Education

Excerpt: A Bit Of A Pressure Cooker

April 01, 2001 6 min read
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For a high school senior who’s failed to get into the Ivy League college of her choice, there is one frighteningly expensive alternative worth considering: a postgraduate year at boarding school. In All Loves Excelling, a new novel by Josiah Bunting III, Amanda Bahringer is sent to St. Matthew’s, where she’s expected to improve her cross-country times, increase her SAT scores, ace her AP courses, and write the perfect application essay. It’s all for the good cause, her mother keeps reminding her, of acceptance at Dartmouth College. Bunting, superintendent of the Virginia Military Institute and former headmaster at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, is unflinching in his account of the damage done to a talented, kindhearted student forced to sacrifice everything for one goal. And, in the excerpt below, the hall master of Amanda’s dorm makes clear that even hard work won’t ensure its attainment.

“Sit down, Dear.”

Amanda did so, eyes down, obliging and silent. The quiet economy of the way she moved across the room, just short of prim, the way she sat, folding her hands in her lap, the grave and frank expectancy of her expression, all pleased Miss Rodman. Amanda was always self-possessed; she seemed well-bred. And yet—Miss Rodman had seen a thousand girls at St. Matthew’s—this self-possession could be an artifact of effort and contrivance. Sometimes it seemed almost wooden. Was it the consequence of preparing for disappointments, years of family disciplining, of small acts of intimidation?

Amanda wore a dark tartan skirt whose hem was almost at her ankles and a heather cardigan that might have been cashmere 50 years ago. She was surely a handsome child.

“I have your midsemester grades. Here.”

She handed Amanda a narrow green form and waited for her reaction to it. They might have been doctor and patient, facing each other across a low table in the doctor’s office and preparing to discuss a bleak medical diagnosis and possible courses of treatment. The document presented Amanda’s weighted GPA. Her grades and grade point average: 3.352; 40th in a class of 106; and, under these, a single word, SATISFACTORY, next to a heading that said: Private Tuition— music (Piano).

“You look sad, Dear, are you? Been sleeping enough?”

“I don’t know. I guess I am. I suppose I could have done better. Yes, I’m sad.” And then she added—the words just broke free, escaped—“What do you want me to say?”

“In your case you may say that you have worked with an application and discipline that are the envy of all. No one who works as you do should feel anything but satisfaction. These are the habits that will sustain you for a lifetime. You seem tired, are you? We are a bit of a pressure cooker, aren’t we, Dear?”

“Yes, I’m tired.” Amanda ran her thumbs up and down the form, as if trying to erase the grades and numbers.

“Eating enough?”

Amanda looked at the wall behind Miss Rodman. The plaster was cracked near the molding. A huge colored photograph of a toucan, a bright weird bird, strange for its setting like everything else in the apartment, hung from the wall.

“Let us start with the bad, shall we? Always best to face the bad first, unflinchingly. If you start the day with a terrible hangover, the day gets better as you go along. See? So face it as a wise man should, and train for ill, and not for good. The ill first. A C in precollege algebra. He says you haven’t a clue. He says failure is not likely, however, so that’s something. You won’t get an F for the term if you continue to work. You can do that with certain maths—skate hard, just fast enough to keep from falling through the ice. Do you see what I mean? So. No F if you work.”

“No F if I work!”

She had gotten to her, for the first time. Hadn’t really meant to, but had. “No. You remain quite safely in the C range and never have to do maths after you leave St. Matthew’s. In 10 years, you’ll have people do that for you.”

“A C will kill me at Dartmouth.”

“You don’t know that. You don’t know what they’ll do. Their selections are quite unpredictable.”

“I know.” Amanda was sure she knew. She never should have come here. All these kids her own age, twice as smart as she was, twice as fast, twice as good at something, twice as gifted. The school loved to lob the word around: gifted. And none of them, not even the Asian ones, worked any harder than she did. She had a sudden picture in her mind of Daniella, gliding through the woods, gliding as if sailing on ice; she thought of the boys who did the math answers in their heads and left hour tests after 10 minutes.

“Oh, you know, do you? Perhaps you’re a clairvoyant. I pass to AP Latin. Beta plus, very creditable, and with smashing comments. He calls you determined and meticulous, and he says—I quote—‘The symmetrical precision of her handwriting is a treat in itself.’ He says you are reliable and maniacally industrious. The world is run by such people. Your vaunted Housman was a meticulous classicist. No one approached him. Look at Lord Curzon.”

“Who?”

“Used to be Viceroy. Dr. Passmore loves him. I am going to smoke.”

Amanda barely heard her. All at once she felt herself drowning, overwhelmed in the thick hopelessness and cruelty of her fate. No matter how hard she ran or studied or played or swam, it was never enough. It was like a wall of water, a huge wave curling over you and swallowing you up.

“Use this Kleenex. You are far too hard on yourself. Pull yourself together! Let me continue. U.S. history—AP. An alpha minus from our friend Mr. Steele. He gave only two A’s and two A minuses. Comment: ‘I have always liked this girl. No hyperbole, careful preparations, comments always on point, as reliable as a Swiss clock.’ Amanda, Amanda!”—Miss Rodman reached across the coffee table and took one of the girl’s hands in her own—“That is rare praise from Mr. Steele. He’s a tremendous judge of young people!

“AP biology. B plus. The same comments. Here is one: ‘No one works more systematically, more carefully in the lab.’ And for the last, the best, a bright brave flag of Alpha, a straight A from our dear headmaster. He says you are an angel and that if Housman wrote poems about girls instead of boys, you would have been what he was talking about. Want a sentence? ‘I suspect this lovely girl will be a poet. Her understanding of Housman and Hopkins is intuitive and complete. She has a scholar’s serenity. She radiates a quiet confidence...’ You see what your headmaster thinks of you. That’s worth every silly SAT score laid end to end from here to the moon.”

Quiet confidence, Amanda thought.

“Does that make you feel better?”

No, it did not. The poetry course wasn’t AP. No one took it seriously at St. Matthew’s or, probably, at Dartmouth...

“So a C and two B pluses, and an A minus and an A.” If your most recent SATs lift you over 1300 then I should have thought Dartmouth would be quite doable.” Miss Rodman looked at the door to the study, and Amanda turned to see what she was looking at.

A healthy, glowing girl, just shy of stout, her hair in a symmetrical, perfectly prepared French braid, taffy-blond hair pulled back from her temples with such force that it seemed to make her eyes stretch farther from each other, looked at them brightly.

“Ah, Sumner Buck, come in, come in. Amanda and I were just finishing up. I’ve good tidings for you, Dear. Goodbye, Amanda. Courage, mon vieux. How are you, Sumner? Sit right over here.” The phone rang. “Let me take this, don’t mind the smoke. . . . ”

Closing the door, Amanda could make out two words, both Miss Rodman’s: Princeton. Calculus. If she had taken Calculus, she would have failed even if she’d stayed up all night for a month. The ice could have been a foot thick, and still she’d have fallen through.

Excerpted from All Loves Excelling by Josiah Bunting III. Copyright © 2001 by Josiah Bunting III. Reprinted by arrangement with Bridge Works Publishing, www.nbnbooks.com.

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