Lost in the Meritocracy

How I traded an education for a ticket to the ruling class
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On the bus ride down to St. Paul to take the test that will help determine who will get ahead in life, who will stay put, and who will fall behind, two of my closest buddies seal their fates by opening pint bottles of cherry schnapps the moment we leave the high school parking lot. They hide the liquor under their varsity jackets and monitor the driver's rearview mirror for opportune moments to duck their heads and swig. A girl sees what they're up to, mutters, "Morons," and goes back to shading in the tiny ovals in her Scholastic Aptitude Test review book. She dated one of the guys a few months back, but lately she's grown serious, ambitious; I've heard that she hopes to practice law someday and prosecute companies that pollute the air. When she notices one of the bottles coming my way, she shoots me a look of horror.

"No, thanks," I say.

My friends seem wounded by this—aren't we teammates? We play baseball and football together. We go way back. In our high school class there are only fifteen boys, and every summer some of us camp out by the river and cannonball from the cliffs into the current. We talk as though we'll be together forever, though I've always known better: Someday we'll be ranked. Someday we'll be screened and then separated. I've known this since my first day of kindergarten, when I raised my hand slightly faster than the other kids—and waved it around to make sure the teacher saw it.

My buddies give me another chance to drink.

"Put that away, guys. Today is a big deal for us."

But they know this already—they just don't like the fact.

"Come on," one says. "A sip."

"I'm sorry. No."

And so I go on to college, and they don't.

Percentile is destiny in America. Four years after that bus ride I'm slumped on an old sofa in the library of my Princeton eating club, waiting to feel the effects of a black capsule that someone said would help me finish writing my overdue application for a Rhodes scholarship. At the other end of the sofa sits my good friend Adam (all names in this piece have been changed)—a Jewish science whiz from the New York suburbs who ate magic mushrooms one evening, had a vision, and switched from pre-med to English literature. Adam should be reading Dubliners, which he'll be tested on early tomorrow morning, but he's preoccupied with an experiment. He's smashing Percocet tablets with a hammer and trying to smoke the powder through a water pipe.

I have other companions in estrangement, way out here on the bell curve's leading edge, where our talent for multiple-choice tests has landed us without even the sketchiest survival instructions. Our club isn't one of the rich, exclusive outfits, where the pedigreed children of the establishment eat chocolate-dipped strawberries off silver trays carried by black waiters in starched white uniforms, but one that anyone can join, where geeks and misfits line up with plastic plates for veggie burgers and canned fruit salad. At the moment the club is struggling financially and has fewer than twenty paid-up members, including two religious fanatics who came to Princeton as normal young men, I'm told, but failed somehow to mix and grew withdrawn. Not long from now, one will take a Bible passage too literally and pluck out one of his eyes in penance for some failing he won't disclose; the other will style himself a campus messiah and persuade a number of "disciples"—most of them black and here on scholarships—to renounce their degrees just before graduation as a protest against Princeton's fallenness.

The rest of us in the club feel almost as lost. One kid, a token North Dakotan (Princeton likes to boast that it has students from all fifty states), wears the same greaser haircut he brought from Fargo and has poured all his energy for the past few years into fronting a lackadaisical rock band that specializes in heartland heavy metal. His soul never made the leap from Main Street to the Ivy League. Another young man is nearly catatonic from dropping LSD and playing pinball in marathon sessions that sometimes last twelve hours. Strike a match an inch from his face and he won't flinch—his pupils won't even contract from the flame.

If my buddies from Minnesota could see me now, they wouldn't have a clue whom they were seeing, and I—also bewildered—wouldn't be able to help them. Four years ago my SAT scores set me on a trajectory. One day I looked down at a booklet filled with questions concerning synonyms and antonyms and the meeting times of trains on opposite tracks, and the next thing I knew I was opening thick envelopes from half the colleges in the country. One, from Macalester College, in St. Paul, contained an especially tempting offer: immediate admission as a freshman. I didn't even have to finish senior year in high school.

I enrolled the next fall, but with no intention of staying. I'd read my Fitzgerald, and I wanted to go east; I wanted to ride the train to the last station. As a natural-born child of the meritocracy, I'd been amassing momentum my whole life, entering spelling bees, vying for forensics medals, running my mouth in mock United Nations meetings and model state governments and student congresses, and I knew only one direction: forward, onward. I lived for prizes, praise, distinctions, and I gave no thought to any goal higher or broader than my next report card. Learning was secondary; promotion was primary. No one had ever told me what the point was, except to keep on accumulating points, and this struck me as sufficient. What else was there?

Before I'd been at Macalester a month, I applied to transfer to Princeton as a sophomore. I was warned that only twenty students a year got into the university this way, but I was used to being the exception; it was the only condition I'd ever known. Like a novice gambler on a winning streak, I wasn't even sure that failure existed, except for others. To bolster my application, I looked around Macalester for a contest, any contest, that I might place first in, and I hit at last on a poetry competition that seemed to be attracting few entries. I'd never written serious poetry, but this didn't faze me. My desire to get ahead was all the inspiration I'd ever needed. Appetite can be a kind of genius.

I won the poetry contest. A few months later I found myself sitting in a Princeton lecture hall that was older than my home town, writing down a new word: "post-structuralism." I couldn't define it exactly, but I knew more or less what it meant: I was making progress of sorts. The student next to me bore a famous last name that I recognized from a high school history text (not Rockefeller, but close). Discovering that it was still in circulation among living people—individuals whom I was expected to befriend now and make a career among, if possible—renewed in me a sense of dislocation that I'd been fighting, and courting, since entering grade school.

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Walter Kirn is the author of Up in the Air.

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