This article originally appeared on VICE France.
On my first day of school, a helicopter landed on the lawn outside the sports stadium. The son of a famous French film producer hopped out as if it were the most normal thing in the world. A few moments later, a bright yellow Hummer showed up, delivering the son of a Turkish hotel magnate.
I’m from a village near Paris, and my ride wasn’t quite as glamorous – Mum’s Renault Clio. After a chaotic first year of high school, my parents decided to send me to École des Roches in northern France, the fanciest boarding school in the country with fees of €20,000 (around £18,000) a year. My family is upper-middle-class, but my private education was still very expensive for them. They saw it as an investment in my future after I’d been bullied at a public school.
In my first term, I felt like a fish out of water. Everything seemed impressive to me: the old buildings, the beautiful Normandy countryside and the houses that the students were divided into, each with its own coat of arms. The 60-hectare campus was so vast that some students had to take a bus to get to class. There were tennis courts, a swimming pool, a theatre and a go-kart track. You could go horse-riding and take aviation classes.
I’d found myself in one of the most luxurious and elitist schools in the world. People would ask who your parents were before they asked your own name. Rich kids from all corners of the globe were sent to École des Roches to learn about French culture. In the classroom, you could hear Chinese, Arabic and Russian. Despite the elitism, I appreciated having access to this multicultural high-class world.
Just like many kids with boring parents – my dad is a business owner and my mum a doctor – I made up stories about my family, and became the son of a big fashion designer. Other middle-class students invented even bigger lies just to fit in.
Bit by bit, I learned how to live in this world – what brands to wear, the names of fashionable ski resorts and cafes. I got to know the children of dictators, pimps and famous actors. Half-way through year eight, the son of an African dictator in my house suddenly disappeared. A coup attempt was underway in his home country and in the evening, we saw his fellow citizens being massacred on the news. A year later, more kids arrived from this country on the brink of collapse, Louis Vuitton suitcases in hand.
Money was everywhere. One evening, our heads of houses called a meeting because they’d found a bundle of cash containing a few thousand Euros. At 13, I didn’t raise an eyebrow at this news. But as time went on, the obscene displays of wealth got on my nerves. Money determined who you’d be friends with and who you’d hook up with. People would come up to you and check the label on your shirt, making it hard to fit in if you didn’t have the same extreme wealth.
I was in that bubble for three years. Growing up, I understood that most of these kids had been sent to boarding school because their parents were too important to look after their own offspring. A friend of mine used to spend the holidays with a host family instead of his own.
And of course, many rich kids have the same issues as kids from poor families: neglectful parents, drug problems and depression. The difference is they have their bank accounts to make up for it. In year eight, several friends came close to overdosing after downing a dozen antidepressants. The staff found out about this after someone became unconscious in class. If they hadn’t had their stomachs pumped, they’d be dead.
Most students went home on weekends and would take a bus back to school on Sunday night from Paris. The atmosphere was pretty dismal – no one spoke and most people had a solemn look on their faces. On one of these depressing evenings, a student went into an alcohol-induced coma not long after we’d left Paris. I saw her again a few years later on TV in a French reality TV show similar to Big Brother, called Secret Story.
The boredom coupled with École des Roches’ absurd rules prompted us to misbehave more and more creatively. One of my friends specialised in shitting out of our bedroom window, or writing his name on the walls with a small piece of poop he had carefully collected. I have other more fond memories though – my first kiss in the school fields and my first cigarette, smoked in the attic of my house in the middle of the night.
But being constantly surrounded by extreme wealth from a young age is incredibly unhealthy. You grow up thinking money is of no value, because you see it everywhere. You start thinking being poor is not having Gucci shoes, without realising that they represent a month’s salary to some people.
École des Roches left me completely unprepared for the outside world. My school friends have gone in very different directions – one is enrolled in the Israeli army, another opened a luxury resort with his parents’ money and became an actor. So far, things have worked out OK for me too, but no matter how much money I make, I’d never send my own kids to École des Roches.