sorry here you go:
As we have seen over and over in recent years, privilege is in crisis. Undone by guilt, jittery about an authority it is not eager to relinquish, lost in internal conflicts and contradictions, privilege has earnestly worked to rebrand itself, at times alienated its longstanding constituents, backtracked, corrected, wrung its hands.
One of the clearest views into the confusion has come by way of the debate and transformation taking place at elite private schools, especially those in New York, where money, entitlement and the need to showcase a narrow range of progressive commitments share a fraught and intimate space. It is here where a middle-aged Black teacher might find himself enduring a rich white child’s diatribe on the offensiveness of texts that do not meet the student’s own righteous social-justice standards.
Teachers and administrators feel compelled to uphold a distinct set of ideologies. Some are anxious about running afoul of them. But embracing them too thoroughly is also a problem. Lines, not always easily visible, are crossed both in and out of the classroom.
Earlier this month, a director of student activities at Trinity, the 313-year-old school on the Upper West Side, was at the center of a scandal that erupted after Project Veritas, a right-wing activist group, released a video clip of her, taken by a surreptitious interviewer under the guise that they were out on a date.
In the edited footage, the director is having a drink with a man who presents himself as sharing her activist leanings. She talks about her political beliefs, the ways in which she incorporates them into her work and her disappointment that it is “white boys who feel very entitled to express their opposite opinions and push back.”
The director goes on to say that there are certain speakers she would not invite to lecture. She said that her boss, opposed to contrived neutrality in this divisive moment, is fine with this position, that it is nice that she does not have to hide who she is at Trinity — “that we can bring our whole selves to work.”
Not long after the video appeared, however, the director was left to bring none of herself because Trinity put her on paid leave pending an investigation. A few days later the head of school, along with the president of the board, sent a letter to the community calling the practices and values conveyed in the video “anathema to us and contrary in all ways to our commitment to be a place of inclusion, belonging, and open inquiry.”
By the standards of upheaval in the city’s private-school world over the past several years, the current friction over dress codes at the Grace Church School in the East Village seems comparatively minor, but it speaks with an unequaled lucidity to the dissonance in which these institutions are now trapped. Founded in 1894 amid Episcopal traditions, characterized by a bohemian spirit a century later, Grace — like Friends Seminary, several blocks away — eventually came to serve the downtown financial class. A decade ago, a high school was added, on Cooper Square, and a dress code put in place for the ninth through 12th grades, but during the past few years the administration wisely let it go, given how many other concerns the pandemic forced it to prioritize.
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With the start of the new academic year came news that the rules were to be taken seriously. Last Sunday, in advance of the first day of classes, sophomores received an email in which a new dean laid out a list of inappropriate clothing, one that included sweatpants, flip-flops, miniskirts, “tights worn as pants,” athletic wear, caps, tank tops and “pants that sit below the waist.” The letter wrapped up by telling students that if they were unsure about a particular item of clothing, they should not wear it.
“If you want to bring something into school to ask me if it’s OK, I’m happy to review your wardrobe choices,” the dean wrote, “without penalty or judgment.” (A hallmark of contemporary privilege is that it is always listening; it hears you.)
Some students and parents were mystified and angry, complaining that the rules seemed severe and archaic, which prompted another letter, from Grace’s new head of school, Robert M. Pennoyer II, on Thursday, explaining that they were devised to “foster a particular sense of culture and community” and that they would not be enforced “in ways that seek to shame or embarrass.” Nevertheless, bewilderment seemed like the only rational response, given the enthusiasm with which the private-school environment encourages the free expression of gender and the empowerment of girls, particularly in terms of their bodily autonomy. Last spring, Grace had the drag queen Brita Filter (the stage name of Jesse Havea) perform at a Pride event in its chapel. Students cheered as Brita danced down the aisle in a baby-doll dress that fell just below the hip.
Many schools bypass the fashion discourse simply by continuing to impose uniforms, even as the world has changed so dramatically, a policy followed at Grace for children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Under the new leadership this year, though, uniforms were “degendered,’’ as a spokesman for the school explained, leaving boys free to wear skirts if they chose and girls to wear shorts.
An obvious advantage of the uniform is that it can quiet the wealth disparities that supply the largely unspoken tension in schools with $58,000 annual tuitions and an increasing number of children receiving financial aid. The billionaire’s daughter is prevented, at least, from showing up in her $7,300 Chloe Midi dress. But the blurrier dress codes implemented for teenagers typically spring from the belief that there are no greater disrupters of student attention than exposed flesh or a visual suggestion of laziness. By this measure, the $10 Hanes tank top is a problem, but the $1500 logoed Prada cotton crew neck is fine.
Social media policies at Grace and most other private schools, focused on ensuring civility, do nothing to acknowledge the internal economic inequities that can, in themselves, be so distracting. Students are not typically warned, for example, against the practice of posting pictures of themselves on Instagram in polo gear in Palm Beach or in front of their expansive Bridgehampton hedgerow. Their parents are often doing the same thing. As, ever, who’ll police the grown-ups?