Prom & prejudice, p.1
Prom & Prejudice, p.1
Prom & Prejudice
FOR MY MOTHER,
WHOSE ENTHUSIASM FOR BOOKS IS CONTAGIOUS,
AND MY FATHER,
WHO INSPIRES ME TO BE A BETTER PERSON
About the Author
PRAISE FOR The Lonely Hearts Club
IT IS A TRUTH UNIVERSALLY ACKNOWLEDGED, THAT A SINGLE girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date.
While the same can probably be said of countless other schools across the country, prom at Longbourn isn't just a rite of passage -- it's considered by many (at least those who matter) to be the social event for future members of high society. Longbourn girls don't go to the mall to get their dresses. No, they boast couture from designers whose names adorn their speed dial.
Just look at the glossy six-page spread dedicated to more than a century of prom history in Longbourn's recruitment brochure. Or the yearly coverage in the New York Times Sunday Style section ... or Vanity Fair ... or Vogue. Fashion reporters and photographers flock to the Connecticut campus to scope out the fashion, the excess, the glamour of it all. It is Fashion Week for the silver spoon set.
The tradition started in 1895, the first year Longbourn opened its doors. Originally set up as a finishing school for proper ladies, the founders realized they needed to have an event to usher their students into the elite world. And while girls nowadays don't really need to be formally "welcomed" into society, nobody wants to give up a weekend-long excuse to dress up and attempt to outshine one another. Friday night is the reception where the couples (consisting of Longbourn girls and, for the most part, boys from the neighboring Pemberley Academy) are introduced. Saturday night is the main event and Sunday afternoon is a brunch where reporters interview the students about the previous evening.
Students become fixated on prom from the day they get accepted. To not attend, or have the proper date, would be a scandal from which a young girl would never be able to recover.
Imagine the chaos that erupted a few years ago, when a scholarship student not only snagged the most sought-after boy at Pemberley, but showed up in a dress from Macy's (the horror!) and caught the eye of the New York Times reporter, who ended up putting her, and her story, on the cover of the Style section.
Up to that point, most students tolerated the two scholarship students in each class. But this was too much.
The following year, hazing began. Most scholarship students couldn't last more than two years. The program only continued because the board of trustees was adamant about diversifying the student body (and by diversify, they meant having students whose parents didn't earn seven-figure yearly bonuses). Plus, the scholarship students, often called "charity cases," helped boost the academic record and music program.
Given the opportunities, education-wise, the scholarship students try to put up with the behavior. After all, this kind of experience couldn't have happened at home. So there was a price to pay for the best teachers, resources, and connections. That price -- condescension, taunts, pranks -- got old pretty quickly.
It's not easy, though. It only took the new scholarship girl in the junior class two days before she broke down in tears. Fortunately, she was alone in her room and nobody saw her. But it happened. I should know. Because that was my room, and my tears. I was a scholarship student. A charity case. One of them.
There was a giant target on my back.
And I had to do everything possible to avoid getting hit.
THE STOMACH PAINS ALWAYS STARTED ONCE THE TRAIN pulled out of Grand Central Station in Manhattan. When I first took the trip, I had butterflies in my stomach, but now I knew better. Now the butterflies had turned to vipers.
Part of me should've been impressed that I'd been able to survive my first semester at Longbourn. I knew I would have difficulties coming in as a junior, but nothing could've prepared me for the cold, wet greeting given to me by several girls on my floor. They thought a proper hello was throwing a milk shake in my face on my way to orientation. I could still feel the cold shock of the strawberry slush hitting my face. I ended up being late to orientation, and when the headmistress asked me for my excuse, I told her I'd gotten lost. I heard snickering throughout the room and wondered how many people had been in on the hazing.
Most of the other things they did to me were subtler: replacing my shampoo with hair removal lotion (luckily, I could smell it before it caused any real damage), tampering with my razor so I got a nasty cut on my leg, putting crushed-up laxatives in my lemonade mix....
I closed my eyes and tried to block out my first week at school. I truly had every intention of coming back from winter break with a positive attitude. I already knew whom to avoid (pretty much everybody except for my roommate, Jane, and the other "charity case" in our class, Charlotte). I was doing well in my classes. I already established myself as the top pianist on campus (which was really important since I was on a music scholarship). And I had a job that I liked because I was able to interact with somewhat normal people (aka "townies"). Oh, and I needed the money. It always seemed to come back to money.
And then there was Ella Gardiner, my piano teacher. She was one of the most prestigious piano instructors in the country, she was on the board of directors at countless music institutions, and she had the reputation of getting her students into the top music programs upon graduation. She was the reason I came to Longbourn, and she was why I had subjected myself to what came along with being a scholarship student.
I grasped on to the scrapbook my friends back home had made me for Christmas. I flipped through the pages of photos, notes, memories from my former life. The life in which I had a tight circle of friends, one that never made me question whether I belonged. I smiled as I looked at the pages filled with photos from the many traditions we started in grade school: Anna's Valentine's Day parties (no boys allowed), our Halloween re-creations of Grease in my living room, holiday gatherings. Then I came to the final section of the scrapbook -- the pages filled with the programs of my various recitals and concerts over the years and photos of my friends gathered around me to celebrate. The very last page had a program from a concert by Claudia Reynolds, the classical pianist that I looked up to, along with a note signed by everybody: To the next Claudia Reynolds, we miss you, but know you're going to accomplish great things. Don't forget us when you're playing Carnegie Hall.
My eyes began to sting with tears. I could never forget my friends, but I had almost forgotten what it was like to have a supportive group of people cheering me on. I closed my eyes and tried to hold on to the memory tightly so it wouldn't slip away.
It was amazing how two weeks away from campus could give you a false sense of security. As the train pulled into the station, I envisioned a force field, like an emotional shield, enveloping my body.
I was smarter, wiser. And I knew better than to let any childish taunts get the best of me. My barrier was up and there was no way I was going to let anybody in.
There was only one person I couldn't wait to see when I got on campus.
"Lizzie!" Jane greeted me as I walked into our room. I'd visited Jane a few times in Manhattan over the break, since I lived right across the Hudson River, in Hoboken, New Jersey. Jane even came to a party one of my friends had back home, and impressed even my most critical friends with her kindheartedness. I knew that someone, somewhere had to be looking out for me to have Jane as my roommate.
After we caught up, Jane wanted to get down to business. "So, we have a very important decision to make." She went over to her closet and pulled out three cocktail dresses. "Which one should I wear tonight?"
My stomach dropped. Longbourn was hosting an upperclassman reception with Pemberley Academy. The official reason was to welcome the returning students who spent last semester abroad. But I had a feeling it was the start of hunting season (the catch being a prom date).
"You promised me you would go!" Jane reminded me.
"I know, I know." I tried to sound optimistic. But unfortunately, Jane could always see through me.
"Here, try this on." Jane handed me a beautiful black dress. I always had to borrow clothes from her anytime we had a formal event. And we had a lot of formal events.
I was standing in our room, half naked, when Jane's younger sister, Lydia, burst through the door. She didn't believe in knocking ... or doing anything considerate.
After I zipped up the dress, Lydia flounced on my bed and declared, "Is that what you're going to wear?"
"Lydia," Jane scolded, "I think Lizzie looks fabulous."
I smiled. "You have to think that, Jane -- it's your dress."
"Oh, right." Lydia's face fell. "Sorry, Lizzie. It's just that Jane can lend you all her clothes, but you can't necessarily make them fit."
"Lydia!" Jane threw a notebook at her sister. "You need to be more polite, especially ..."
Jane let her thought trail off. But both Lydia and I knew what she meant.
Jane and Lydias father had been laid off over Christmas when his company had merged with another investment bank. Not that it mattered much -- he got a huge payout and money didn't seem like an issue. Although as word spread throughout campus, you would've thought Jane and Lydia came back from the holidays with leprosy.
As Jane and I finished getting ready, Lydia began whining. "No fair. Why can't I come? You better at least let me go promdress shopping with you."
Jane blushed. "Slow down -- nobody's been asked to anything."
"Yet," Lydia countered.
"The reception tonight is just an opportunity for us to catch up after the holidays."
"Yeah, especially with a certain someone returning from London!" Lydia jumped up on my bed, acting years younger than the freshman student she was, and put her hand up to her heart. "Oh, Charles Bingley, how I missed you so!" She dropped onto the bed with an exaggerated sigh.
"That's it!" Jane started shooing Lydia out the door. "Out! We need to finish getting ready." She started nervously adjusting her bracelet.
Charles Bingley had spent the previous semester studying abroad in London. Before he left, Jane and Charles had started to get close. From what Jane told me, nothing really happened, since they knew there was about to be an ocean between them. Jane generally kept her feelings close to the vest, but with Charles's imminent arrival, she had become openly giddy. Especially once her sister was out of the room.
"Oh, Charles Bingley, how I missed you so!" Jane called out, laughing. But then she clearly felt that was too much. She examined herself in the mirror and added, "I guess there is no reason for me to get my hopes up. He probably e-mailed with a lot of girls last semester."
One of the most wonderful things about Jane, besides her kindness, was that she had absolutely no idea how beautiful she was. She was completely void of vanity.
"I'm just excited to see him again," she went on. "I'm sure he'll have tons of girls fighting over him for prom."
"You're being ridiculous, Jane! Seriously! If Charles Bingley is even half the guy you say he is, he'd be a raving lunatic to not ask you to prom."
Jane had promised me that Charles was different from the other Pemberley boys I'd met. Talking to them was like being placed into conversational purgatory, with no hope of being released without significant damage to one's self-esteem. The first time I met a Pemberley guy, the first words out of his mouth were "Which mutual funds do you invest in?" When I told another Pemberley boy that I played the piano, he responded, "Is there money in that?" Another had mentioned that his father was in the Forbes 400 ("and not in the bottom two hundred, either") within a minute of meeting me. A fourth had kept his eyes on my chest the whole time we spoke. And then he moved on to the next girl's chest. For Jane's sake, I prayed she was right about Charles being unlike those guys.
Jane smiled and took me by the elbow. "You are too kind, Lizzie. Just promise me that you'll try to enjoy yourself tonight. You'll have fun. I promise."
I desperately wanted to believe that I could be accepted and treated like a normal person at school. But after last semester, I had no desire to be friends with most of the girls here. How could I be friends with the same people who found so much pleasure in torturing me?
No, I knew better. I would do my best to have an incident-free evening. My armor was up and I was ready.
WE ENTERED FOUNDERS HALL ON CAMPUS, DECORATED with tiny, white lights that glistened off the floor-length windows and crystal chandeliers. Even after four months, I still wasn't used to the grandeur of the buildings here. My old high school consisted of cement blocks and fluorescent lighting, not rich mahogany and stained glass.
"So beautiful ... and this is just for a reception," Jane reminded me as we took in the view. Or at least I took in the view -- Jane was scanning the crowd, looking for Charles. "Can you imagine what they'll do for prom?" she asked.
I had heard so much about prom at Longbourn. But I tried to not think about it. I knew there would be no way that I would be able to go. Most of the Pemberley students couldn't bear to look at me, let alone want to ask me to anything. And the standards were so ridiculously high. The students in the room for the "reception" were more dressed up than any Hoboken High prom-goer. If this was casual, I couldn't imagine what formal would be.
Jane was approached by a girl with dirty-blond hair done up in an elaborate twist and diamonds, actual diamonds, dripping from her ears and wrist.
"Jane, dear," the girl purred, making it sound half like a greeting and half like a formality.
"Hi, Caroline, welcome back. How are you settling in?"
"Fabulous. I'm so sorry I haven't been able to catch up with you since I returned from London. Things have been so hectic." Caroline began to look me up and down. "And who is this?"
Jane put her arm around my shoulder. "This is Lizzie Bennet. She started last semester."
"Bennet? I'm afraid I don't know your family. Where do you vacation?"
The questions. These questions were always the start. It didn't take too long after asking questions about my family -- what they did for a living, where our second house was, the status of my father's 40IK -- that my true identity would be revealed.
"LBI," I deadpanned.
Caroline's eyes widened. "Sorry?"
I wasn't sure if I was imagining it, but I believe I detected a slight British accent. I wasn't aware that you could pick up one of those in a few months. I'd been at Longbourn the same amount of time Caroline had been in London, and I knew I wasn't speaking with an entitled accent.
"LBI. Long Beach Island. You know, on the Jersey shore? I'm a scholarship kid, so I don't get off the continent much." I decided it would be best to get it out of the way.
"Oh." Caroline crinkled her nose as if she could smell the mediocrity. "Anyway, Jane, lovely to see you. We must catch up soon." She kissed Jane good-bye and turned without giving me a second look.
"That's Charles's twin sister," Jane whispered in my ear.
"That's Caroline Bingley?" I tried to not groan. "Jane, I seriously question your taste in guys."
Jane grimaced. "Charles is nothing like her. He's really close with her and cares what she thinks ... but Charles is ... he's ..." Jane became flushed. "He's right over there."
I followed Jane's gaze to two guys who'd just entered the hall. "Which one is he?"
"The one on the right."
The two guys couldn't have looked more different. The one on the right, Charles, was walking around the room, smiling and greeting people. He had the same dirty-blond hair as Caroline, but his blue eyes sparkled with positive energy. Everybody seemed happy to see him, and he, in turn, seemed genuinely excited to be there.
The other guy was harder to read. He was tall with dark hair and a look of eternal disdain etched upon his face. He might have looked handsome if he hadn't looked like he was in pain.
"Who's the guy he's with?" I asked.
Jane let her glance leave Charles for a moment. "Will Darcy."
"Is there something wrong with him?"
Jane shrugged her shoulders. "He does look a little upset. Will can sometimes be overly serious, but his brood is worse than his bite. If you get the chance to know him."
I had a feeling there weren't going to be many people here this evening that I would want the chance of knowing. And I was pretty sure the feeling would be mutual.
"Jane!" Charles made his way right to her. "Just the person I've been waiting to see!" He threw his arms around her and hugged her tightly.
Jane was speechless, and her long hair could not disguise her reddening face.
Charles, beaming from ear to ear, turned to me. "Hi, I don't think we've met. I'm Charles Bingley."
He shook my hand and gave me a warm smile. "Lizzie, so good to meet you. I've heard all about you from Jane. She says nothing but the nicest things."
Because Jane was a saint. She couldn't say anything bad about anybody. And believe me, I had tried to get her to.