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Andrew Trees teaches at a private high school in New York City. He is the author of a work of nonfiction, The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character. This is his first novel.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of this story, these pages must show. Well, actually, I think it is safe to say that I'm no hero. Not that I aspire to rescue kittens from burning buildings or anything like that. I want to be the kind of hero Jane Austen would create-a gentleman, in possession of a good fortune, handsome, in need of a wife, and with lots of lovely young ladies offering to roast my chestnuts. I am in need of a wife, particularly if you ask my mother, but it is hard to make that into a heroic virtue. And when people see me, I don't remind them of Colin Firth or Ewan McGregor or even Hugh Grant.
I wish I could tell you that I lived in a world like Austen's, a world of winsome ladies in low-cut bodices attending balls at elegant country estates or taking the waters at Bath and talking of, I don't know, Michelangelo. But Austen's world and my world, the world of Academy X, don't share much in common. To mix literary allusions, my world is a place through the looking glass, an ethical wonderland in which up is down, and right is wrong. Where it is not who you are but who you know, not what you do but what you have. It is a place where a powerful Wall Street broker is willing to manipulate the stockmarket on behalf of people still using sippy cups, so I think it is safe to say that it is a world where things have gone awry.
I am part of an elaborate system designed to ensure that children end up in the right nursery school so that they can attend the right elementary school so that they can gain entrance to the high school Ivy League so that they can win admission to the actual Ivy League. What happens after that seems to be superfluous. And the pressure only grows as the children get older, until you find yourself face to face with a student or, worse, a parent who believes that changing the B+ you have just given to an A- will somehow be the difference between Harvard and South Dakota Community College. People kill over such things. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating. I don't really know anyone who was killed over it (although there are rumors that Hoffa's disappearance was related to a botched preschool assignment). And this book isn't a murder mystery, just a tale of sex and deceit and betrayal on a scale so vast that it changed the lives of millions. Okay, to be completely truthful, there isn't that much sex. And it didn't change the lives of very many people. But it did threaten the well-being of someone particularly near and dear to me-namely, myself.
I taught English at Academy X for several years. I guess I still do, although my position has been a little precarious lately. You are probably wondering about Academy X-where it is located, what sort of school it is, all that sort of thing. As for appearance, the school's only distinguishing architectural feature is a monstrous Gothic bell tower that has never been opened during my years there as a teacher. And as for location, let's just say that it's in New York City to avoid adding further complications to my life. I apologize for being vague. Specificity, I'm always telling my students. Don't tell me Jay Gatsby is a little weird. Show me precisely where his weirdness lies. As for general reputations, Academy X is for brains. Dalton is for jocks. Brearley is for artsy types. And so on. But those differences are merely for the uninitiated. If you have to ask what sort of a school Academy X is, that question already reveals you as an outsider. You may be rich enough. Or your child may be smart enough to gain admittance. But you will be marked.
You see, there are a dizzying array of sociological and cultural considerations that determine which children end up at which schools. The choices were pretty simple where I grew up. If you were what used to be known as gifted before that term became problematic (these days every child is supposed to be gifted in some way), you took calculus. If you were slow, you took shop. But things are not so simple here for children-or for parents, many of whom treat the education of their children as a competitive sport. There are wheels within wheels, options, variations, subdivisions, niches, exceptions, and countless nuances.
I can only tell you the basics. For example, are you from the Upper East Side or the Upper West Side?-although the division marked by the green expanse of Central Park matters less than it used to since the children of the sixties became Wall Street types and decided that they could sacrifice a little propriety on the east side for a little more funk on the west side. Religion still counts here, although not in the mushy way of Protestant denominationalism. Harder, deeper divisions. Jew or Gentile. The problem is that these categories quickly subdivide, creating added complexities. Are you a practicing Jew, proud of your cultural heritage, perhaps even Orthodox? Or a self-hating Jew who does everything but hide the menorah behind the couch?
Most important, of course, is the question of money. How much you have. And how old it is. Love may make the world go round, but in New York the axis it turns on is money. Obviously, it is great if your money is old enough that various cultural institutions around the city have a painting, a room, or perhaps even an entire building named after one of your forefathers. A family portrait from last Christmas will impress only your aunt Millie. But a family portrait from at least three generations back shows an admirable grip on the top rung of society. A home in the Hamptons is good. A compound on Martha's Vineyard is better. However old your money is, though, try to make sure that it looks old. I once had an extremely rich and obnoxious student who liked to rant against the gilt-edged, faux patina of Louis XIV furniture as revealing the gauche pretensions of the bourgeoisie. He also didn't shower very often, which I took as an aristocratic disdain for that other bourgeois concern, cleanliness. He ended up going to Harvard, where his family already had their names on a number of buildings, including at least one, I hoped, with good bathing facilities.
There are schools that specialize in old money Wasps and others for new money Wasps who would like to appear to be old money Wasps and schools for assimilated Jews and others for nonassimilated Jews. And even a subset of unbearably polished all-girls schools, such as Spence (think Gwyneth Paltrow, an alumna, in Emma), places of such refinement that only the oldest money goes there, so old that the Jewish and Wasp divide no longer seems to apply, as if all rich families from far enough back come from a kind of monetary Adam and Eve. And for those who can't fight their way into one of the top schools, there are schools like-well, in the words of my nonshowering student, the schools that are not quite the right schools are legion.
At Academy X, Jews and Gentiles break bread together-new money Jews and Gentiles, that is. Money that is a little brasher, a little showier, a little louder. Bling bling, rather than Brahmin. Parents stand a little too close and speak a little too loudly. That is, in part, what Academy X is for, to smooth off the rough edges until the children have the well-modulated tones that will raise no eyebrows in the boardrooms and clubhouses of the city. But if you don't know that already, that says everything about you, at least as far as certain people are concerned.
This is a story about those few who don't have to ask. It is a peculiarly New York sort of story in that it takes a common problem-getting into college-and manages to throw vastly more money, more attention, and more worry at it than most people spend on actually going to college. Needless to say, a somewhat painful process is transformed into a complete train wreck, which can be fun to watch-unless, of course, you happen to be on the train.
We had reached the final few weeks of the year when everyone, even the most die-hard teacher, was ready to call it quits. I am not the most die-hard of teachers, so I was especially ready. Which is not to say that I don't love to teach. In fact, I am still surprised each year by how much affection I develop for many of my students and how sad I feel when they graduate. But it was tough to sustain much enthusiasm in the melting heat of this particular May.
All four of my classes were hopelessly adrift. My ninth grade class on world literature had become stranded in the land of the lotus-eaters. One of my tenth grade sections begged me daily to spend the final weeks studying the cultural significance of American Idol-"cultural significance" apparently revolving mainly around which contestant was the hottest with an active side discussion about just how much junk in the trunk qualified as too much. My other tenth grade section was still slogging through Huck Finn. If the pace of our progress was any indication, Huck and Jim were paddling up the Mississippi, rather than down it.
The class that really broke my heart, though, was my senior spring elective on the novels of Jane Austen. Given teenagers' hyperactive interest in the other sex, I had thought Austen's world, although a bit quaint, would be familiar and interesting. But the class had not worked out as planned, since nearly every senior was mired in a profound senior slump.
I should have known better. Teaching seniors in the spring was always a dicey proposition, and most teachers planned accordingly. My fellow English teachers were finishing the year with hard-hitting courses like "Teen Romance and the Films of the '50s: Beyond Heavy Petting," "Guys and Guns," and "The Culture of Comic Books." Suggesting that seniors read not just one novel but several was spectacularly stupid, although it did mean that my class consisted of a very manageable seven students.
Two of the four girls, Rebecca and Ally, were obsessed with Colin Firth. I had to keep reminding them to use the names of the characters in the books, not the names of the actors who played them.
There were three boys, all of whom took the class in order to stare at the girls for forty-five minutes. Marcus Lipschitz was the biggest nerd in the school, an undersized senior with an overdeveloped fondness for computers and Dungeons & Dragons-even the nerds thought he was a nerd. His presence incited the most mild students to elaborate classroom pranks. It was a little like having a class hamster who kept escaping his cage. His questions were usually thinly veiled attempts to understand the high school dating scene, which remained terra incognita for him. He somehow had become convinced that Austen would show him how to get a girlfriend. Like Moses, he seemed likely to wander in the desert for a long, long time. It would have helped if his Dungeons & Dragons wizard name-Goldorf-hadn't been sewn in bright red letters on his backpack. He explained to me one time how this name was based on Old English and was a sign of respect from his fellow players. Unfortunately, he did this in front of other students who had since shown great ingenuity in coming up with various nicknames based on Goldorf, nicknames that did not owe much to Old English but that did show a detailed knowledge of male and female anatomy. I took solace from the fact that Marcus was off to MIT in the fall, where he could at last nest safely among his own kind.
I had come to think of the two other boys, David and Jacob, as the two dwarves Sleepy and Grumpy. Both were part of a growing trend at Academy X, the learning disabled. The big advantage of being LD was extra time-twice the time to take all of your tests, including, most importantly, the SATs. The Educational Testing Service, gatekeeper to the promised land, had decided to stop reporting which students received extra time, setting off a mad rush by students to have themselves classified as learning disabled. All it took was several thousand dollars and compliant testers. In the past few years, almost one third of the school had developed some sort of learning disability. Considering that roughly half the students at Academy X went to an Ivy League school, one way of looking at it was as an inspiring story of kids overcoming their handicap to achieve success. I myself wouldn't have minded being designated learning disabled if that allowed me to take twice as long to return papers.
Even students who weren't labeled learning disabled were usually working some angle. So many parents were willing to let their children call in sick on days when they were supposed to take tests or hand in papers that it often seemed as if the plague swept the school at the end of each trimester. And it was an open secret that, in addition to the usual recreational drug use, many students took drugs to boost their academic performance. The lucky ones had Ritalin prescriptions, but it wasn't too difficult to find a friend who could provide one of the variety of pills that helped you to concentrate better for a test or stay up all night to finish a paper. If you thought ahead, you could even buy them at a discounted rate at the end of the school year when many students sold off their stash. And for many of the girls, the pills had the added benefit of acting as an appetite suppressant, thus killing two birds with one stone. Given the almost crushing pressure that most of them felt to get into an elite college, I felt more sympathy than indignation and considered myself lucky that Jolt soda (all the sugar and twice the caffeine of ordinary soda!) was the only performance-enhancing drug that people turned to when I was in high school.
David sat as far away from me as possible with a baseball cap pulled down on his forehead. He had a vacant stare that was almost Zenlike, the result of an apparently bottomless supply of high-quality marijuana. When I worriedly mentioned this to one of the guidance counselors, he laughed and told me about a poll in the student newspaper in which more than half of the students admitted getting stoned on a regular basis (many of those doing it frequently at school). He added that the numbers were probably a little low because most of the heavy stoners never realized that a poll was being taken. On the plus side, students smoking a lot of pot generally drank less liquor, resulting in fewer emergency room visits because of alcohol poisoning.
Even with the most charitable grading, Jacob should have been flunking the class. He didn't read the novels. He didn't watch the films. Generally, he didn't even know the characters' names. In one essay about Bath, he misunderstood and wrote a long essay about personal hygiene and the superiority of a shower to a bath. In another essay, he seemed to be under the impression that Elizabeth's parents had died in a car crash, despite the fact that the horseless carriage would not be invented for several decades. Although he had a similarly undistinguished record in his other classes, he was on his way to Duke in the fall-thanks to a large donation from his parents-at least as long as he passed all of his senior classes. I kept threatening to fail him, but he and I both knew that it was an empty threat. His mother was on the Board of Trustees and was notorious for waylaying Jacob's teachers to impress upon them just how hard Jacob was working.
There were two students, though, who still made me look forward to the class, Caitlyn Brie and Laura Sturding. They had a similar look, and once I made the mistake of saying so. After that, Caitlyn began finding ways to drop casual remarks about their differences. Caitlyn purchased her items from stores in NoLita and paid at least fifty times what Laura paid from her careful weekend perusals at the outlet malls in New Jersey. Both were attractive and slim, although Caitlyn's six-hundred-dollar haircut and three-hundred-dollar highlights from Sally Hershberger's salon gave her a glamorous, tousled look. They represented the two poles of the school, the difference between those who had to ask and those who didn't. No matter how hard Laura tried, she could never quite move from the outside to the inside. Her effort alone disqualified her.
Excerpted from ACADEMY X by Andrew S. Trees Copyright © 2006 by Andrew S. Trees. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 5, 2013
I take great offense to the author using the name of my family member and depicting the character pejoratively.
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Posted October 14, 2007
Posted February 1, 2007
I thought the book was extremely funny but at the same time, also served as a terrifying reminder of how quickly someone's life can be turned upside-down. I'm a 30-something banker and have always thought about moving into teaching. I graduated from a boarding school and my mother-in-law teaches at a private school. I am all too familiar with this stuff. It's an accurate portrayal of the 'entitled generation' as I like to call it. Well done! Also scary how one little brat can destroy you're life because they don't want to get in trouble!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 19, 2011
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Posted January 19, 2010
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