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The Meritocracy Myth

By Olivia Hicks

The Gifted School

Bruce Holsinger, Riverhead Books, 2019

Bruce Holsinger’s third novel, “The Gifted School”, is set in Crystal, a picture-perfect Colorado town. Crystal is liberal, wealthy, white, and populated by parents desperate to show just how special their kids are. Their goal is to cultivate the most enviable of all social currencies - exceptional progeny. When the school district announces the opening of a new, state-of-the-art school for ‘“the extremely gifted’”, four life-long friends and their families collapse into rivalry and even criminality to ensure a place for their own offspring – – ‘“because in Crystal, whose kid wasn’t gifted?’”.

If Holsinger had released The Gifted School just six months ago, it would have seemed a tad far-fetched. However, in light of the 2019 US college admissions scandal, it’s clear that nothing Holsinger describes is in any sense unlikely – in fact, it’s all happened. In March of this year US federal prosecutors charged fifty individuals with crimes relating to fraud. The prosecutors allege that an organisation ran by a man named William Rick Singer had – for extortionate fees – helped to inflate test scores, and secure athletic recruitment for students, in some cases for sports that the student had never even participated in (in the US, athletic prowess can overshadow a less impressive academic record). It’s even said that a Harvard grad sat SAT exams in the place of students, for $10,000 a go. The fees paid to the scheme for each child are sobering; some in the hundreds of thousands of US dollars. Some students gained admission to some seriously prestigious institutions -– Harvard, Stanford, Georgetown. There are also notable names involved with the case, including Desperate Housewives actress Felicity Huffman, and Full House actress Lori Loughlin, who has pleaded not guilty. The scandal did not come and go quietly. Many were completely engrossed in the case and all its sordid details, and Operation Varsity Blues - as it’s become known - was, and still is, headline news.

Why were we so gripped with this scandal? Well, probably the sheer satisfaction and schadenfreude of seeing the ultra-rich caught out, those who have for so long ‘gotten away with it’. On one level, there’s anger at the fact that it is clearly a cruel and manipulative crime. Places at good colleges are limited, and to see the places go to students not through merit but through privilege and crime, is painful, and the rage that surfaced on this basis is more than justified; it’s sort of the only correct response, especially given the measures taken by so many underprivileged and disadvantaged students to have even a shot at the opportunity for further education. But alongside the anger, there’s sort of pleasure to the way we consumed the case; the only too familiar drama and tension of education and admissions – the tests, the interviews, the nervous waiting – added to the glitz of wealth and minor celebrity. All the extreme responses of Holsinger’s characters – bribery, fraud, lying, back-stabbing – are seen reflected in the real Operation Varsity Blues, with the same draw of pedagogy and social drama.

The focus of The Gifted School is on four mothers – Rose, Azra, Samantha, and Lauren – who met years ago, at a mother-and-baby swimming class. Between them they have a huddle of children; two Emmas, twins Aidan and Charlie, a new baby Roy, chess-wiz Xander, and a teenage girl Tessa. Though the adults all have careers, interests, and battles of their own, it is their children and their children’s futures that take centre-stage, without exception, the result of ‘“the overinvested parenting they all practiced with varying degrees of obliviousness and guilt.’” The perspective of the four women, busily obsessing over their children and the rumours of the gifted school, is broken by the Tessa’s vlogs, as she ridicules the various adults from afar and digs around into the secrets of their marriages, finances, and children’s lives.

Though the characters occasionally drift into cliché territory– glamorous Queen Bee stay-at-home mum, a dad’s affair with an au pair, mathsy chess nerd who struggles socially – this is all part of the fun of the novel, which is as much a social satire as it is an addictive summer read. For those of us who are endlessly entertained with constant petty drama, with the promise of a volcanic crescendo, The Gifted School delivers.

The novel exposes the real viciousness behind the need to have one’s child outperform all others, and not just between adults. The two Emmas – Emma Q and Emma Z - form a club for those in their class that they themselves deem gifted, and assign all their classmates to the various universities they reckon fit the children’s ‘“giftedness’”. It’s a refreshing move away from the go-to nerdy-kids-are-bullied plot – after all, academic success in children (or the perception of it) can be as much a weapon for bullies as a vulnerability for the bullied. For Holsinger’s scandal, the children are pretty innocent and unaware of the strings their parents are pulling, only too happy to accept the ‘“gifted’” label, which in itself does enough damage. For the students involved in the real-life admissions scandal, well, it’s not so simple. In many cases, they had to be aware and complicit – if you’re admitted on the basis of your tennis ability and you don’t play tennis, you’ve got to have some questions. If you didn’t actually sit your SAT exam, but got a glowing score, you’re involved. Some however, might not have known – scores altered after an exam was sat legitimately, a football coach who suddenly sees potential after money exchanges hands. Though they’re nearly adults, these are children, and children with parents who really test the boundaries of the term ‘“pushy parents’”. Should a sixteen year old stand up to their parents in these circumstances? Would they be able to? – it’s not asking an impossible amount, but it is asking something. A lot of these children will seriously suffer from the publicity of the scandal, their parents’ voracious need for them to get ahead ultimately causing real harm to their lives. It would be quite easy, and possibly satisfying, to really resent these kids, but there’s some haziness around their culpability – as The Gifted School portrays, there are certain social circles where a child’s academic decisions and procedures are undertaken by a substantial group of people, a group that doesn’t necessarily involve the children themselves.

Holsinger is not lazy with his social autopsy. The Gifted School is keyed in to class, race, and the most obvious lesson learnt from the Operation Varsity Blues scandal – if you have the money and privilege, it’s not that hard to get ahead. Emma Z, the only child to wealthy parents, takes a college class (though is exempt from all coursework), the happy result of her father’s sizeable donation to the college. The frantic admissions process of Rose, Azra, Samantha, and Lauren on behalf of their children is mirrored by that of Atikcha, a young Peruvian boy from a trailer park outside of the city, whose mother and grandmother work as maids for the novel’s main families. He’s already at a disadvantage, of course – when he’s not at school he isn’t filling his time with glowing extra-curricular activities as the twins are, because he’s working with his mother and grandmother. He hasn’t had the intense tutoring Samantha and her husband Kev are all too keen to provide Emma Z. But beyond the more obvious boosts to a child’s attainment, Atikcha has to worry about his coming to represent an entire community.

While the families of the city do not stop to question that admission to the school is the panacea for any possible future adversity in their own children’s lives, Atikcha’s grandmother Ch’ayña is uncertain and suspicious of the school, the effect it would have on her grandson. And she’s right to be nervous – even before the school has opened, despite Crystal’s insistent liberalism, sly comments and whispered remarks between parents build to accusations of racial quotas. If Atikcha is admitted to the school, he’ll face the constant charge all too familiar to minority students; you’re only here because you’re not white.

The Gifted School is very much an American novel (I had to look up magnet schools, charter schools, and PSATs), but the phenomenon it describes is certainly not restricted to the USA. British parents are just as keen to insist that their children are the special ones, and to go to great lengths to make it true. I wonder how many Oxford students will see their own families reflected in those of Crystal, Colorado. While reading The Gifted School, anecdotes from my own classmates kept coming to mind; the friend whose mother took a whole academic year to ‘“come to terms’” with the fact that she had been pooled from Magdalen, another who had to sit her parents down and gently tell them she wasn’t going to study medicine, bringing them to tears. Before Oxford, I went to a grammar school, where everyone knew where they’d ranked in the 11+, and where everyone else had ranked too. Most girls there had been tutored for the 11+, some for the whole duration of primary school. It’s not something that’s gone unexamined or un-ridiculed in British Society, either – The Gifted School reminds me of May Contain Nuts, but with iPhones and AP classes.

The epigraph to The Gifted School is taken from Sheila Moore and Roon Frost’s The Little Boy Book: ‘“tThere is something so tantalizing about having a gifted child that some parents will go to almost any lengths to prove they have one.’” Here, I think, is the crux of the novel – most of these kids are probably pretty ordinary, at their core. In fact, it’s not about the children at all; a parent who insists that their child, and no other, is ‘“gifted’”, says a lot about themselves and not so much about their child.

As much as we like to pretend that a meritocracy is the great social equaliser, the reality is that a lot of money can buy academic success – your average kid will be a lot better than average after a thousand hours of private tuition, and if this seems like too much effort you can just bribe your way to mimic success anyway. And when a successful child is essential social currency, the law, ethics, personal relationships, and the wellbeing of the child in question are all necessary sacrifices for some parents – in fiction, and in fact.

OLIVIA HICKS studies at St Hilda's College.

Art by Alex Haveron-Jones


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