I went to an affluent prep school in the suburbs, the kind of place where the parking lot was like a scene from a bad movie about rich kids. A friend of mine got an Audi S8 for his birthday; another got a BMW Z4; and another got a BMW 3-series convertible hardtop — until she got bored of it and requested a 550. You get the point.
Yes, I went to a private school, so make fun of me if you will. The education was great so I’ll make no apologies. I loved my fellow students too. We had some truly brilliant people — math geniuses, great writers, artists; in some ways it was like a mini-Cornell. Yet it was even more of a bubble, because most of us came from similar backgrounds.
Our parents were doctors, lawyers and businessmen. The one thing that kids at my school all had in common, then, was that they were incredibly lucky. They were blessed with opportunities, financially and academically, that most people in this country, let alone the world, will never experience. And yet, so many of them just kept screwing up.
Take Chris, one of my friends senior year. He was pretty damn smart, the sort of guy who, even though he acted like a moron, could have an insightful political discussion. The problem was, he just couldn’t stop taking drugs — out of school, and even in school.
Last time I saw him, he was working behind the counter of a CVS — even though the kid probably had an IQ above 130.
Then there was Matt, who came from a well-to-do family. He wasn’t the brightest, but I grew up with the kid and he was just a nice, somewhat mischievous, curious boy. Matt left my school for another, and got hooked on methamphetamine. Yeah, meth.
Or how about Scott, who graduated a few years before me. He was one of the most talented students we ever had, excelling in everything from math to the humanities and beloved by his teachers. Then he took the SATs for some other kid, using a fake ID, and was promptly expelled from school and lost his spot at Princeton, where he had gotten in early-decision. He did it for a couple hundred bucks.
But the greatest screw-up story has to be the story of Dave, who graduated back in the early 2000s. Dave’s father founded one of the largest toy companies in the United States, with revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and he was a noted philanthropist as well.
Dave, like a lot of other bored rich kids, liked cocaine. One night just after graduation, Dave is at home, drinking and blowing lines of coke with his friends. He gets a call from a friend — who happens to be the daughter of a teacher at my school — and she’s screaming hysterically. She and two others had been buying coke in a nearby town, when they were robbed at gunpoint and locked in a basement.
Dave and his friends organize a rescue mission, by which I mean they grab a shotgun and get in Dave’s car. Sometime later they stop at a red light — at which point Dave turns to talk to his friend, who’s out cold in the passenger seat. So is the other guy in the back. Dave panics, gets out of the car, opens all its doors, and flees the scene on foot.
When the cops arrived, they found a late-model Mercedes-Benz with the following contents: cash, cocaine, alcohol, two drugged-out teenagers and a shotgun.
Another full disclosure — I told that story because I think it’s hilarious. But it also raises questions.
I’m not sure how I feel about kids like Dave, Chris, Matt or Scott. On one hand, I find them pathetic — they were given everything, opportunities that others will never enjoy, and they threw it all away. Maybe they were bored, because life was too easy for them. I suppose that’s one, rather uncharitable, way of seeing it.
But I don’t think that’s it, just boredom. Because if you scratch below the surface of all that bling, those fancy cars and designer clothes, there’s more than just some stuck-up kid. Sure, I went to a prep school, and sure, those kids benefited from incredible opportunities — but some of them had alcoholic parents, some witnessed domestic abuse, some were just ignored by their moms and dads.
Scratch below the surface, and you start to realize that wealth is no insulator, that money really can’t buy protection from the less-benign aspects of human nature. You might cure every patient, or captivate a courtroom or predict every stock value — but it doesn’t mean you’re a good person, or can raise a kid. No BMW or Mercedes is a substitute for that.
Jonathan Panter is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Storyteller appears alternate Fridays this semester.