For The Record...
At the beginning of 2015, writer Allen Kurzweil published a book called Whipping Boy: A 40-Year Search For My 12-Year-Old Bully. In it, he recounts his traumatic experience as a young boarder at Aiglon College, a British international school in the Swiss Alps. After 30-some-odd pages, the reader is left with the impression that Aiglon was something right out of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days. The school’s rules, its faculty, his Filipino roommate, indeed the entire ethos of the place where he claims to have been "warehoused" appear to have left Allen emotionally immiserated. It should be said that he apparently was not the only student who was bullied. A few others now have stepped forward to tell their stories. Still, of the 200-some-odd young men and women who were there at that time, including myself, I’d wager the vast majority had a radically different experience. Accordingly, "the other side of the story” should be part of the record.
When I was 15 years old, after seeing The Sound of Music and reading an article in National Geographic, I began lobbying my mother to send me to school overseas—for just one year. Some in the family staunchly opposed it. They argued it was too far away and too dangerous an enterprise for a boy not yet 16. Still, in the end, I prevailed, and late one September afternoon I boarded a plane bound for Geneva. What was to have been one year became two, and I returned home an entirely different person.
The school was Aiglon College. (In Europe, the word “college” often denotes a secondary school.) Contrary to what Allen’s book says, Aiglon is not in fact in the general vicinity of Geneva. It is at the other end of the lake, much closer to Montreux, at an altitude of some 4,200 feet. The school overlooks the Rhône Valley, the majestic Dents du Midi, and on a clear day, Mont Blanc. It is a spectacularly beautiful place.
As part of the curriculum, we took annual cultural expeditions to explore major European cities. Some of us took day trips to Milan and Turin to see Italian opera. We also had to participate in long, exhausting mountain expeditions—on foot in the autumn and spring, on skis during the winter. And we skied almost every day during the season. There were times scaling the slopes of mountains, legs burning, that it occurred to me I could be sitting at home, thousands of miles away, eating pizza and watching "Batman." But there are few experiences as satisfying as standing on a mountain peak, surveying the valleys far below, and knowing you got there through your own sweat and perseverance. That sort of hard-won achievement changes you in a profound way. An entirely new self-perception emerges when you discover you are capable of much more than you thought you were.
But there was something else that happened to me on the mountain. I have always suffered from the neurological impairment we now call ADD, as did my father and several of my cousins. Of course, nobody knew what ADD was in the 1970s. But after a few months at Aiglon, I found I could concentrate for the first time in my life. I could read a short book in one evening. I stopped procrastinating. My hand-eye coordination improved significantly. I have come to attribute the marked improvement to regular strenuous exercise the school emphasized—I went from chubby to a 28-inch waist. But I can’t be sure. Was it perhaps the food? The altitude? All of the above? Something else? In any event, for the first time in my life I succeeded. I suddenly had many close friends. My grades dramatically improved. I found myself making rapid progress learning a second language (which I still speak almost fluently to this day). And I was accepted to an elite university, an achievement that would have been highly unlikely had I remained at home.
Equally life-changing in Europe was the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, many of whom remain dear friends, and the acquisition of a new perspicacity that allowed me to see possibilities that were not on the radar screens of most of the people I knew back home. Everything about Europe and the mountain—the food, the local customs, the palpable history, the breathtaking scenery, the skiing—was a revelation to a teenager from the American south.
After university, I went on to found several companies that took me routinely to Italy, Spain, France, England, Germany, and elsewhere. I was the subject of numerous articles, including two in The New York Times and another in Entrepreneur magazine. In short, I had a career that surely would have been out of reach had it not been for my remarkable teenage experience and early exposure to foreign cultures and languages. Still, one could argue I’m the deadbeat. One of my best friends at Aiglon is now a distinguished poet and formerly the director of the American Academy in Rome. Another is a senior editor at The Wall Street Journal. Several of my classmates are in finance and C-suite offices. Others have made a career of humanitarian work. Make no mistake, our little school had some impressive students all those years ago, students who went on to such universities and colleges as Radcliffe, Princeton, Duke, Dartmouth, Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, Columbia, and Cambridge. And we weren’t all rich. Many kids had parents who worked in the diplomatic corps or for multinationals that helped subsidize the educational expenses of employees living abroad. Too, Aiglon was surprisingly affordable for Americans back in the early '70s, because the U.S. dollar was so strong.
Since I have discovered that a few other boys claim to have been bullied during my time at the school, when I was a prefect in their dorm, I have written two of them to apologize. (I wrote an apology to Allen on the school’s alumni site.) It is heartbreaking to know that those boys had such radically different experiences than I did, and worse, that I perhaps should accept some share of the culpability—a sin of omission for not keeping my ear close enough to the track. But less anybody think that Aiglon College was (or is) some sort of “concentration camp” or Slytherin House, know that, for most of us, it was a magical place that bestowed a tremendous amount of grace on children and young adults. To me, it is clear that teens benefit much more from an international experience when they are in high school than at university. It is a time they begin to form their philosophies of life and begin to think about their futures. Aiglon was structured not to indoctrinate, but to expand our horizons, show us our possibilities, build leadership skills, and give us a strong sense of self. For the most part, I think the school was amazingly successful. We didn’t need expensive, flashy facilities. All we needed was a first-rate faculty, a roof over our heads, Alpine challenges, rich cultural resources all around us, and each other. My time at Aiglon was the happiest of my life. It is extremely dispiriting to think that the school’s reputation has been so badly bruised over the unfortunate choices of one young student and another student’s dogged determination to call him to account 40 years later.
As I write, Aiglon has decided not to respond to Allen’s book. Perhaps they feel a series of incidents so long ago does not require a response. I’m sure they have their reasons. As for myself, it would be hard to conceive of any school as exceptional as the one I attended, some inevitable shortcomings notwithstanding. (Wherever you have people, you have shortcomings.) Founder and longtime headmaster John Corlette, a colleague and votary of Outward Bound® founder Kurt Hahn, was a true visionary. Everything we did was carefully calibrated to bring out the best in us—academically, spiritually, and physically. As I think about it, I wouldn’t know how to begin to put a price on my transformative teenage experience.
It is apparent that, forty years ago, the school failed Allen and several others. And for that I am very sorry. It is heartening to see he has gone on to obtain impressive degrees, marry a wonderful woman, and make quite a name for himself as a writer. For my part, it would be an unconscionable act of ingratitude to remain silent and not give credit to all the people—a founding headmaster, teachers, and fellow students—who together created such a remarkable community: a little school on a Swiss mountain where I thrived and where (most of) my many friends learned so much, loved so much, and went on to do great things.
Aiglon College, 1970–’72