THE WASHINGTON POST – When we lived in St Louis in the United States (US), my wife briefly worked at the most exclusive grade school, and I worked at the most exclusive high school.
We were labourers on that gold-plated assembly line leading to Cambridge, and we learnt that the anxiety of wealthy parents cannot be exaggerated: Being admitted to the right grade school is key to being admitted to the right high school, which is key to being admitted to an Ivy League college, which is the only guarantee of happiness and success. One poor mark in second grade on a diorama about the pilgrims could derail a whole life.
That mad obsession with securing the great chain of privilege has led to a culture in which children strategise their charity work for maximum résumé presentation, and trilingual sophomores compete for internships on cancer research at the National Institutes of Health. The Wall Street Journal reports that well-heeled families take SAT tutors along with them on vacation at more than USD500 an hour.
Any number of wise people have tried to talk some sense into these stressed parents and their children. Almost 20 years ago, Josiah Bunting, the former headmaster of the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, published a terrifying novel called All Loves Excelling about a smart young woman so desperate to get into Dartmouth that she works herself to death.
In 2015, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni published Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. And witty writers such as Susan Coll and Amy Poeppel have helped create a small subgenre of academic satire about our admissions insanity.
But life has a funny way of outstripping our grimmest warnings or most absurd parodies. (See: US President Donald Trump.) This March, the FBI revealed Operation Varsity Blues, a massive investigation into the largest-ever college admissions scam.
The bureau accused a group of wealthy parents – including Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin – of cheating, lying and bribing to get their kids into exclusive schools.
You’ve heard the delicious details: A highly paid advisor allegedly concocted a learning disability so that a child could get extended time on a test. Another is said to have skipped that step and just hired brainy subs to take tests for clients’ children. In the most outrageous instance, applicants’ heads were apparently photoshopped onto the bodies of athletes in hopes of impressing admissions officials.
Now, four months after that sensational news story, comes this hefty novel by Bruce Holsinger about a group of wealthy parents who cheat, lie and bribe to get their kids into an exclusive school.
One wants to say that The Gifted School is preternaturally timely, but it feels, instead, like a faint imitation: a story “dripped” from the headlines.
And even if current events didn’t overshadow The Gifted School, the novel’s opening would still feel weighed down by its desultory pace. Many chapters of exposition are devoted to introducing a large cast of characters in four families who live in a tony Colorado town with all the right progressive attitudes (think Boulder).
The four mothers met years ago and have maintained a close bond through the usual challenges of infidelity, illness, divorce and widowhood. As the novel opens, their assorted children, mostly around 11 years old, are smart and articulate. What could possibly disrupt such an idyllic set of friends?
Behold: Crystal Academy, “a new public magnet school for exceptional learners”. Suddenly, these people who have supported one another for years find themselves competing for a limited number of precious slots, and they all know it’s a zero-sum game. Everyone acknowledges that the public school system is great, but that’s beside the point: Crystal Academy is “exclusive”, and nothing is more desirable than something our friends and neighbours can’t have.
The admission committee is looking for “a diverse community of exceptional learners united by a fierce desire to push the boundaries of learning to transform themselves and the world around them”. Well, “fierce desire” is in no short supply here. Soon, the community is tearing itself apart.
Although The Gifted School starts too slowly, once the story gets moving, it builds impressive momentum. Social ambition exercises a narcotic effect on these otherwise considerate adults. After all, the students at Crystal Academy “will be Rhodes scholars and Supreme Court clerks. They’ll be international thought leaders”. What wouldn’t you do to ensure all that for your own brilliant child?
There’s plenty of wry humour in Holsinger’s portrayal of this dysfunction, especially the moral gymnastics that liberal parents perform to preserve the purity of their ideals.