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Bruce Holsinger’s new satire would fall flat as a joke told too soon if his latest novel wasn’t so precisely well-timed. In The Gifted School, released in July, wealthy parents use personal connections and apply their professional expertise to help their children apply for a selective school.
George Will’s review also notes that the book’s timing is apt. After the FBI found Felicity Huffman and a host of other high-profile names trying to buy access to exclusive colleges for their children in March, one would think Holsinger’s publisher rushed to print. The Bureau’s “Operation Varsity Blues” may have people wondering if that is where the author found his inspiration (it was not, but as Will says, “American life uncomfortably imitates [Holsinger’s] art”).
What starts as a novel about a selective school in Colorado (what one character calls the “Stuyvesant of the Rockies”) turns into a spiral of self-destruction as the adults try to keep a place in their social circle. Each family shows just how much they are willing to compromise in order to have what everyone around them thinks is the best. By the time the characters realize what they are doing, it is too late for anyone to escape with their reputations intact.
All parents have aspirations for their students, but some confuse academic goals with status and stop at nothing in the pursuit, all the while telling themselves it’s all for the children. Satire can make effective use of fantasy or hyperbole to get a point across, but Holsinger’s novel is compelling because it is so relatable. And the story is not just about the rich—there are unmistakable reminders that upper-income neighborhoods can be bubbles surrounded by families with children from a range of income levels, including the poor.
Holsinger’s story is not about a private college prep school or a charter school but a public magnet school, of which there are some 4,300 across the U.S., serving more than 3.5 million students. Traditional school districts operate magnet schools, and these schools serve as a reminder that, despite teacher union claims that district schools serve any child that comes to the door, district schools can be selective. In some cases, parents must afford a house in a certain neighborhood to access their chosen district school, while district magnet schools have admission criteria such as entrance exams.
Selective public schools aren’t the problem in Holsinger’s book, nor should school selection be a public policy problem. The challenge today is that more policymakers must recognize that all students should have choices for his or her education and make all public and private school opportunities available to every child.
The need for more quality schools is just one of the other policy topics—aside from Felicity Huffman’s indiscretions—that the story brushes against. Purposefully or not, Holsinger’s book has undertones of the recent social science research and analysis pointing to opportunity gaps between individuals with different incomes, as opposed to along racial lines. J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart are all analyses in recent years that explain the financial divides in America and lead to discussions on the imbalance of interpersonal connections favoring the wealthy. The Gifted School lays these trends out to bare.
Ultimately, though, Holsinger’s book is concerned with the self-interested dealings of adults that want their children to be part of their—the parents’—status. The book’s only low-income family—a grandmother, mother, son, and the mother’s boyfriend—is not used for sermons on the plight of the needy but as a foil reflecting how obsessively self-focused the other characters are. The multi-lingual, minority family is pursuing the new school as a better academic opportunity for the young boy, exactly what the school is supposed to be.
The novel is, actually, all about the children. Even one of the book’s disgraced characters finds her way to the truth, telling a co-conspirator in the book’s final pages, “Parents always want to manage the narrative instead of letting kids write their own.”