ture that I did.

All of the teach­ers who signed my 50thbirth­day card were men. The few women who signed it all worked as ad­min­is­tra­tors. This fact was no doubt a prod­uct of Lan­don’s cul­ture in the 1980s: In my mem­ory, we tested and ter­ror­ized the fe­male teach­ers with petty acts of ha­rass­ment, such as col­lec­tively star­ing at an eighth-grade earth sci­ence teacher’s breasts or drop­ping our pen­cils in uni­son at a spe­cific time in the mid­dle of her class (a feat we did not re­peat for any male in­struc­tors). Af­ter sev­eral days of this be­hav­ior, the young sci­ence teacher broke down in tears. The rea­son I can re­call only the names of my male teach­ers from that pe­riod is be­cause the women usu­ally didn’t stay long. (To­day, Lan­don says that about one-third of its up­per-school teach­ers are women, a big and wel­come in­crease from my time at the school.)

“We def­i­nitely were ter­ri­ble to the fe­male teach­ers,” said Patrick Breen, a life­long friend who is now a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Prov­i­dence Col­lege in Rhode Is­land. He re­mem­bered the mid­dle-school Span­ish teacher who felt an­gry and ha­rassed when some­one from my class put a jock strap on her dog, which she brought to school.

A few of the male teach­ers con­trib­uted to this cul­ture. One U.S. his­tory teacher in­tro­duced us to women’s suf­frage by calling on a stu­dent who was of­ten un­pre­pared for class and ask­ing him to tell us all he knew about the move­ment. The stu­dent stut­tered and stam­mered for a few sec­onds. “That’s enough,” the teacher de­clared with fi­nal­ity, in a way that made clear he was dis­pens­ing with the sub­ject, not the stu­dent.

A child­hood friend, who asked not to be named, at­tended Ge­orge­town Prep and re­mem­bered Ka­vanaugh as a de­cent and “very con­ser­va­tive” per­son. His mem­o­ries of Prep were less rosy. He re­called the Fri­day morn­ing an­nounce­ments, usu­ally de­liv­ered by a high school se­nior. “Af­ter the [foot­ball] game, there will be a mixer. Girls from Holy Cross, Holy Child and Vis­i­ta­tion . . . will . . . be . . . avail­able,” he re­mem­bered the an­nouncer say­ing las­civ­i­ously. The joke, my friend said, was a part of daily life, ac­cepted by teach­ers and stu­dents. “It was gross,” he said. “I re­mem­ber noth­ing else from high school. But I re­mem­ber that.”

The girls — now women — of Holton-Arms have been wrestling with their own mem­o­ries of that time and have come up with a de­fin­i­tive as­sess­ment of the cul­ture. This past week more than 1,000 Holton alum­nae signed a let­ter in sup­port of Ford. Her ac­count of be­ing at­tacked was “all too con­sis­tent with sto­ries we heard and lived while at­tend­ing Holton,” their let­ter said.

One friend who at­tended Holton-Arms com­muted to Lan­don to take a high school French class as part of an early ex­per­i­ment in co-ed­u­ca­tion. “I loved Holton, and I loved French, and that ex­pe­ri­ence stuck out in my mind as hor­rific,” she told me, ask­ing to re­main anony­mous out of con­cern that her fam­ily would be ha­rassed. She re­called be­ing shoved off the bleach­ers at a foot­ball game by one Lan­don stu­dent and thrown, fully clothed, into a swim­ming pool by an­other. Sev­eral of her friends in re­cent days re­mem­bered Lan­don stu­dents driv­ing past the Holton cam­pus and scream­ing “beaver” from their car. “I hated it,” she told me by email, “but thought it was just nor­mal.”

My mem­o­ries of Lan­don aren’t all dark; there was a great deal of good, too. Maybe be­cause it was an all-boys school, and we didn’t need to prove our­selves to girls, there seemed to be less bul­ly­ing. For a prep school, the stu­dent body was di­verse, with a heavy con­cen­tra­tion of Jews and Mus­lims whose par­ents did not want them at­tend­ing re­li­giously af­fil­i­ated pro­grams. Many years later, when I headed off to re­port from Iraq and Afghanistan, I al­ready knew a lit­tle bit about Is­lam from my fel­low stu­dents, who fasted dur­ing Ra­madan, wore spe­cial uni­forms to cover their arms and legs at cross-coun­try meets and used an empty bi­ol­ogy class­room to pray. In my mem­ory, their iden­tity as val­ued class­mates was more im­por­tant than any dif­fer­ences be­tween us.

And while the place was about as ho­mo­pho­bic as you’d ex­pect for a school full of in­se­cure teenage boys in the 1980s — I didn’t blink when some­one ca­su­ally used a gay slur — the stu­dents from my era who have come out as gay seem like they’ve been em­braced by their fel­low class­mates. “I knew I couldn’t be gay [at Lan­don]. It took me 21 years to get com­fort­able with who I was,” said Vin­cent San­tillo, an old friend who is now a pri­mary-care physi­cian in New York. “I was able to pass, which kept me safe. But hap­pily the world changed on our watch, and my class­mates changed as well.” For years he has been dis­ap­pointed by in­vi­ta­tions that asked alumni to bring their “wives or sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers,” over­look­ing the fact that he has a hus­band. But he says he and his hus­band have felt wel­comed at th­ese events.

Th­ese changes raise the ques­tion of whether the cul­ture of ca­sual misog­yny and heavy drink­ing that ex­isted in the 1980s mat­ters to­day. If an in­tox­i­cated Ka­vanaugh sex­u­ally as­saulted Ford at a high school party back then, should it af­fect his suit­abil­ity for the Supreme Court? Megan Gar­ber, in the At­lantic, writes com­pellingly of “the deeper ve­nal­ity of the boys-be­ing-boys de­fense” that has been mar­shaled in sup­port of the nom­i­nee: “It nor­mal­izes. It erases the spe­cific de­tails of Chris­tine Blasey Ford’s stated rec­ol­lec­tions with the soggy mop of gen­er­al­ized male en­ti­tle­ment.”

One way for Ka­vanaugh to han­dle the ac­cu­sa­tions against him would be to ad­mit some boor­ish be­hav­ior decades ago, and then use the rest of his life as an ex­am­ple to prove that he has risen above the toxic sex­ism and misog­yny of his youth. (This, of course, runs counter to Pres­i­dent Trump’s ad­vice, as re­counted in Bob Wood­ward’s book “Fear,” about how to deal with such al­le­ga­tions. “You’ve got to deny, deny, deny and push back on th­ese women,” he is quoted as telling a friend. “If you ad­mit to any­thing and any cul­pa­bil­ity, then you’re dead.”)

But an ac­knowl­edge-and-atone ap­proach is not easy for in­di­vid­u­als or in­sti­tu­tions. Nine years ago, a group of Lan­don boys was caught de­vis­ing a game in which they earned points based on sex acts with girls. The in­ci­dent made head­lines around the same time that a for­mer star ath­lete at the school was ar­rested, and later con­victed, of mur­der­ing his ex-girl­friend at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia. I told the school’s alumni direc­tor then that Lan­don should pub­licly own up to the prob­lems with its cul­ture and out­line a plan to fix them. As a school ded­i­cated to ed­u­cat­ing boys, I thought, Lan­don should be an ex­am­ple. In a frus­trat­ing ex­change, he brushed off my con­cerns as over­wrought. The school’s re­sponse seemed to deny that there was a wide­spread prob­lem.

In the years since, the school has in­sti­tuted pro­grams, in co­or­di­na­tion with Holton, that em­pha­size the value of di­ver­sity when it comes to race, re­li­gion, eth­nic­ity and gen­der iden­tity. Stu­dents are taught about healthy re­la­tion­ships and con­sent. “Our goal is to pro­duce re­spon­si­ble, car­ing, com­pas­sion­ate men who make a dif­fer­ence. That’s our rea­son for be­ing,” said James Neill, the head of school. “All of this work is cen­tral to that goal.”

I have no doubt that most of my peers over­came the toxic at­ti­tudes that swirled around them dur­ing their for­ma­tive years. We headed off to col­lege and into the work­place and re­al­ized that some of the no­tions we took for granted decades ago could be dam­ag­ing. I don’t keep in close con­tact with many of my for­mer class­mates, but when I run into them around Wash­ing­ton, I usu­ally find them to be thought­ful, kind and in­ter­est­ing peo­ple who rec­og­nize the flaws in the Lan­don we knew. “I loved Lan­don but look­ing at it ret­ro­spec­tively through the lens of the fa­ther of two daugh­ters, I would not con­sider send­ing my son there,” wrote Steve Poko­rny, a class­mate of mine, think­ing back to the sex­ism that clouded our minds. It’s a wide­spread sen­ti­ment among my peers.

My friend Patrick made the point that in to­day’s po­lar­ized po­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment, it might be im­pos­si­ble for Ka­vanaugh to ac­knowl­edge mis­takes and re­ceive the for­give­ness he would need to rise to the Supreme Court. “The story of de­vel­op­ment and growth is not a way that he can cast his story, be­cause the #MeToo world hasn’t re­ally fig­ured out a way to dis­tin­guish be­tween events and peo­ple.” The facts of an event are frozen in time and never change. Peo­ple, of course, do.

What hap­pens next is a mat­ter for the Se­nate and the na­tion. But one thing should not be in doubt: Ideas that we con­sider anachro­nis­tic to­day — about women, male en­ti­tle­ment, even what we now call rape cul­ture — were not just com­mon views of that era. They thrived at places like Ge­orge­town Prep, which Ka­vanaugh, in his con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing, called “very for­ma­tive.”

Three years ago, Ka­vanaugh jok­ingly said in a speech that “what hap­pens at Ge­orge­town Prep, stays at Ge­orge­town Prep. That’s been a good thing for all of us.” To­day a bet­ter ac­count­ing of what went on at places like Ge­orge­town Prep might help us all see our flaws more clearly. Greg Jaffe cov­ers na­tional se­cu­rity for The Wash­ing­ton Post.

AGATA NOWICKA FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

MELINA MARA/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Supreme Court nom­i­nee Brett Ka­vanaugh was at­tend­ing Ge­orge­town Prep in the early 1980s when, one woman says, he forcibly groped her at a house party. Alumni of the prep school and oth­ers like it at the time re­call a cul­ture of misog­yny.

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