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Sending the Kids Off to Hell er, I Mean, Wellington Academyby Caroline Says
I got accepted.
What a disaster! I was wildly, wickedly, radically out of place. I had never heard of field hockey. I had never smoked a cigarette. I had no idea where Fishers Island was. My family didn't own a place in Vail. Or Mustique. Or Martha's Vineyard. We didn't, in fact, own any other house besides the one we lived in. My childhood on Long Island looked average but was fairly eccentric. I chased our peacocks through the rhododendrons with my brothers. We went iceboating every winter. We had a ram named Stanley who tried to mate with a lawnmower. My grade school class had 12 kids total. We learned Latin. We were profoundly innocent.
Every year at Hotchkiss got harder. I was a white girl who fell in love with a black boy from Brooklyn, which still didn't feel condoned there, in 1989, believe it or not. I was shy and came off as aloof. I was scared but seemed rebellious. I hung out with stoners but never once got high. I made it through four grades, but I think some faculty were surprised.
It's 20 years later, and I just sent four daughters and three sons there.
Okay, not really. But I heartlessly sent seven characters to a school like Hotchkiss, and wished them luck, and gave them a phone card and a kiss on the cheek and little wisdom or direction or antibodies for the New World.
Writing a young adult book involves an accountability I didn't experience when I wrote an adult novel. The protagonist in that one is a bohemian who lives in Brooklyn. In her late 20s, she sleeps around and does cocaine and finds herself a sugar daddy. Good for her: she's of age, she can handle herself, and if she can't, it's not my problem. It's actually my pleasure; it's fun to explore her dirty and decadent trials and tribulations. But these poor loves I sent to Wellington Academy! In The Upper Class, the first of four books in the Upper Class series, these little dears are only 15, lambs to slaughter.
I cowrote the Upper Class series with two guy friends who also went to Hotchkiss: Taylor Materne and Hobson Brown. While collaborating, we often felt less like good authors and more like bad parents, raising this motley brood of prep-schoolers. We tried to fathom our actual responsibilities, to understand why we felt so peculiarly liable. Does Cecily von Ziegesar stress when Serena and Blair and Nate stay out late on the Upper East Side, mistreating each other and drinking too much vodka and having sex in limousines? Is she okay with this? What kind of mother is she, anyway?
Our Upper Class teenagers believe they can handle autonomy, too. Delia and Nikki take on Manhattan, armed with fake IDs and Nikki's dad's credit card. They disdain anyone who thinks they're in over their heads, until they find themselves in a motel room, with a malevolent, drunk man banging on the door. Chase, the Southern golden boy, is sure he can keep up in the dark with an older girl, until she tears his heart out of his tuxedo vest. Laine knows how to eat and exercise, and doesn't listen to the doctor, despite her nosebleeds and fainting spells. This is the essence of teenagerhood, no? Being dead certain of a right to freedom and yet not being able to handle it? The tension between those two states propels most teens through their adventures.
Hobson, Taylor, and I made a pact not to exploit the naïveté of our kids. We decided we would explore this state of near grace, but not sensationalize or treat glibly the inevitable tumbles and scrapes. We couldn't help giving these characters a safety net here and a whispered suggestion by a wise adult there. It felt merciless to abandon them to their own devices.
The teenage readership, mostly girls, are a YA writer's blessing and responsibility, too, in a way an adult reader is not. Teens don't come to a book looking to learn something because as teens we know everything, don't we? I did but subconsciously they gobble up signals and paradigms. So in The Upper Class, the girl who seduces a male teacher into good grades shouldn't go without experiencing some sort of intelligent and plausible repercussions. The Protestant girl who makes jabs at the Jewish girl cannot go unpunished.
Yet we didn't want to write ethics pamphlets and have readers tune out, tapping their feet and blowing bubbles with their gum during our boring lectures. Here, too, Taylor, Hobson, and I agreed to aim for a middle ground, where we spoke our protective and earnest minds without alienating anyone. We relegated ourselves to hand-wringing in the kitchen if the kids were late for curfew. Only after a few hours, if they still wouldn't answer their cell phones, would we call the police.
Another funny aspect of this parental spirit in our YA endeavor is how Taylor and Hobson protected the boy characters while I shielded the girls. "She would never say that!" I complained. "She's smarter than that!" They would get upset when a guy was humiliated. "She can't treat him like that!" they'd say. "He wouldn't let himself be so humiliated!" We were working out our high school ghosts through these unwitting agents. I wanted everyone in the world to know that the shy girl is not aloof. She's just shy! But it's unfair to manipulate our art-geek progeny to the sole end of resolving my leftover dreams. She has a life, too.
Overall, we often felt guilty and conflicted during the writing process. It was hard to let the kids go. We watched Parker, the quiet hipster from Ottawa, who shops in vintage stores for punk records and wears ratty fur coats, take her first OxyContin. We were there when Greg, a scholarship student, was almost caught breaking into a house near campus. We let Nikki wear outfits to class that Jenna Jameson might pick out. And all of this to sell books! We might as well turn these kids onto the city streets to earn rent the hard way.
But we managed to convince ourselves, after much evaluation, that we were decent parents, not sadists. The only way a child can learn is to screw up. It would have been sweet and lovely to keep our crew at home, to restrain them to the neighborhood biking with their old elementary school friends, throwing rocks into the bay, playing with stuffed animals, sleeping in childhood beds. And it would have been ultimately tragic and pathetic. Everyone has the right to grow up.