This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Cristina Hartmann:
I attended Phillips Academy from 2001 to 2003 for my last two years of high school. It was at Andover where I learned that luck isn’t evenly distributed.
I’m not what you’d imagine a typical boarding school student to be. I didn’t even know that schools like Andover, Milton, and Exeter existed until the year before. My parents are teachers, and I ended up using scholarship money to go. I come from immigrant stock, nary a drop of blue blood to be seen. A number of my childhood friends barely finished college (if at all) and hover above the poverty line.
Not only was I a hick from semi-rural upstate New York, but I was a lazy one. I was a good student, but I wasn’t at the top of my class. My winning studying technique was to watch TV with a book open on my lap, deigning to study during commerical breaks. At my previous high school, transcripts only showed the average of the quarters’ grades and finals. My strategy was to slack off for the first two or three quarters, getting B’s and the ocassional C, then working hard to get A-pluses on the final and the final quarter. The result was a pretty decent honors transcript with mostly A’s and A-minuses.
I’m still surprised Andover even let me stand on the Knoll, let alone allowed me to attend.
Moreover, as far as I know, I am the first (and only) deaf student to attend Phillips Academy. Legally, Andover wasn’t required to provide me with any services, being a private institution. Andover, however, provided the best services that I’ve ever gotten anywhere. I got two sign langauge interperters. Two. At most schools, I had to fight for a single mediocre interpreter. At Andover, they handed over two excellent interpreters without a blink. Money wasn’t an issue.
After an inauspicious first day (September 11th, 2001), I encountered an entirely new world at Phillips Academy. It wasn’t a bad world, but it was certainly different than my old world of ordinary folks.
During my first month there, I was walking along a hallway in the gym, peering into the window that oversaw the pool. I saw some girls in the pool flinging a ball to each other, wearing funny swim caps that went over their ears and had straps under their chins. I pointed at the girls and asked, “What is this?” One of my dormmates responded, “That’s water polo.” I answered, “Wait, there aren’t any horses in water polo?” Yes, I thought that water polo was an aquatic version of polo that Prince Charles plays. Over the next two years, I also learned about crew, $100 umbrellas, and the skiing in the Swiss Alps (not from personal experience).
Don’t get me wrong, not everyone at Andover came from money. One of my friends was on a full scholarship (Andover admissions is need-blind) and had to go to a state school because she couldn’t afford to go to a private university without a full ride. Andover is a lot more diverse (racially, socioeconomically, and geographically speaking) than you’d expect, but there are certainly people from old money as well as no money. At Andover, it was oftentimes hard to tell the difference between the two.
Cultural shocks aside, Andover expected far more of me than any of my previous schools had. For the first time in my life, I had to study and study hard. It’s not just that the material is harder (it is), but that you’re measured by a bigger and fancier yardstick. Your peers are smart and driven, high performers since the age of 5. You swim with them or you don’t. (I, however, recommend that you don’t try to swim with the student who went to the Olympics at 13.) For someone like me, it was a wonderful and much-needed kick in the seat of the pants.