Life

Boxes

Christine Blasey Ford, Brett Kavanaugh, and the performance of adolescence.

Collage of a young prep school girl in a box surrounded by events on a calendar.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and RawPixel/Unsplash.

When I watched Christine Blasey Ford testify before the Senate on Thursday, I was impressed with her courage, but not surprised by her graciousness. “Does that work for you?” she asked the senators who were grilling her, as if she were the hostess of her own inquisition. At another point she said, “I’m used to being collegial.”

It’s a graciousness I recognize from the private school world we both occupied in D.C. I went to National Cathedral School, a girls school that has much in common with Ford’s alma mater, Holton-Arms. It was drilled into us: Always say please. Don’t raise your voice. We were raised in a world of ballroom dancing classes, of country club swim meets, of handwritten thank-you notes. We were expected to be smart and athletic, polite and pretty. Eating disorders were par for the course. We were trained to be gracious. Composed. Nice. We faced enormous pressure to succeed (ace our SATs, get As at school, win field hockey games), and on top of that, we were supposed to smile.

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In short, it was a world that demanded performance. We had to perform for our parents, our teachers, our college interviewers, our friends. And we performed for the boys, too. We were expected to be fun, we were expected to be game. Just not too game. To be labeled a “ho” was impossible to live down. Word of the slutty girls passed from school to school quickly. And there was the perpetual humiliation of having our attractiveness rated by the boys in our circles, many of whom we counted as friends. “She’s such a box,” boys from our brother school, St. Albans, would say in my era, and we were expected to take it as a compliment. The annual St. Albans yearbook even included a “BABES” page with photos of the NCS girls deemed the most attractive. Did we protest? We did not. Worse, many of us were flattered to be on that page.

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We even performed for ourselves. That’s what I was reminded of when I saw Brett Kavanaugh’s calendar from 1982. You see his performance in all caps, scrawled across the second week of June: “BEACH WEEK.” He even counted the days: eight for young Brett, who went to the beach on June 5 (“Sean Feeley drives”) and returned on June 13, after spending one night at his friend Squi’s in Rehoboth. The other seven nights were presumably spent in a Saturday-to-Saturday rental house, without parental supervision, with his friends.

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I’m a decade younger than Brett Kavanaugh, and yet I’m sure my experience of Beach Week wasn’t so different from his. There are still stories that get passed around: the girl who got so drunk that she shat her pants in a wicker chair; the guy who pulled a gun and was later expelled from school; the girls who discovered, in the least dignified ways you can imagine, that their boyfriends were cheating on them. Beach Week was where fights broke out and relationships ended, where vomiting was celebrated as proof of a good time. It was a week of sunburns, of drinking games, of aimless wandering between paint-peeling rental houses in search of the next party.

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I remember Beach Week as a string of humiliations, not just for me, but for friends. And yet, despite how I hated Beach Week, I pretended it was fun. In fact, I probably wrote BEACH WEEK in giant all-caps on my calendar, too. My NCS friends and I kept planners—portable agendas, not wall calendars—with pages we decorated with colored markers. And in the numbered squares on those pages we recorded not only math tests and term paper due dates, but also social events. Looking at Brett Kavanaugh’s calendar brought it all back: the way those calendars weren’t just for personal convenience, but were, on some unconscious level, another kind of performance. “Come home from beach,” Brett Kavanaugh wrote, as if he was narrating his life. I did the same thing. “Spend the night at K’s,” my agenda probably said. Or “See Silence of the Lambs with C, S, and J.” Or “Party at L’s.” Or “Swim meet at Kenwood.” Or “Drive KC and L to Fort Reno.” Our parents were calling so many of the shots, but in our agendas, we were in charge. Look! our calendars told us. We are hard-working, we are popular, we are going places. We are normal.

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My personal diary was a different story. Unlike the agenda I carried at school, my diary was the repository of my secret shame, my melancholy tendencies, my writerly ambitions. I obsessed over my mistakes, my existential dread. In my diary, I was my real self, by turns vulnerable and wry. But in my planner, I performed my adolescence. In my planner, I was just another teenager excited about BEACH WEEK.

And what about Brett Kavanaugh? Did the 16-year-old boy who wrote that calendar also have a secret self? A self that was anxious about the future or scared to fail? A self that lost sleep over mistakes he’d made? A self that sometimes wondered if he had a drinking problem? His belligerent testimony in the Senate reminded me of many entitled prep school boys I knew in high school. But for the sake of our country, and for the Supreme Court on which he may soon serve, I’d like to believe there is something deeper and more self-aware under all that bluster and bullying.

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And yet he has proudly held on to his calendars. He offered them as evidence not just of how he spent his time, but of the person he was. Look! he said. I was working out at Tobin’s. I was lifting weights at Prep. I was drinking ’skis with Squi and Judge. I was organized, I was popular. I liked beer. I went to Yale.

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I know I saved my high school planners for a few years. (Perhaps our proximity to the levers of power in D.C. fostered some perverse desire to maintain them for posterity.) But as I got older, the glimpses they offered of my adolescent performance depressed me. I didn’t need to be reminded that I went to BEACH WEEK. I didn’t need to be reminded of all those years I’d been taught to be accommodating, especially to men. Christine Blasey Ford testified that six or eight weeks after Kavanaugh’s alleged assault, she ran into Kavanaugh’s friend and accomplice, Mark Judge, at Safeway. She felt uncomfortable and frightened, but she still said hello. How heartbreaking it was to hear that and recognize my young self: the girl who had to be polite, even to boys who had laughed in my face. I had the luxury of throwing my high school calendar away. Poor Christine Blasey Ford was forced to perform her adolescence again, to return to Washington and say hello to the disrespectful men on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And Brett Kavanaugh? He seemed to relish the performance of his adolescence, perhaps because he’s been playing the same role all these years.

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