Books October 2006

The Drama of the Gifted Parent

Hey! Leave those kids alone!

Alissa Quart, in Hothouse Kids, writes about a visit she paid to Philadelphia’s prestigious Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, and offers this observation:

For many [parents], the school was the center and pinnacle of their own lives. One mother told me that upon arriving at the school, when her son was one year old, her husband cried because he felt they had “wasted a year of our baby’s life.”

But who exactly is the husband crying for? For his son, or for himself? Is it, as the saying goes, that the child is the father of the man, and that this man maintains an unsophisticated view of human development and human potential—one that is striverishly superficial, and external (to borrow Madeline Levine’s concept)? Regardless, woe to the one-year-old who’s being pitied for blown deadlines, for having spent the first twelve months of his life drooling and cooing without educational purpose. Imagine how this father’s boundless quest to fulfill one’s Potential—whatever that vague word means—will unfold as this infant comes of age. Quart offers this extraordinarily telling tableau:

A boy undone by the failure to accept human limits, Icarus is a useful metaphor for the hothouse kid. Building these champions does create a generation of high achievers. But they do not necessarily stay aloft. They may grow up resentful of their parents’ inculcations. They may forever romanticize the childhood they never experienced. They may spend their adulthood aspiring to be children. They also share a feeling that normality is banal, even terrifyingly so. They may feel as though they fell from glory. And in fact they have. The attention they once received has never returned.

The terror of the ordinary is what keeps many affluent, educated parents and their kids out of the merely “decent” schools, the ones that are simply “fine.” For Katie, a private-school mother typical of the parents in Alan Eisenstock’s Kindergarten Wars, the only acceptable school is the one with which she literally falls in love. The campus—with its picture-perfect bucolic landscape, its lush greenery, its air heavy with magical scents of eucalyptus and mint—suggests a modern-day Eden.

There is, ironically, no sense of school. Instead Katie feels something else, something … larger. She feels an immense calm. Contentment. And then it hits her. It’s as if she has wandered through some kind of enchanted garden and has come home. That’s what Hunsford feels like.

Home.

For the next thirteen years.

“I’m in love,” Katie says.

After the quickening drama of the admissions process, the expulsion from paradise is hard. Upon being tossed by Hunsford into the death of the soul that is the waiting pool, in a scene that alone merits the price of the book, Katie polishes off an entire bottle of Grey Goose and curses, for pages and pages and pages:

The irony. I wasn’t even going to go through this process. And then I saw Hunsford and I wanted it. I gave up everything for one year, devoted my entire life to getting us into Huns­ford. That became my job. Miles had his job. His job is to bring in the money. My job was to get us into Hunsford. And you know what? I failed. I fucking failed. I’m a failure. Today I got fired from my job.”

Although one must at the very least credit Katie with greater self-awareness than the weeping Philadelphia father, her admission of monomania and misplaced ego doesn’t make the moment any more seemly. And what of Katie’s child in all this? Even allowing that a failure to land a kindergarten slot at Hunsford might have existential implications (as pretty much everything, interestingly enough, does), those implications are much less worrisome than the prospect of Mom reaching for the vodka whenever her parental pride—or inner copresident—is wounded.

So this is what wealth and good fortune have gotten our affluent, education-obsessed families in the aughts. A mother may glimpse a home of calm and contentment (her own missing Oak Tree of the Soul, perhaps?) in the enchanted parklike grounds of a school whose cost is $25,000 a year for kindergarten, and where—after legacy, siblings, and staff—there are only four available spots for an application pool of 600. A judge father may try to make Icarus fly again, even if that means arduously winching his own daughter up into the air with a mind-bogglingly complicated system of cranes and pulleys that accidentally sends her flying backward. And meanwhile, for adolescents, the result of all this parental academic yearning is grinding pressure, emptiness, and conformity … such that Ivy League hopefuls—or their parents—polish their autobiographical essays (yet more empty Selves) via www.essayedge.com, where for $299.95 a “Harvard-educated editor” will punch up, in an edited example, one’s inspiring tale of a father’s battle with colon cancer. (With apparently no one being given pause that part-time work for EssayEdge is what the Harvard-educated are doing.)

In the future, when sociologists look back, they may find it fitting that the signature novel of this academically frenzied era is the Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan’s famously lucrative and famously plagiarized How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life—a book so deeply conventional that the heroine’s Harvard-obsessed parents and a dean of Harvard are actually the feel-good heroes. (You wouldn’t want anyone to be mad!) On the plus side, just as the ’50s gave way—culturally speaking—to the ’60s, this moment in time may be another Oedipal breaking point, from which might spring the beginnings of a real youth revolution. The lack of a draft may have forestalled a college-wide antiwar movement, but young elites surely are being crushed by Ivy-bound pressure, and this era’s needed cultural statement may well be kids joyously burning U.S. News & World Report college rankings on the front steps of Reed College. It could just be me—once highly gifted, now fallen from grace, bombed GRE scores in hand, barely able to complete a Sudoku puzzle—but when I read the following passage of Marilee Jones’s USA Today essay, I think of Dustin Hoffman in a bus bumping down a dusty road at the end of The Graduate:

Last April, a few weeks after sending the acceptance/rejection letters for the Class of 2006, I received a reply from a father of one of our applicants. It was curt and written on his corporate letterhead: “You rejected my son. He’s devastated. See you in court.” … The very next day, I received another letter, but this time from the man’s son. It read: “Thank you for not admitting me to MIT. This is the best day of my life.”

Maybe, with the son’s understanding and encouragement, the father can reapply next year.

Illustration by Gilbert Ford

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.
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