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I knew I was down the rabbit hole shortly after I arrived at the arts boarding school where I taught for two years. First of all, I was the poet in residence, a job title that may as well have been “professional witch,” and I had full license to lead my students in activities like wandering around in the forest looking for sticks or talking to Gertrude Stein’s ghost on the Ouija board. This was the kind of freaky job I had designed my entire lifestyle to accommodate, but all of my lessons in negative capability did not prepare me for the dissonance that waited at this school.
One day in the dining hall, I saw a freshman with the Givenchy Tom Cat bag, a $1,000 tote bag printed with a kitten’s face, which I had previously seen on Tumblr. That was what really got me: a teenager with the very luxury handbag I only had access to on a website for moody teenagers.
When I say that the school where I worked, which we may as well call Wonderland, is a boarding school, you might picture a bunch of preppy neurotics in bow ties grade-grubbing and hazing underclassmen. When I say it’s an art school, you might picture Fame or Glee or something, and that would be closer, but it’s weirder than any of that. Wonderland is in a tiny tourist town in the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California that draws day-trippers from LA and Orange County with its world-famous rock climbing and the fact that it sometimes snows. Its townies are retirees, hippies, hicks, and people on the run from the law. The school itself is a complex of tree-shaded wood cabins; it looks like a summer camp because it is one, and that’s all it was until it became a year-round academy in the mid-’80s.
Wonderland bills itself as the wacky West Coast version of the Fame utopia, a forest colony where the best teen artists from all over the world come to hone their craft. I won’t dispute that version, but if that were all it was, it would have closed a long time ago. There are plenty of scholarship kids who are dance or piano prodigies, but for the most part, like many institutions in the ever more brutal American education system, Wonderland is pay to play. The students are boarding school-rich, but they are not New England WASPs: Half of them are international students, coming from South Korea, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and especially China, descending with their designer sunglasses on a backwoods in Southern California that most people outside the region don’t know exists.
I loved my students, but their luxurious wardrobes depressed me, and I guess my question here is why. Part of it was obvious: Children are stupid and cannot be trusted with nice things. Students at Wonderland were constantly swiping stuff from one another’s dorm rooms: a giant bottle of Dolce & Gabbana perfume, several pairs of $300 Yeezy sneakers, a leopard-print Michael Kors jumpsuit. One student requested that I call the police department and have them fingerprint his room to find out who had taken the cash he had left on his desk, in plain view of the dozen kids who went in and out of his room every day. There is also the obvious insanity of kids having expensive products that were not meant for them. I used to check in on two freshmen girls before lights out and they would come to the door wearing sheet masks, looking like solemn teenage ghosts. I would think about how little help retinols or snail serum could offer their young skin, which was already perfect.
Obviously my resentments run deeper than that, though — what do I care if teens want to waste fancy skincare? In a class I taught called Interdisciplinary Mind, designed to get students to think about the intersection between art forms and big ideas, I tried to do an activity about social codes.
“What social groups are there at Wonderland?” I asked.
“Rich Chinese kids,” they said. “Other Chinese kids. Dancers. GSA nerds. Asian couples.”
A Kazakh fashion major who before then had displayed minimal English skills showed miraculous talent for rudely identifying the stereotypes attached to each group. “Dancers walk like penguins,” he said in a sulky deadpan.
“What are Korean kids like?” I asked, and the Chinese kids eagerly imitated them putting on makeup, talking about makeup, and staring at themselves in the mirror. “What are rich Chinese kids like?” I asked, and the rich Chinese kids said, “We speak Chinese.” This sort of illustrated my point, which was that stereotypes that describe us are both more and less accurate than the ways we see ourselves.
I understand now that I had wanted my students to identify the clothes and habits of cliques at Wonderland as I, probably crudely, saw them: for instance, that Chinese students’ style was often sleek and austere, black athleisure or a Comme des Garçons-ish androgynous thing, boys in smock dresses and platform oxfords or baggy trousers with legs of two different lengths — in any case, all black. I had a student who told me his father was a Chinese pop star so famous that my student was in danger of being kidnapped in his hometown. When the health center determined that he had recovered enough from his flu to go to class, he didn’t wear one of the disposable surgical masks they provided. He already had one, made of black silk and embroidered with gold sequins. These kids were harbingers of the extreme wealth stratification that has emerged in just two generations in China, and an American education has become an expensive work-around for Chinese parents who want their children to avoid the ultra-competitive Chinese education system. The New York Times Magazine reported that so many Chinese students are going to high school and college in the US that education is now “one of America’s top ‘exports’ to China.”
Wonderland has taken full advantage of that trend, letting one-percenters from China and everywhere else in the world subsidize all of the school’s programs. I worry that when I was jealous of a Chinese student for wearing the Vivetta shirt I saw on Tumblr, I was buying into a very specific xenophobic resentment: These rich foreigners have bought their way into our little American boarding school, transforming it as they keep it afloat, since very few Americans can afford to go there anyway. But through the looking glass of late capitalism, we all continue to play the game as it gets more and more absurd, just like Lewis Carroll’s Alice described it: “It’s a great huge game of chess that's being played — all over the world — if this is the world at all, you know.” My students were doing what they had to do, and so was I, until strange forces brought us into contact.
My students in the creative writing department were mostly not crazy rich, because most rich kids who see art school as an indulgence want to act or write pop songs or make action movies, not spend their days in a moldy lean-to writing sonnets. They dressed well nevertheless: I had girls who were thrifting queens, wearing matching yellow skirt suits like Cher in Clueless and the Tommy Hilfiger shirts my mom would never buy me in the ’90s. One of my boy students dressed like a skateboarding Mr. Rogers, with Keds, chinos, and a forest green cardigan. When I asked Interdisciplinary Mind what stereotypes there were about the creative writers, the Kazakh boy said, “They are like... Tumblr kids,” and everyone laughed uproariously. I laughed through the existential panic: I was still a Tumblr kid.
So maybe that’s my real question: how much of this is about class, and how much is about my essential self. Living in constant contact with children (many teachers at Wonderland live in the dorms, though I didn’t), particularly children who can buy and sell you, has a way of making some people really let themselves go. One of my colleagues, who at the beginning of our first year was business casual, by the middle of our second year would be sitting in the dining hall eating two slices of cake and two bowls of Lucky Charms, wearing a pair of sweatpants with “WHO FARTED” printed on the butt. Teacher fashion at Wonderland was often what giving up looks like: ripped jeans, hoodies, grown-out haircuts, shorts. Who cared when the only people you saw were kids and other similarly trapped adults? Students openly pitied the staff’s on-campus accommodations and constant work schedules. And at the end of the year, adults on campus would scavenge expensive clothes, makeup, and appliances from mountainous “free boxes” in every dorm, stuff kids didn’t feel like taking back home with them. This was so completely infantilizing it was almost comforting. When students were paying several times my salary to be there, there was no question who worked for whom.
That was why, even though some students looked pretty good, I was never stupid enough to take being mistaken for a student as a compliment, understanding the judgment that assumption contained of my professionalism and adult acne. The clothes I’ve always felt comfortable in are slovenly and strange, like a stretchy mini skirt from Target worn over tights with huge runs in them and combat boots and a cardigan with holes in the elbows so large that I accidentally put my arms through them. “Your fashion is like you’ve lived in an underground bunker for a few decades,” a friend once said of my raggedy clothes, not disapprovingly. Bunker chic is not at all professional, and my problem is I have never found a way to care, wearing clothes with holes in them to every job I’ve had and willing people not to notice. I tried half-heartedly to dress appropriately at Wonderland, but my efforts usually took me farther in the other direction, like when a colleague and I went on a joy ride down the mountain to a mall in the desert and bought matching caftans. Not only was this not a workwear staple, the feeling of the mall trip was distinctly high school.
When I looked at students breaking in their first pairs of the combat boots I still wore, I saw the difference between being an artsy kid and having places like Wonderland be your fate. They would grow up and get their shit together, getting jobs with benefits and retirement plans, where they would wear the clean clothes of normal adults. Many of them had already surpassed that, wearing clothes most adults could never dream of. I would stay on, in temporary gigs and service jobs and freelancing, still dressed like a child. In some Gordian knot of money, personality, and history, the way I dressed determined where I could get a job, since it told the world the way I thought about myself: that, in short, I had given myself to the life of an artist. It’s obvious now, despite all appearances, that I was never the Alice in this story. My students were Alices, and I was just one of the loopy adults they met on their journey through an upside-down world and back to reality. For better or worse, no matter where else I go, I am one of Wonderland’s permanent residents.