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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Life imitating art: Academy X & Firing a teacher, part one

Continuing my accidental theme of reviewing works of fiction about life at elite high schools, such as Prep, Restless Virgins, and Dangerous Admissions, I have just finished reading Academy X, a satirical novel by Andrew Trees. It’s not clear whether this is a roman à clef, but Trees is (or should I say was? — read on...) a teacher at the Horace Mann School, a well-known and very elite Manhattan private school, and his book is about a teacher at a very elite Manhattan private school, whose anonymity he preserves by calling it Academy X. Furthermore, the novel most definitely has the ring of truth. The beginning of the book grabbed me immediately, partly because it’s written in a convincing voice (the voice of a high-school teacher, not the voice of great literature). What was more important to me was that so much in the story reminded me of Weston High School, even though Weston is a more-or-less comprehensive public school, therefore being officially neither elite nor private (though it’s very academic). For instance, the following paragraph certainly rang a bell:
The big advantage of being learning disabled 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.
The details are different — for instance, we have very few kids with 100% extra time (but a great many with 50% extra), and we certainly don’t have half of our kids going to Ivy League colleges — but otherwise it definitely applies to Weston.

And then there’s this paragraph:
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 term. 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 prescriptiions, but it wasn’t too difficult to find a friend who could provide one of the variety of pills that helped you concentrate better for a test or stay up all night to finish a paper.... 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.
Many of us here refer to Weston as Lake Wobegon; I’ve even done so myself in this blog. So I was not surprised to read this description of Academy X:
The whole system was geared toward a constant adjustment upward, a New York version of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon where all children were above average. When the school gave out prizes at the end of the year, a virtual army of students stood in line to receive them. It took the sort of persistent lack of effort that was itself an achievement to stay off the awards platform.
Some excerpts don’t apply here quite so literally but still evoke the right flavor. For example, I’ve heard the following sentiments in the Weston Public Schools, all except the nursery-school reference:
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.
Certainly the religious issues are different:
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?
But then there are the signs of wealth, which are probably comparable:
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.
Some descriptions are clearly not meant to be taking literally — at least I think not, since Academy X is definitely a satire. For instance, the spirit of the following paragraph rings true at Weston, even though the specifics don’t apply here:
Many teachers at Academy X played the game. Some recommended poorly performing students to their colleagues for tutoring at one hundred dollars or more an hour and then found remarkable levels of improvement in their work. Others gave all As, unless a student was really awful and insulted the teacher, in which case he or she was punished with an A–. These teachers were then rewarded with awards, endowed chairs, yearbook dedications, not to mention a whole array of end-of-the-year “gifts” from grateful parents — box seats to ball games, weekends in the Hamptons — the list was limited only by the ethical code of the teacher, which is to say that it was hardly limited at all. Those who did not play the game were earned or threatened in a variety of ways — perhaps a meeting with a dean to remind the teacher of a student’s “special needs” or a letter from a parent on the legal stationery of the parent’s firm warning vaguely of “further action.”
Like all stories, Academy X has a beginning, a middle, and an end. I was grabbed by the beginning, which proceeds quickly and amusingly. The story then slows down in the middle and threatens to bog down in a subplot about the narrator’s love life. Some other subplots are too predictable in this section of the book, making the slow pace even slower. But after that the book picks up with a rousing and unpredictable ending, which illustrates why you should fight false accusations rather than quietly resigning. (In this case, the accusation is a male teacher’s worst nightmore: a female student puts on a torn shirt and accuses the teacher of sexual harassment, all because he discovered that she had plagiarized an important paper.) I have no hesitation recommending this book.

So why does the title of this review refer to “life imitating art”? So far it looks like an ordinary case of art imitating life, doesn’t it? It appears to be somewhat like those Law & Order shows where they claim that the story isn’t based on real events even though the viewers know that it is (for example, the recent “Dr. Death” episode, officially named “Called Home”). But there’s a twist here: soon after the book came out, Trees was fired from his job at Horace Mann. Was it because of the novel? Who knows? Trees has now sued the school, and his suit includes the same phrase that I used (too hard to resist, I guess). His lawyer asserts that the headmaster actually admitted that the firing was because of the book, not because of job performance. Let’s see how this plays out. (Private schools have a lot of leeway in firing teachers, as long as it’s not based on a prohibited category, such as race or religion.)

As a footnote, it’s interesting to see the reactions to this satire inside and outside of Horace Mann. The headmaster refused to allow the student newspaper to publish two letters of support for Trees (even though New York’s Governor Spitzer’s daughter is the editor of the paper, and his wife is on the Board of Trustees). And there was the following reaction from another school:
“I think this is the biggest self-righteous, arrogant traitor walking the face of the earth,” a member of the board of trustees at the nearby Riverdale Country School, Victoria Goldman, said. “He's sending up the entire community that he works with, and that takes nerve.”
By the way, the chapter titles of Academy X make an amusing list:
  • Brave New World
  • Great Expectations
  • All the King’s Men
  • Lolita
  • Breakfast at Tiffany’s
  • etc.

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