Books: Secrets of John Kerry's Boarding School

Success was an expectation for graduates of St. Paul's School when 14-year-old John Kerry entered the school in September 1958. WASPs still controlled the Wall Street banks and law firms, owned the best summer houses and set a certain tone. The New England church schools taught a duty to serve, by which they really meant rule. Graduates of schools like St. Paul's could be smug and complacent, or at least they seemed that way to the outside world.

In fact, these schools were possessed by an almost obsessive fear of showing weakness. Borrowing the customs (and snobbery) of English public schools like Eton and Rugby, St. Paul's meted out cold showers and required stiff upper lips. The idea was to instill manliness and Christianity—the school liked to quote Teddy Roosevelt about hitting the line hard but playing fair—but forgiveness and mercy were often missing. The ruling clique, called "the Regs" (for Regular Guys), were a kind of vicious moral and social police. They dominated by sarcasm. Boys who seemed sad or vulnerable, or who wore the wrong kind of tweed jacket, were dismissed as "spazzes" and "homos." "Only once in four years did I see a boy cry publicly," writes Geoffrey Douglas, author of "The Classmates," a memoir of the class of '62. "It happened on the soccer field. The coach ignored it; every boy nearby, including me, moved away." In "Lord of the Flies" fashion, the boys channeled their fear into bullying. The Piggy of the class of '62 was "Arthur" (not his real name), a luggish scholarship boy who was made to crawl in the mud or sit on a toilet in an open field while boys threw quarters at him.

After weakness, the second worst sin for a "Paulie" was trying too hard. That's what made Kerry unpopular; his ambition showed. When he was nominated for president in 2004, his classmates began e-mailing each other, at first about Kerry, but then about their shame over the way they had treated Arthur. Freed, at last, of their fear of the Regs, classmates began pouring out their own life stories, often anguished tales of disappointment. After the claustrophobic order of St. Paul's, the chaos of the 1960s was overwhelming to more than a few.

One who barely survived was Douglas, who became a writer after drinking and gambling away his inheritance. Douglas interviewed many of his classmates about their lives during and after St. Paul's, and the stories are often wrenching. Douglas writes in a spare, elegiac style that makes one feel he is sitting at vespers, quietly murmuring the evensong prayer while dreading the approach of a sneering, Brooks Brothers-clad Reg. Oddly, the most lifeless character in the book is Kerry, whom Douglas interviewed in his Senate office while a press secretary took notes. At school and for years after, Kerry's answer to the snobs who cut him out was to out-achieve them. He succeeded, making Skull and Bones at Yale and emerging from Vietnam as a war hero with a conscience. He was, in a way, the future: the meritocratic striver. But at his interview with Douglas, Kerry was guarded and subdued, as if he was still wary of the scorn of his classmates. Kerry wanted to be liked at St. Paul's and was not; years later, as he courted voters, they, too, sensed and rejected his stiff pride. High school has a way of haunting, especially if the school was as coldly creepy as the school portrayed in "The Classmates."