I always thought I wanted to know a secret, or I wanted an event to unfold—I wanted my life to start—but in those rare moments when it seemed like something might actually change, panic shot through me.
One consistent conflict Lee faces in Prep is the desire to understand versus the desire to preserve innocence and obliviousness. Lee feels like an outsider but longs to shed this identity by learning about upper-class manners, sex, and her peers' social norms. At the same time, she fears confrontation and is often so self-conscious that she does not know how to respond when faced with unfiltered emotion. In this moment, Lee knows that Sin-Jun, who is in the hospital after a suicide attempt, is about to reveal some personal information. Rather than encouraging her friend, Lee panics and does her best to avoid learning anything that might upset her. One of the biggest changes in Lee's character during this novel is her ability to confront unpleasant or upsetting information head-on.
The interest I felt in certain guys then confused me, because it wasn't romantic, but I wasn't sure what else it might be. But now I know: I wanted to take up people's time making jokes, to tease the dean in front of the entire school, to call him by a nickname. What I wanted was to be a cocky high-school boy, so fucking sure of my place in the world.
This insight more or less sums up the gender politics of Lee's high school, and possibly the entire adolescent world she inhabits. At Ault, boys are rewarded for impulsivity, mischievousness, and silliness. Sexual promiscuity and a joking manner are not considered antithetical to seriousness and academic achievement. Among the girls Lee knows, though, this kind of expansiveness and confidence are considered impossible. Sexuality is far more fraught, and the girls Lee knows are much less prone to act un-self-conscious and ridiculous. They tend to worry far more about what others think of them, which can actually backfire—for instance, both Dede and Lee are extremely unsure of their "place in the world" and therefore tend to overcompensate, acting in ways that others find irritating or odd.
This phenomenon—being gripped by an overwhelming wave of feeling that was clearly not the feeling of the people around me—had also happened at a pep rally: It made me uncomfortable, because I didn’t want anyone to notice that I wasn’t jumping up and down or cheering, and it also thrilled me, because it made the world seem full of possibilities that could make my heart pound.
Lee, especially in her early days at Ault, often feels overwhelmed by the amount of noise surrounding her. Ault students assert their personalities and social status with loudness and enthusiasm, which Lee tends to have trouble taking part in. However, Lee's exclusion does not feel purely unpleasant for her. One aspect of our protagonist's personality is that she often prefers to watch rather than participate. She has a detached appreciation, and even love, for the beauty, intensity, and idiosyncrasies of her school. In fact, the appreciation she feels when observing is marred only by her feeling of obligation to personally take part.
What I wanted to know about Dave was, had he noticed me before that time in the hospital, or had I piqued his interest during that conversation? But why would he have noticed me before, or why would I have piqued his interest then? Was I the best that he could do?
This quote displays the way in which insecurity bleeds into every aspect of Lee's life, rendering her enjoyment of even appealing activities void. For instance, Lee is attracted to Dave, and her ultimate unwillingness to date him comes only partially from snobbery about his lower social status at Ault. In large part, the prospect of dating Dave is ruined for Lee because she is so unwilling to believe that anyone worthy could be attracted to her—that is, she believes that her own identity reflects poorly on Dave, thus paradoxically rendering him unsuitable for her. In fact, even the aspect of her hesitation that looks like snobbery—her concern about dating a member of the school's kitchen staff—stems from insecurity, since she feels so insecure about her place at Ault that she believes a relationship with Dave has the potential to radically alter her reputation. In this sense, Lee's insecurity becomes damaging to Dave as well as to herself.
Racism didn’t exist at Ault. Or it did, of course it did, but not like that. Kids came from all sorts of cultural backgrounds, with parents who had emigrated from Pakistan, Thailand, Colombia, and some kids had families that still lived far away—in my dorm alone, there were girls from Zimbabwe and Latvia. And no one ever made slurs, it wasn’t like you got ostracized if you weren’t white. Racism seemed to me like a holdover from my parents’ generation, something that was not entirely gone but had fallen out of favor…
Racism is both taboo and baked into the culture of Ault. As a result, when a perceived outsider like Ms. Moray points out its existence, they are often seen as disruptive, creating a problem rather than trying to solve one. Racism works in complex ways, making it easier to defend Ault from charges of it. As Lee points out here, students of color are by no means universally ostracized. This does not mean, though, that they are treated equally. Lee notices subtle gradations, for instance, in the way that students from different minority backgrounds are perceived. Furthermore, students of color are sometimes objectified and exoticized, which many students consider evidence of the school's culture of tolerance. For instance, Darden Pittard, a black student who is scolded in the scene containing the above quote, is at first popular in part because other students consider his background novel. At the same time, as he tells Lee later, he has no choice but to dutifully obey Ault's norms, knowing he will not be given a second chance if judgment turns against him.
I knew at least that I’d lost the glow that surrounds you when the teachers think you’re one of the smart, responsible ones, that glow that shines brighter every time you raise your hand in class to say the perfect thing, or you run out of room in a blue book during an exam and have to ask for a second one.
Sittenfeld makes clear that Lee's personality is not naturally shy, self-conscious, and resigned. As a matter of fact, she is only at Ault because of her natural ambitiousness. She recalls applying to boarding school in spite of others' disapproval and disbelief, and getting a scholarship to Ault based on her excellent academic record. She quickly discovers that much of her personality, which once seemed stable and intrinsic, is in fact dependent on her situation. Therefore, the uncertainty she feels upon arriving in an unknown environment leads her to feel unsure of herself. This intrusion of doubt creates a feedback loop: a period of low confidence causes teachers and classmates to think of Lee as thoroughly ordinary, depleting her confidence even further.
I felt mortified on her behalf. This was another misstep, talking about Ault the way a magazine article might, or the way someone in town—someone who worked at the grocery store, or the barber shop—would.
In many cases, Lee's feelings of insecurity and exclusion at school prompt her to feel more, rather than less, judgmental of others. In this case, she feels embarrassed on behalf of Ms. Moray, recognizing in her teacher the same feelings of foreignness she has spent several semesters trying to hide. The two characters share a Midwestern background and lack the wealth many members of the Ault community have, but, here, Lee notices a less tangible similarity. Lee often feels like a spectator at Ault rather than a true participant. Here, she sees her teacher operating based on an outsider's vision of how boarding school works, experiencing it as a spectator rather than a participant. Since she puts so much effort into playing down these feelings of her own, at least publicly, it feels all the more agonizing to watch another person enact them.
The way she looked at me was so hopeless, so exhausted, that it seemed scornful. I had an inkling then that perhaps I’d underestimated her. Perhaps in the past I hadn’t given her credit for having opinions or experiencing discontent—for being like me.
Lee's loneliness at Ault comes from a series of factors. She feels lonely because Ault can be an alienating environment for people who do not come from wealthy families, but, in many cases, she worsens her own feelings of loneliness by underestimating others' capacities for emotion, assuming that her classmates are either happy or simply resigned to feeling mediocre. In the case of Sin-Jun, this blind spot of Lee's is perhaps exaggerated by her friend's identity. Because Sin-Jun is Korean and does not speak English fluently, Lee subconsciously assumes that Sin-Jun's desires are completely different from her own. In fact, Sin-Jun's inability to fully express herself in English even leads Lee to assume that her thoughts are less complex. Lee does not intend to treat Sin-Jun in a xenophobic or racist manner, but, possibly because Ault itself has a stubborn strain of xenophobia in its culture, she often does so. As a result, it is not until Sin-Jun makes her feelings of depression undeniably visible that Lee notices them.
(I used to fear, and I wasn’t completely wrong, that this was what the rest of the world was like. Hardly ever did it matter if you brushed your hair before driving to the grocery store, rarely did you work in an office where you cared what more than two or three people thought of you. At Ault, caring about everything was draining, but it was also exhilarating.)
Lee feels unhappy at Ault, but her unhappiness is exciting and even addictive. As she notes repeatedly, Ault is a small community, and a deeply judgmental one. As a result, every interaction reverberates and can affect one's reputation in unintended ways. This lends a feeling of urgency and purpose to even the most mundane choices. For Lee, who never quite stops hoping to become popular or at least well-known, this feeling of urgency is even more exciting, preserving the hope that any event could give her a shot at popularity. After leaving Ault, she reports, she feels happier and more relaxed, but sometimes wishes for the excitement of her schooldays.
But these people, making their way through the morning, all their meetings and errands and obligations. And this was only here, in this station at this moment. The world was so big!
In Prep's final scene, Lee experiences an epiphany, which could be considered the moral or resolution of the entire book—although Sittenfeld keeps it from feeling moralistic by dismissing the moment as the fleeting byproduct of a bad hangover. Making her way across Boston in the middle of her graduation festivities, Lee ends up on a train platform at rush hour, watching the diverse range of people who cross her path. She realizes at once how unusual and privileged her position is, since she is making her way back from a party in the middle of a week of parties on a weekday morning while others go to work. She realizes how thoroughly unusual and unimportant Ault's drama and competition are in the scheme of the world, or even Massachusetts. Again, the moment is fleeting: Lee clearly continues to care about Ault, for if she did not, there would be no adult Lee narrating the story of her schooldays. But the euphoria of her momentary realization feels like a well-earned release from the unrelenting tension of school.
Prep Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Prep is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.