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Welcome to America’s Most Elite Girls Boarding School. Let the Hazing Begin.

I was a wide-eyed scholarship kid among daughters of the rich and famous. I expected academic rigor and supportive sisterhood—not humiliating midnight raids. But the most shocking thing to everyone else was when I stood up for myself.

Welcome to America’s Most Elite Girls Boarding School. Let the Hazing Begin.

The super-friendly Stepford girls put on a hell of a charade that morning in 1983, my first day at America’s most prestigious all-girls boarding school. A cheery girl with a clipboard greeted me and my father by name as we pulled up to the main building of Miss Porter’s School in our aging VW Squareback wagon. The school had posted headshots and information about new students in the hallway, so the clipboard girl already knew who I was.  

An ant colony of students arrived to help carry stuff to my room, before showing me around the dorm and gathering a group for lunch. My roommate, who was from the South, had already set up her side of our room with a boom box, a selection of cassette tapes that included a Jane Fonda workout and the Big Chill soundtrack, and a dresser topped with hot rollers and Clinique makeup. 

I was more accustomed to thrift store shopping and, as a budding New Waver, walking the careful line between expressing my personal style and fitting in. We were definitely from different worlds, but she was instantly likeable. I felt immediately settled in, and over the course of the day I chatted with scores of smiling girls who were eager to welcome us into this elite community. 

You could drive down Main Street right by Miss Porter’s and not know it was a boarding school campus. It was easy to miss the small white sign outside the main building, which was sensibly called Main. Brick with a white-columned porch, it fit into the rest of the campus, which was mostly a collection of pretty, historic homes that had been turned into classrooms and dorms. 

I fell asleep that first night looking forward to a three-year combo study hall and slumber party, on a perfect little campus in a quiet Connecticut town where nothing bad could ever happen.  

That fantasy ended abruptly. 

I was startled awake by urgent banging on doors and shouting: 

“Get up! Get out!” 

“Run! Now!” 

The commands were coming from female voices in the hallway, and they were getting closer. 

Someone in another room must have tried to grab something because I heard one of the voices say, “Don’t take anything. Just run!” 

My twin bed was positioned with my head inches from the door, which someone flung open, yelling, “Run! Run! Run!” 

I was stunned. I sat up in bed and froze for a few seconds as I tried to process what was happening. My first thought was that there must be a fire — what else could it be? The school was founded in 1843, and my dorm looked like it was made of wood. Terrified, an icy weight of panic momentarily immobilized me. But there was no time to lose. My roommate and I ran. 

It was dark in the hallway, save for some flashlight beams that darted like strobe lights, sweeping over the patterned carpet, the dainty floral wallpaper, the faces of terrified girls in nightgowns rushing past my door to the staircase. 

I joined the stampede in the pitch-black hallway and immediately found myself at a choke point next to the stairs. We stumbled over each other and were herded into the common room on the first floor, where we were commanded to sit. 

If I remember correctly, the common room had only one couch and a small utilitarian table with a few chairs, so most of us huddled on the floor. There must have been about 30 students there, so the room was crowded. My heart was racing as we sat on the floor in the dark. I was scared, but more than that, I was confused. Why weren’t we running outside? Why didn’t I smell smoke? Why didn’t I hear a fire alarm? 

The only light in the common room was from flashlights held by returning students, known as “Old Girls,” whereas the newly arrived students were called “New Girls,” no matter their grade. Some of the Old Girls’ faces were painted white and black, as if they were headed into battle. They were sporting teased hair, sunglasses, baseball hats worn backward, and bandanas covering their mouths or hair. 

“Sit down!” 

“Be quiet!” 

“No talking! No laughing!” 

“This is not a joke!” 

“Eyes down. This means you!” an Old Girl screamed as she directed the beam of her flashlight into the eyes of a young-looking girl hugging her knees. The girl was shivering and seemed about to cry. I was a 15-year-old sophomore, but a few of the freshmen were still 13. 

One by one, we were called out of the common room. The chosen girls didn’t return. 

“You!” The flashlight was in my eyes now. “Come here!” I got up, but I guess not fast enough. 



“What’s wrong?” 


A group of Old Girls kept taunting me as they pushed and prodded me down the hall, reprimanding me for looking at them, and mocking me as I protested and tried to dodge them. 

One big shove from behind and I lurched into a room where it was me against a sea of preppy girls doing their best to be intimidating. 

“What’s your name?” a girl barked at me — which girl, I couldn’t say in the confusion of the crowded room. They were on one side and I was told to stand in the middle, alone. 

“Stasha,” I answered. 

“What kind of a name is that?” a broad-shouldered girl with mirrored aviators and a popped collar asked with amusement. I recognized her as Arielle (all names have been changed in this piece), a girl who earlier had told me she was descended from royalty. 

“That’s a stupid name,” another girl chimed in with disdain above the laughter. 

“Where are you from?” Arielle asked. 

“Russia?” another girl chimed in. 

“Are you a spy?” 

“No wonder you don’t know how to dress.” 

“No, I’m from Greenwich,” I answered. “I’m not —” 

“Quiet! You speak when you are spoken to,” Arielle said sharply. 

I was from Greenwich, Connecticut, one of the wealthiest towns in the country, but I lived in a rented ranch house, not a backcountry mansion. While my Greenwich friends had fathers who were Wall Street masters of the universe, hotshot corporate lawyers or famous fashion designers, my father had recently filed for bankruptcy after his business failed, and he was working odd jobs. He was probably the only Harvard-educated security guard his agency had ever hired. 

My parents had met when they worked at the same Wall Street bank. He was the son of a banker from the North Shore of Boston, and she was a secretary from a working-class Brooklyn family. I had grown up in a large house with a backyard in a pretty neighborhood in Forest Hills, Queens. I felt firmly middle class — there were vacations, summer camps and horseback riding lessons.  

When we moved to Greenwich, it was a step up the social ladder. My father was doing well financially — but then his business tanked. 

My mother went back to work as a secretary at an insurance company, but my first real clue that our circumstances had changed was when my father asked me to buy my mother a birthday present from him with my money. (I babysat twice a week and lived with a family over the summer working as a mother’s helper.) Our financial situation soon became so dire that my father even cleaned out the passbook savings accounts my sister and I had had since we were born. I was on scholarship at Miss Porter’s — a fact that I did not scream from the rooftops.  

So, the harassment, insults, jabs and accusations I got during my turn in front of the Old Girls were particularly ironic. 

“Rich bitch!” 

“Who do you think you are, Greenwich girl?” 

“Well, you’re nobody! Worse than a nobody — a New Girl.” 

“On your knees, New Girl, and kiss my ring!” 

Miss Porter’s glossy brochure was filled with freshly scrubbed girls wearing headbands, peering through microscopes, performing Shakespeare, crossing field hockey sticks. Not girls in crazy getups threatening shivering schoolmates in the middle of the night. 

I didn’t in my wildest dreams expect hazing here. This was a refined school with an esteemed reputation. It was long considered a finishing school, and if it didn’t invent the adjective “white-glove,” it should have. Jackie Kennedy graduated from Miss Porter’s, as did Gloria Vanderbilt and any number of high-profile scions of the rich and powerful. My classmates were the daughters of diplomats and media moguls and had last names recognizable from grocery store shelves.  

It was an academically intense school, with an average of four hours of homework a night. During my years there, I studied existential literature in French and sight-read The Aeneid in Latin. That was why I had worked so hard to get in there. Greenwich had an excellent public school system, but there was only one high school, with about 3,000 students in it, and I was concerned that I would get lost in the shuffle. I loved learning and idolized my father’s brain: He could give spontaneous dissertations on an enormous variety of topics. When it came time for me to consider choices for high school, I found myself drawn to small, all-girls boarding schools. I thought it would be a fun and comfortable environment, without the distraction of boys. My family and I saw Miss Porter’s as a beautiful, warm school with rigorous academics.  

Applying to enter as a sophomore after finishing junior high (the school I attended ended in ninth grade back then), I spent countless hours filling out applications, touring campuses and studying for the  Secondary School Admission Test, dreaming that my reach school would accept me. My financial condition was certainly not in my favor — the annual tuition then was comparable to the cost of some private college (tuition at Miss Porter’s  today it is $68,725) — but I had hoped against hope that I would make up for that with my excellent grades and many extracurricular activities. My parents were so proud when I received my acceptance letter. And now here I was being demeaned. 

But my parents had brought me up to be self-confident and to remove myself from uncomfortable situations. I politely declined to respond to the girls’ commands. 

I turned to exit the room but was blockaded by smirking girls. 

“May I please leave?” I asked. 

“May I please leave?” someone mimicked me from behind. 

“No, you may not leave. Come back here and get on your knees!” 

Feeling more anger and shock than fear at this point — I couldn’t believe it was happening and I was incensed that I was being treated this way — I rushed to the door and pushed my way out, my heart pounding and adrenaline pumping.  

The hallway seemed 10 times longer than it was that morning. I heard “Get her!” and looked over my shoulder to see four girls running toward me. I headed for refuge in the apartment of my dorm parents — school employees who lived in the dorm to support students and do head counts every night — and I was relieved to see Jane standing at her door. But as I got closer, I realized she was laughing. 

Change of plan. I bolted up the stairs and shouted, “Leave me the fuck alone!” 

I rushed, panting, to my room and barricaded it with my body, listening for an attack that didn’t come. They had moved on to the next victim. I threw myself on my bed and cried violently. 

I couldn’t have realized what a radical thing I had done. 

It turned out that Miss Porter’s had surprise hazing rituals that the school called “traditions,” which happened throughout the year. And apparently not participating just wasn’t done.  

“I was insecure. It didn’t occur to me not to participate,” said Annie, a New Girl the year after me, when I recently chatted with her over FaceTime. Most others responded the same. 

But for me, it was a knee-jerk, visceral reaction — a fight-or-flight response, or perhaps a fight-and-flight response. My exiting that room did not come from a place of superiority, as I was accused. 

“Who do you think you are?” Arielle demanded when she confronted me in the hallway the next morning. 

Other Old Girls followed her lead. 

“You can’t get away with this.” 

“You think you’re better than everyone else?” 

“You think you’re special? Well, you’re not. We’ll get you next time.” 

“And it won’t be pretty, pretty girl.” 

I stood motionless, waiting for them to finish and get out of my face. 

This was not how I wanted to begin three years at my new school. I lived here. I had to see them every single day and every night. I already felt out of place, coming from a different background than my classmates, some of whose families had multiple residences, staff and even private planes at their disposal. They operated in a world of cotillions and summers spent playing tennis, sailing at clubs, and partying on the beach in Nantucket. They wore real pearls — even with sweatshirts — whereas mine I’d bought for $1 from an unlicensed vendor with a folding table full of trinkets in Times Square. 

I could talk the talk though, having lived in Greenwich for a few years. When my family moved there in 1980 from Queens, I had studied the newly published Official Preppy Handbook to learn the ropes and better fit in. Greenwich is name-checked in the book, and I pored over its pages to learn about lacrosse and field hockey, whale belts and grosgrain headbands, and the whole array of prep schools. 

When I’d lived in Queens, I took the subway alone to my dance classes in Manhattan, at a time when crime was high, not long after the Son of Sam serial killer had terrorized the area, and the Guardian Angels crime-fighting New Yorkers in red berets helped keep the graffiti-covered subways safe. I walked home a half mile from the station at night, fielding men who leered and grabbed me. 

These privileged girls at Miss Porter’s didn’t know what it was like to be scared of anything real. 

Which is not to say I wasn’t scared of them. I was intimidated, but the fear was of the unknown. What were the other traditions? When would they happen? What would they do if I didn’t participate?  

It seemed that this anxiety was exactly the intention. Part of the stated mission of Miss Porter’s is to prepare girls to shape a changing world. Perhaps the current head of school (who was not at Miss Porter’s when I was a student), had this in mind when she told a Vanity Fair reporter in 2009 that “One of the things that is awesome about our traditions, about our Old Girl, New Girl tradition, is that we actually create these rites of passage where girls get anxious. The positive side is that it teaches girls to be prepared. How do you prepare for the unknown?”  

A staunch supporter of the traditions, a girl who was a year ahead of me put it this way when I spoke to her recently. “Embrace the uncomfortable. Walk toward it. … Facing fear and dealing with it is a good thing, especially when you know you’re not in any real danger,” she said. She’s a proponent of the ancient philosophy of stoicism, whose adherents find power in approaching situations with a mindset that is not self-defeating. The art of stoicism “is lost on America right now,” she added. “No one knows how to deal with being offended anymore.” 

In those first few days I wrestled with wanting to fit in versus not wanting to be humiliated. Miss Porter’s was my new home, and this community of 300 girls, and my dorm parents, was my new family. I thought I was getting 299 sisters and two substitute parents, but I learned that first night exactly how “friendly” some of my sisters were and how “protective” my dorm parents felt toward me. Jane’s reaction reflected the staff and faculty’s general lack of response to the traditions. 

A few times a week, we had a formal sit-down dinner with assigned tables that included a faculty member and a mix of Old Girls and New Girls. Early in the school year, we were at the end of one of these sit-down dinners when the cavernous dining hall went black. The kitchen lights were visible through the serving windows, and the lamplight from the path outside cast a soft glow through the tall windows in the dining hall. It wasn’t completely dark, and my eyes adjusted. 

Voices chanting in a low monotone came from behind the giant wooden doors that led to the hallway: “Pray for the dead and the dead will pray for you, simply because they have nothing else to do.” The doors opened slowly to reveal two lines of girls dressed in black robes. 

I wondered what the heck was going on and why no one was reacting. 

Everyone’s eyes were glued to the robed figures. They walked slowly while repeating the chant, then stood still in a line facing the tables. One spoke in a booming voice, something to the effect of: “We are the Terrible Ten. We keep order. Anyone who does not obey the Old Girls will answer to us.” 

I didn’t know if it was my imagination, but I felt like that girl’s eyes were laser focused on me. I think they were all seniors, and since seniors lived separately in two dorms across the street, I hadn’t had much interaction with them. 

The leader continued, saying something I remember as: “We are watching you. All the time. We have eyes and ears in every dorm, in every classroom. You will not escape our judgment. Penalties for transgressions are grave. You will obey us. And you will keep the secrets of the traditions.” 

I couldn’t believe what I had witnessed. It was beyond my comprehension that the school allowed this to happen. Most of us New Girls were away from home for the first time, vulnerable and scared. We were looking for community, support and sisterhood, not intimidation and humiliation. 

When the lights came back on, the New Girls had questions in their eyes, but the looks on the faces of the Old Girls said keep quiet. I looked around the room, and my eyes lingered on some of the international students. I wondered, since this hazing was so disruptive and unbalancing to me, how it would be for girls who were now on the other side of the planet from their parents and whose first language wasn’t English. For them, these stupid traditions came in addition to the stress of a new school, new language, new country and an intense academic workload. 

There was a new head of school the year I started at Miss Porter’s, an English woman who came from the world of academia. It was unclear how much she or the faculty knew about the traditions most of them happened at night and on weekends when teachers weren’t around, and the dorm parents mostly stayed out of our way. I suspected that the faculty were told the school had harmless traditions that the girls ran, which bonded the classes. In any case, the faculty, staff and administrators were hands-off when it came to the traditions. I once wrote about my experiences with the traditions in a school essay; the teacher gave me an A but never spoke with me about the trauma I’d expressed. 

At the beginning of the year, there weren’t open weekends, which meant that students couldn’t go home. That, I assume, was to help girls acclimate to their new surroundings but it also made us New Girls sitting ducks.  

It was on one of those weekends, not that long after the “welcome” tradition that first night, that I was lounging in a friend’s room down the hall, probably debating the merits of the hunks in The Outsiders (Rob Lowe garnered the highest level of swoon), reading the sex advice column in Cosmopolitan out loud, and generally shooting the shit, when the same Old Girls from that first night started gathering everyone to go outside. 

My heart froze. This was the moment I had been dreading. I had thought incessantly about what I would do when faced with the next tradition, and I had talked about it with other New Girls. I remember the conversations going something like this: 

“I don’t want to do them.” 

“What do you mean?” one asked. 

“I mean not doing the traditions. I’ll sit here and read Cosmo while you go get screamed at.” 

“You can’t not do the traditions. Everybody does them. All of them.”  

“But I don’t want to.” Thinking of the welcome tradition, I said: “That wasn’t fun for me. If all the traditions are like that, I don’t want to do them.” 

“That’s not an option. Get over yourself.” 

A healthy percentage of students were “legacies,” meaning that their older sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers and even further back up the family tree had attended Miss Porter’s. Some of them had the advantage of knowing that there were traditions before they arrived, even if they didn’t know what they were or when they would happen. 

One girl, incredulous, asked me: “You didn’t know?!” She told me, almost wistfully: “Traditions are an important part of this school, something we will have in common with all Ancients,” the school term for alumnae. Her gaze sharpened as she continued: “And then next year we get to do it all to the next New Girls.” 

I heard this kind of reasoning over and over again: Just grin and bear it and next year you get to be in charge. But I didn’t want to haze anyone. 

“It’s not hazing!” everyone insisted. “They are traditions and they’re fun.” 

I was told that all these traditions led to the ring tradition near the end of the school year. New Girls would become Old Girls in a ceremony where they would get a signet ring with “MPS” engraved on it a prize for making it through and joining the club. 

Other New Girls told me to suck it up and pretend that the traditions didn’t bother me, like everyone else. But I couldn’t imagine myself putting on an air of enthusiasm when inside I felt like crying. I thought it was messed up that the approach to bonding classes was through shared trauma.  

I had been trying to “get over myself.” But when faced with the decision of whether to participate in tradition number two, I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. 

I realized at that moment that I was going to follow my own compass and not listen to the noise. I knew why I wasn’t going to participate, and I could explain it until I was blue in the face and people still wouldn’t understand. 

I simply didn’t believe that it was acceptable to humiliate and intimidate anyone — let alone all of the new students for an entire year at this supposedly refined school. My refusal to participate was my way of protesting. 

It was a struggle to stand apart. The Old Girls surrounded me, yelling, telling me that I had a bad attitude and no school spirit, that I was being selfish. They said I didn’t think about how I was affecting others and ruining their fun. My fellow New Girls pleaded with me. But I held my ground and finally they all left me alone. It was eerie to be by myself in a dorm that was usually buzzing with girls chattering, singing along to Pat Benatar, and flitting in and out of each other’s rooms. I tried to see where they’d gone from the back windows, but I lost track of them. 

When they came back, my fellow New Girls told me that there had been organized relay races, like spinning in circles bent over with your forehead on the butt of a bat while the tip was on the ground and then running, dizzy and wobbly, to tag the next person. It sounded innocuous enough — until one girl told me that the Old Girls screamed at the New Girls, telling them that they were slow, fat and useless. 

I perceived a wall going up between me and my New Girl friends. I think it was uncomfortable for them to tell me details and show their distress while I was removed from their experiences. They probably resented me for not participating, and they might have been afraid of getting more severe treatment because they were friends with me. 

“You don’t have to do them either,” I said. “Sit them out with me. There’s power in numbers.” But I had no takers. Most told me that they didn’t want to do the traditions either but did them anyway to stay under the radar. They felt solidarity in going through those difficult experiences together. They also believed that nothing would be achieved by resisting, because the traditions were ingrained in the school’s culture. 

Then again, there were also New Girls who swore up and down, then and now, that the traditions weren’t a big deal. I see now that there can be 10 people in a room and all 10 can have a different experience of the same event. 

Some of the mean girl behavior didn’t happen in groups or in organized events — the whole culture of the school supported the extension of these traditions. I remember someone taking Chase’s towel out of the bathroom while she was showering, so that she would have to walk to her room naked. Gisele, who started at the same time as me, remembers occasionally seeing some of the New Girls wearing revealing clothes and being led on a leash. In Gisele’s first year, she received “a long, nasty letter” that pointed out her perceived physical faults. It was dropped off with deodorant that the author of the letter said she hoped she’d use. She showed it to her dorm parent Jane — the same one who had laughed when she saw me running out of the welcome tradition — who told her that “kids can be cruel; you’ll be fine.” The next year, a bag of designer clothes was left outside her door, along with a note that said the way she dressed did not properly represent Miss Porter’s.  

“Holy crap, these things were incredibly painful,” she said, when we spoke recently. She didn’t tell her parents. “I was ashamed. And my mother was dying of cancer — I didn’t want to bother them with this.”  

When Halloween rolled around, the Old Girls told the New Girls what to dress up as and instructed us to come to dinner in costume, with lines memorized. 

Gisele was Orville Redenbacher, since she ate a lot of popcorn. She needed to jump like popping corn while dressed like this geeky guy and memorize his long quotes from the popcorn label. “Hello, I’m Orville Redenbacher from Valparaiso, Indiana. You are going to love my gourmet popping corn. Let me tell you why …” 

I remember Chase being a perfect Nancy Drew, wearing a kilt and saddle shoes with a book and flashlight in hand.  

She’s not sure now if it was for Halloween, but another schoolmate, Blake, remembers being mortified at having to dress like a toilet and walk up to boys from our brother school and say, “If you want to shit, sit.” 

Then came the Halloween challenge: Not only did New Girls have to dress up and memorize lines or songs, they had to perform them for the occupants of cars waiting at the stoplight on the busy road that cut through our campus.  

After dinner, a raucous evening and lots of candy, we New Girls headed back to our dorms to find that they had been trashed. Old Girls had ripped the bedding off of beds, pulled out dresser drawers, and thrown clothes on the floor. Some people’s things were in other people’s rooms. My roommate and I found clothes from our closet on the fire escape. Blake’s entire dorm room had been moved onto the front lawn, furniture and all. Annie’s prized records, her comfort when she was upset, had been taken from their sleeves and sprinkled with baby powder, and the album covers arranged like a house of cards on the floor. 

I felt violated. People had come uninvited into my room while I was gone, pawed through my things, moved them, messed them up and damaged them on purpose. Some New Girls acted nonchalant as they cleaned up their rooms, but many of us were upset. 

The next time the New Girls were corralled, I escaped next door to the library during the melee. The library was a modest, warm yellow 19th-century building with wooden desks that were carved with girls’ names dating back more than 100 years and formal sofas that sometimes released little clouds of dust when you sat on them.  

Since most of the students were occupied with whatever tradition was happening, the library was quiet and I stretched out on a couch, happy to be alone with my Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition book, ready to read rules like “predicate nominative” over and over until I understood them. 

Two New Girl friends appeared, standing over me with stern looks on their faces. 

“Come,” they said. 

“No, I’ll stay here, thank you,” I replied. 

“Get out there with us,” they said, pointing to the door. 

I didn’t move. 

“Come outside with us.” 

I stared at them. “No, I’m studying. I have a grammar test tomorrow.” 

“That doesn’t matter. I have work, too. Take a break. You belong outside with us.” 

“I don’t want to go.” 

“You have to.” 

“I am not going,” I said, fuming, thinking that they must have been put up to this. 

I kept declining, and they finally turned on their heels and huffed off, leaving me shaken and unable to concentrate. I was worried that some Old Girls were going to come in next and physically drag me out.  

When I returned to the dorm, I found girls rushing to shower. They were drenched and covered in shaving cream and raw eggs. No one was particularly interested in telling me what happened, but it was obvious. Many were visibly shaken, even the ones who had kept a veneer of stoicism up to that point. 

When I interviewed Gisele for this story, she told me a horrific detail I hadn’t known. Not only had eggs and shaving cream been thrown at the New Girls but also vinegar, perfume, urine and feces. “I got shit thrown at me,” she said, “and the townspeople went by and honked with joy.” This particular tradition was led by the senior girls and took place on the lawn in front of the two senior dorms. 

I felt that the abuse was escalating. Fearing for our well-being, I planned to talk to my advisor — even though we weren’t supposed to talk about the traditions to anyone. 

Mr. Charles listened intently as I spilled my guts. Like most faculty, he lived off campus and wasn’t privy to the nature of the traditions. He knew they existed, but they were not something the adults concerned themselves with — they operated in the student realm. 

Students had a lot of power at Miss Porter’s, the most noteworthy being that members of the student council had the power to recommend forms of punishment to administrators when fellow students broke the rules. Students led clubs and athletic teams, gave prospective students tours, and organized events. It followed that the students led the traditions. What didn’t compute was that there was no adult oversight of them. There was an adult advisor or coach for every other student-led endeavor. 

I recently wrote to Mr. Charles and asked him what he remembered of this time. “I remember how deeply you felt and how your personal feelings were so effectively communicated to the entire MPS community,” he replied. He thought I might have briefly spoken at a faculty meeting, and that once the adults on campus knew the extent of the “dark atmosphere … of fear and intimidation,” he remembers that I addressed an assembly to share with students my wish for a safe and friendly environment, while the adults worked behind the scenes. 

I surprisingly don’t remember addressing the school, but it certainly seems like something I would have done. I’ve learned through interviewing numerous people that we all remember — and don’t remember — different things, 40 years later. Pieced together, our memories fill in the puzzle. 

“As discussions and proposals for change were formed, everyone felt that addressing [the welcome tradition] was paramount,” he wrote. “The positivity of the change cannot be understated.” 

It was incredibly validating to read this so many years later. In my eyes, Mr. Charles acted as the epitome of an advisor: hearing me, believing me and taking steps to rectify the problem. After numerous meetings throughout the year involving faculty, administration and dorm parents, changes were made — much to the dismay of some Old Girls who called me a whiny crybaby. The changes didn’t happen all at once, but perhaps the biggest was the transformation of the welcome tradition, which had not been welcoming at all, into “a night of discovery, team building and hopefully a few laughs, while still being able to convey the ‘roles’ of new girl vs old girl,” wrote Mr. Charles. From my understanding, my wish for having an adult present during each tradition is now a given. 

Even so, a lawsuit suggested that as recently as 2008 at least some of the culture of intimidation had reared its ugly head again. A student claimed that she had been in such a state of emotional distress after weeks of harassment — in part at the hands of the so-called “Oprichniki,” the group of students that had by that time replaced the Terrible Ten, their moniker inspired by Ivan the Terrible’s bodyguards — that she cheated on a test and got expelled. Her parents sued the school and the suit was eventually settled out of court. Covering the case in 2009, Vanity Fair reported that the new school administration had attempted to quash the old-style traditions and replace them with gentler versions, but they had struggled to keep them at bay entirely. 

Back in the spring of 1984, the school ring ceremony was fast approaching. It was the reward after a year of torment. I didn’t want a ring, hadn’t earned one, and didn’t turn in the order form. I figured that every time I looked at my hand I would be reminded of the cruelty. I found myself explaining this to different administrators, and I couldn’t understand why there was so much fussing — until one administrator told me that I would be the only girl in the history of the school to not order one. 

“The school will pay for it, dear,” she said. 

“No, thank you.” 

“Ancients often will their rings, so you can have one of those if you’d like.” 

“No, thank you.” 

I made it through the end of the school year and even participated in most of the spring traditions, which had always been more benign than the fall ones. We memorized the school songbook, had “Little Meetings” where students shared their creative talents, and brought our Old Girls breakfast in bed. 

Some girls, even those I didn’t know well, thanked me for speaking out. Others harangued me for ruining the fun and being a tattletale. As the year came to a close and the line between New Girls and Old Girls disappeared, I felt palpable relief and permitted myself to let my guard down. Constantly worrying about my personal safety and feeling like a pariah had taken its toll. Now I could just be one of the girls — not New or Old, just one of the girls, without a label or something driving a wedge between me and everyone else. 

When it was my turn to be an Old Girl the following year, the scary seniors had graduated and I was now in on when the traditions would happen. The perceived wall between me and my peers had vanished. We still had the unwelcoming welcome tradition, which didn’t change until later, but I warned some New Girls in my dorm about when traditions would happen, tried to soften them, and helped them clean up afterward.  

That year we bonded through K-Tel dance parties and late-night gab sessions, forging such strong connections that these women are still among my closest friends 40 years later. I really do love them like sisters — no shared trauma necessary. 

I asked other Ancients what they remembered about traditions when they were Old Girls and how they reflect on them now. Annie — who had previously expressed her gratitude that her daughter didn’t have to go through what we did — said, “I remember standing over one girl until she took that smirk off her face. I stood over her screaming.” Annie had not been one of the ringleaders of the traditions, but she had participated. Her tone now made it clear that she was not proud of the incident. 

“I think that that whole atmosphere was sick, was twisted,” said Gisele. “You never knew if they were going to hurt you. It kept me from learning. It even made nice people cruel.” She added: “I didn’t go back for 20 years.”  

Of course, not everybody hated the traditions. Blake described “a sense of belonging for the first time.” Another told me that even though she didn’t like wearing underwear on her head for everyone on Main Street to see, and although the welcome tradition “definitely needed to change,” she still feels like the “traditions built community.” Another said simply, “I loved them.” 

Then there are the women whose experience with traditions didn’t affect them one way or another. “I don’t remember them really,” one Ancient told me. “I probably slept through them.” 

At the latest reunion, in October 2022, I walked out of the enormous new library, where a cocktail reception was being held, behind a group of New Girls chatting and carrying schoolbooks. I introduced myself and asked them if I could ask a few questions about campus life. 

I had attended many reunions on campus over the years and accepted invitations to alumnae gatherings in Greenwich, hoping to talk to others, as adults, about our time at Miss Porter’s. I wanted to come to terms with the events I had experienced, to find closure, and to assure myself that the students today felt safe. 

I have brought up the subject of traditions over and over through the years, with everyone from my friends to complete strangers, some alumnae who had just graduated and others who graduated in the 1960s. A member of my writing group in Greenwich who is 10 years my senior told me she experienced the same type of hazing a decade earlier at another all-girls school in Connecticut, but that no one ever spoke about it. It felt good to talk. Secrets fester until they are spoken. 

Through all my inquisitions I have ascertained that there are no longer any harsh traditions at Miss Porter’s. Girls don’t constantly live in terror of being accosted, humiliated and intimidated in the name of bonding. Classes from around the time of my New Girl year seemed to have suffered the most. Why? My guess is that the leaders of traditions were high on power, modeling the behavior they had experienced, trying to outdo their Old Girls. It’s a competitive school: When girls with certain mindsets had no supervision, they dreamed up ever worse ways of intimidating and humiliating the New Girls. Those girls felt not only a sense of impunity but also institutional support. 

Robert B. Cialdini writes in his book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion that “The psychology of hazing is really all about group cohesion: the pledges will value their membership in the fraternity more if they’ve gone through excruciating lengths to earn it.” The goals are to teach respect and create unity and loyalty. This strategy of breaking you down to build you up is nothing new — it’s used in fraternities and sororities and the military. But I don’t think that it has a place at Miss Porter’s. 

I asked the New Girls at the library in fall 2022 to tell me about the welcome tradition they had just experienced. 

“It was a scavenger hunt,” they said. 

The school has made enormous strides in diversity, equity and inclusion, addressing difficult issues; but I think there’s more it could do when it comes to the legacy of the traditions. I wonder if all the girls over the years who dropped out in their New Girl year or didn’t return for their second year believed that something was wrong with them — that they were weak and couldn’t take the pressure. I wonder how their lives were affected.  

Gisele remembers one girl from Ohio. Like everyone else in this story, I won’t include her real name, but I have a distant hope that she might read this. “She probably came from a loving family and was pulled out of bed and yelled at in the middle of the night, on her first night away from home. She called her parents and left the next day. That whole day we continued to yell at her until she left, telling her she was weak and a stupid loser. We should have been better to her. I am sorry.”