Tales Out Of School

It came as a great relief to my parents in 1985 to learn that my older sister was suffering from a mild form of dyslexia. At last there was a reasonable explanation for the extracurricular help in math that she needed in order to keep up with her Dalton peers. In those days, private tutors were considered somewhat shameful acquisitions to Upper East Side households. To admit to a tutor then was, from a child’s point of view, social suicide. From a parent’s, it was that and more: acknowledgment of intellectual inadequacy, faulty parenting, and general mediocrity.

One evening, I receive a call from a private-school junior wanting to hire me to elevate her SAT verbal score from a 760 to an 800. When I sigh and explain that a 760 already exceeds that of the average incoming freshman at Harvard or Stanford, a panicked youthful voice informs me that nothing less than an 800 will do, and that if I feel I can’t guarantee an 800 by fall, then surely I know someone who can? It is a call I have received with increasing frequency in the three years since I began tutoring. Apart from their nearly uniform affluence, the teenage populations of such renowned private schools as Trinity, Horace Mann, Brearley, Dalton, Collegiate, Spence, and Chapin bear little resemblance to their eighties counterparts. More than ever, these students – perpetually fearful, painfully conscious of the weight of their grades and SAT performance upon their futures – are relying on the help of tutors to inflate their scores. It’s become a reverse status symbol: Many tutors and independent college counselors now estimate that nearly 100 percent of Manhattan private-school juniors and seniors are paying for some kind of extracurricular SAT preparation.

“The frenzy over college admissions today is staggering,” says Robert Koppert, director of college counseling for the Dalton School. “There’s a real anxiety different from anything we saw even just a few years ago. The uncertainty has almost paralyzed the parent community, so that they feel they are not doing their jobs as parents if, on top of a $20,000 tuition, they don’t offer their child every opportunity to keep up with his or her peers.” Parents who seek to give their child an edge by paying for expensive private tuition are not, Koppert says, “trying to be especially manipulative of the system. They are simply trying to make an inherently difficult process – that of getting into college – somewhat easier and more humane.”

The attitude of most private schools toward extracurricular tuition is one of extreme skepticism if not outright disdain. But students who follow their schools’ advice and don’t take SAT prep end up feeling burned. “They told us what we were doing in class was rigorous enough and that we didn’t have anything to worry about,” says Laura,* a senior at an exclusive all-girls’ school. “My PSATs weren’t great, but I figured I’d have improved in time for the SATs. And I took them last spring and just broke 1,200, and meanwhile everyone else was getting, like, 1,400s and 1,500s. And they’d all been tutored. So I had to spend my summer playing catchup, and even now I feel totally disadvantaged and much more nervous and like I have a lot more at stake in November than the other girls.”

Which is not to suggest that the other girls are slacking off. Emily, Rachel, and Jessica – a lovely trio from another exclusive same-sex school – are impaired only by the kind of drive that leads them to leave plaintive messages on my machine pleading for more work.

Rachel: “Could you fax me some word lists? I think I’m going to have some time over the weekend.”

Emily: “Jessica’s aiming for an 800 on the writing and I only got a 720, so could I do an extra essay? Should I do it from Kaplan or Barron’s or both?”

Jessica: “I took a complete literature test and I got four wrong, so I’m going to take two more tests tonight and study the dictionary of literary terms. Do you have time for a phone session tomorrow before school?”

These are bright, literate, good-hearted girls who not only have the brains but as often as not a letter from Daddy’s good friend who established an eponymous foundation at the school of their choice. Not to mention one or more parents and siblings who will provide them with legacy status. And to top it all off, these are exactly the girls most likely to hire an outside college consultant. These are the girls, in the words of Lisa Heilbrunn Rattray, a former master tutor for the Princeton Review and one of the city’s busiest tutors, “for whom a 1,400 isn’t an accomplishment but a stigma, a permanent reminder of the fact that they made 200 points’ worth of mistakes that a select few of their peers did not.”

Ashley was not my typical student. She did not live on Park Avenue. She attended a private school but not one of the private schools. She lived in a building but not one of the buildings. Ashley’s mother’s first name ended with an i, and there was a tanning bed in the living room. Ashley was from California. What Ashley had in common with my other students was her money. Ashley had a lot of money. She had a car and driver, a surgically altered nose, a country estate, the home phone number of Donald Trump, and a personally inscribed life-size photograph of Leonardo DiCaprio on the ceiling over her canopy bed. She even had her own two-bedroom apartment that adjoined her stepparents’.

Ashley was referred to me by an independent college counselor who, as is often the case in such situations, had been hired by the family without the school’s knowledge. I was to work on Ashley’s college essay with her, territory that is defiantly gray for all good tutors. The line between guidance and writing-for-hire can be difficult to maintain – especially with parents who are eager to pay a stranger to compose an essay that will (they assume, indifferent to the message they are sending their child) reflect better upon the student than anything the student might have devised. While I have never been offered money to actually take a kid’s test, on more than one occasion I have experienced parents’ anger when they discovered that my intention was to work with, not for, their child.

Ordinarily, most of the college essays that I am asked to work on follow a predictable path. Either there is a poignant tale of a youthful episode involving an expensive summer trip to a Third World country during which some cement got mixed and the poor people got helped, or there is a doleful recounting of a grandparent’s prolonged illness and the impact it had on Young College Candidate’s life. Once in a while there is an ill-conceived attempt at humorous self-revelation – say, an accounting of an especially hilarious loss of virginity or The Time I Got Caught Shoplifting Sportsacs at Bloomingdale’s and What It Taught Me About Beating the System. Last fall when I worked with Ashley, however, it appeared a new trend had emerged. Call it “My Dinner With Clinton.” Ashley very nearly did. And she wasn’t the only one.

Although I’ve had male students who attended Democratic fund-raisers and spent nights in the White House as personal guests of the Clintons, only the girls have thought to base their college essays on the experience. (I have grown accustomed to my girls’ wanting to write about the achievements of their fathers, their brothers, their ex-boyfriends. I have even grown accustomed to their tendency to mark themselves incorrectly, invariably to their detriment, when I assign them mock SATs to take on their own time. I have never had a boy mistakenly lower his grade in this way. I have never had a boy think to base his college essay on anything but his own accomplishments, his ability to take a calculated risk, his contributions to the community, his opinion on global warming. But that’s another story altogether.)

When Ashley and I sat down to discuss the subject of her college essay, she was adamant that she had it all worked out, that it was going to be fantastic and unlike anybody else’s. The previous week, Ashley and her parents had attended a Democratic fund-raiser for President Clinton. It was not, Ashley pointed out unself-consciously, the first time she had met the president, but it was the first time she had been seated at his table. Ashley was excited to relate that the president had called her by name and that Hillary had been “way cool.” There had been, Ashley noted with a slight moue of dissatisfaction, some guy seated to her left who kept bugging her with all these stories about secret terrorist attacks that take place every day, but she had ignored him to the best of her abilities. Was it So-and-so? I murmured, naming a prominent Cabinet member. Ashley said that sounded right, but the point was that it had been incredible, amazing, to have been so privileged as to sit in that room with only 29 other people: Just think of the consequences, Ashley enthused, if the room had blown up! I promised to think of the consequences and suggested that, in the meantime, might she not like to consider writing an essay that wasn’t about the experience of eating while seated near President Clinton but about herself. After all, I continued, ignoring Ashley’s look of disgust, your basic college application asks for an anecdote of significant personal history illuminating some aspect of the candidate’s character and/or growth.

“Duh,” Ashley replied, “that’s what I’m doing.”

The line between guidance and writing-for-hire can be difficult to maintain. While I have never been offered money to take a kid’s test, I have experienced parents’ anger when they discovered that my intention was to work with, not for, their child.

“But what exactly are you illuminating?” I persisted, genuinely curious.

“That I come from a good family,” Ashley replied, annoyed and proud.

For the record, Ashley wrote two essays in the end. The essays were fine. I didn’t have the heart to tell Ashley that all of her hard work probably didn’t matter, that she could just as well have written about her dinner(s) with President Clinton, that with the letter of personal recommendation from Mr. Laurence Tisch her stepfather had arranged, she should have no trouble gaining admission to her first-choice school, NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

And yet, as I learned in a conversation with Ashley’s mother this fall, the Tisch letter fell through; it seems that Mr. Tisch’s cooperation in the writing of the letter was contingent upon the successful completion of a business deal with Ashley’s stepfather; when the deal soured, so did Ashley’s shot at NYU. Ashley is, her mom reports, a perfectly happy freshman at a second-tier college.

“Just tell the taxi driver you’re going to Shangri-La. They all know where it is,” the woman, the mother of a new student, repeated over the phone.

I laughed politely, presuming that she was making the kind of lame joke parents (usually fathers) not only make but expect me to laugh at. It’s one of the things I factor into my hourly rate.

I did not know East Hampton very well; I was lucky enough to have a boyfriend with a shacklike residence on a nearby lake, but he was a recent boyfriend and I was a recent tutor. So far, practically every one of my city students had a house in the Hamptons. So the arrangement was convenient.

I felt stupid telling my taxi driver to take me to Shangri-La, but that is exactly what he did, no questions asked. The house will sound fake in description; suffice it to say that I mistook the foyer for the living room (perhaps it was the baronial fireplace or the full complement of chaise longues and old masters), and that on my second visit, when I got lost trying to find a bathroom, I counted three swimming pools on my wander before paging the kitchen on the intercom and asking one of the staff to rescue me.

The boy’s name was Paulie. He was 14. Tall, thin, vaguely good-looking in an unformed kind of way, Paulie was preparing for his SSAT, one of two standardized exams required for boarding-school admission. Plagued by a large hank of blond hair that flopped perpetually in his eyes, Paulie suffered from a restless energy that sent him bounding from one seating arrangement to another until finally he would simply stand and jog from one foot to another while I attempted to teach him something about words – how to read them, how to write them, how to use them to his advantage.

I grew used to Paulie’s mother’s bellowing over the intercom when I arrived: “Paulie, Nile’s here, did you take your Ritalin?”

“It makes him very angry,” she would confide to me, referring to the Ritalin. And it did – veins would bulge from his neck, his face would grow red, and he would curse his mother viciously over the smallest thing.

We set to work on a reading-comprehension passage that should have been easy for a child of 10. Paulie couldn’t concentrate. “Can I stand?” he asked, knowing that I preferred him to exercise his sitting ability for as long as he could bear it.

“Go ahead,” I said, trusting him enough to know that he wasn’t just seeing what he could get away with.

Paulie placed the relevant material on top of a leather wing chair and took a deep breath. Standing on one leg, he swung his left arm over his head like a pitcher warming up. It seemed to calm him. He read the passage that way.

Afterward, I asked him a few questions about what he had just read. He was able to answer with some accuracy.

“Good job,” I told him. I meant it, too. Paulie smiled and pushed the hair out of his face.

“Yeah, whatever,” he said. “Just don’t tell my mom.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” I said.

It’s not like it’s a rule that all of my students are required to live on the Upper East Side in the area bordered by Fifth and First Avenues between 72nd and 96th Streets; they just do. Philippe was the rare student who exceeded this inadvertent residential boundary. Philippe lived in SoHo, on a small street that ran perpendicular to Hudson and Varick. Philippe’s parents were first-generation French immigrants who owned one of the city’s more celebrated French restaurants.

There were two entrances to Philippe’s loft, both accessed by private elevators. The entrance into the kitchen was by far the more impressive: the rack of copper saucepans that ringed the perimeter of the room, the two Sub-Zero refrigerators and matching meat freezers, the professional range, the marble cutting slabs that split neatly at the back in a series of small grooves to allow for the insertion of multiple knives and cleaver and carving forks that stood at attention like obedient children.

Philippe did not cook. He did not speak French. He rarely ate a meal with his parents or spent any time with them at all: They were always at the restaurant, and when they weren’t, they were sleeping or arguing. Philippe played no sports and appeared to have no friends other than Herbert, a butterscotch-colored guinea pig who made piteous squeaking sounds whenever he was removed from Philippe’s company.

Philippe was a junior at one of the several Manhattan private schools that charge as much as their more prestigious counterparts – Trinity, Dalton, Brearley, Collegiate – but cater to students whose academic ability is, if not exactly outright impaired, certainly below the standard of your average Harvard-bound Horace Mann student. Uninformed parents such as Philippe’s often presume that because they are paying the same enormous fees as parents of, say, a Fieldston freshman or a Spence senior, their children are receiving an identical education.

It was clear within moments of our first meeting that Philippe’s mother, Marie, was a genuine – if somewhat uncomprehending – fan of her son’s. Equally clear were Philippe’s natural intelligence, his sweet nature, and his bumbling manner that, in one so young and earnest, passed for charm. Why, then, were Philippe’s PSAT scores among the lowest I had ever seen? Unlike the reputations of the admissions committees of tony secondary schools and of many college counselors, which rest upon the elite colleges to which their charges are admitted, mine rests entirely upon my ability to raise a student’s score significantly; whether that entails a jump from a score of 300 to 500 or 600 to 750 is irrelevant. At least to me. Which is not to suggest that I don’t prefer working with the brighter, more motivated kids – I do, only I find that the brighter kids come at both ends of the score spectrum and that there is always a good reason for a smart kid’s getting a lousy score. So what was up with Philippe? Was it his second-rate school, was it the lack of any reading material in the house other than Royalty magazine and diet cookbooks, or was it the fact that the two adults of the household addressed each other in French when they were home, which they never were?

As I took Philippe through a few preliminary drills at our initial session, one thing became very clear. While he was evidently lacking the educational backbone I took for granted in my Fieldston and Deerfield Academy students, he was genuinely excited at the prospect of absorbing new words into his limited vocabulary. But his progress was disproportionately slow in view of our hard work. When I tried to talk to Marie about the growing host of emotional troubles Philippe was clearly suffering (among them intermittent agoraphobia, hypochondria, and depression, a combination that resulted in an extremely poor attendance record that went some way to explaining his overall poor academic record), she was reluctant to admit that there was anything wrong. When pressed, Marie acknowledged that Philippe’s father refused to allow Philippe to see a psychiatrist. Even the school, she confided, had recommended someone, but her husband would not have it. Instead, over the course of the year that I worked with Philippe, there was a series of cash handouts and expensive gifts. Once, Philippe showed me an envelope with ten $100 bills. It was from his father. “What should I spend it on?” Philippe asked. I suggested he take a friend to a play or a Knicks game. “Do you want to go?” he asked. I had forgotten. He didn’t have a lot of friends. “Maybe,” Philippe said, brightening momentarily in anticipation of the look on my face, “maybe I should spend it on drugs.” He laughed and shook his head.

For the record, after a great deal of hard work, Philippe was accepted at a small college on the East Coast. He is now in his sophomore year and reports that he enjoys participating in intramural badminton and that he has a girlfriend who is teaching him to cook.

It is understood that Deepak is to attend Harvard. But, just in case, his parents have on the payroll four tutors, an independent college counselor, two coaches, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, and a sports psychologist.

I met Deepak two years ago, when he was a sophomore. His college counselor likes to joke that he intends to do nothing to further Deepak’s chances of acceptance to Harvard: Deepak is as close to a sure bet as there is, with his stellar academic record, winning personality, and desirable ethnic background. Additionally, Deepak is a nationally ranked athlete already under the scrutiny of all the coaches at the Division 1 schools to which Deepak’s parents intend Deepak to apply. It is understood that Deepak is to attend Harvard.

But, just in case, Deepak’s parents have added four tutors and an independent college counselor to a payroll that already includes two coaches, a physical therapist, a nutritionist, and a sports psychologist. Deepak estimates, with only a touch of youthful hyperbole, that it costs his parents $500,000 a year to support him; luckily, his grandparents own a bank. I joined the payroll immediately after Deepak fractured his right elbow, when his parents called me on the theory that he might as well make use of his unexpected free time. With the same powerful discipline he applies to his athletic career, Deepak tackled word lists, raced through countless grammar drills, and pounded out multiple twenty-minute essays on SAT-sanctioned subjects such as “It is better to give than to receive” and “The world was not built in a day. Agree or disagree.”

Soon Deepak’s scores had risen into the impressive low 700s. His injury had healed. Summer was approaching. Deepak was looking forward to getting back to his game. His parents called. They wanted me to set up a schedule of work Deepak could take on the road with him. They wanted me to arrange for a series of phone sessions. Seven hundreds weren’t good enough, they said. What if he was injured again? What then? I had no answer for them.

*Students’ names and identifying details have been changed.

Tales Out Of School