New Novel Asks: What Would You Do To Get Your Kid Into 'The Gifted School'?

Jul 6, 2019
Originally published on July 6, 2019 2:28 pm

When Bruce Holsinger heard about the "Operation Varsity Blues" college admissions bribery scandal he admits he felt "a shiver of self-recognition."

"I don't think there's a parent in America who hasn't had anxiety about where their kid goes to school," he says.

In Holsinger's new novel The Gifted School, that anxiety plays out in the fictionalized town of Crystal, Colo., where parents will do just about anything to get their adored and coddled children into a new academy. Only about 1 in every 100 kids will get the highly coveted spots at the Crystal Academy, and Holsinger follows four parents as they angle to give their kids the best chance possible.

"Everybody believes their kids are gifted on some level," Holsinger says. "So what is giftedness? ... How is it assessed? We all want the best for our kids, but we all may be confused in some ways about what that can be."


Interview Highlights

On his reaction to the college admissions scandal

[Actor] Felicity Huffman — her behavior might seem really out of proportion — it might seem that we would never do anything like that, but you could imagine that it was love that drove her ... it was a desire for her kids to succeed.

What she did was felonious — of course not all of us are committing felonies to try to get our kids into a good school — but there's a sense that parents will stop at nothing, and in The Gifted School I wanted to explore that dynamic. I wanted to think about the ways that all parents will push that envelope.

On whether the novel mirrors his own experience

The novel is set in a fictionalized town but it's loosely based on Boulder, Colo., which is where I taught for a number of years and that's where our kids were born. It's the kind of place where pressure parenting is the name of the game. I think from when our kids were young we really perceived that kind of culture of parental competitiveness and, yeah, I think it's inevitable that it affects the way you parent.

On the parents in the novel

Rose — who's the central protagonist of the novel — she's a pediatric neurologist, a very high powered scientist also a medical doctor. In her day job ... she thinks about children's brains, she thinks about child development. And so I wanted to think about the relationship between what she does in the lab, looking at brain cells, dissecting mice, and what she does at home — which is thinking very much about the intelligence of her daughter.

She has three close friends — one is Samantha Zellar who is a stay-at-home mom. She comes from a very wealthy family and she is the kind of model of privilege and is the kind of queen bee of their group.

There's another friend Azra who is a native Crystal-ite. She grew up there, she owns a kind of vintage/used clothing store in downtown Boulder. She is divorced from her ex-husband Beck who's kind of a Bernie Bro type. And they have two boys twins who are star soccer players.

And then the final of the four friends is Lauren. She's a widow — she has two kids: one is Xander who's a chess prodigy and the other is Tessa who is a troubled teen. She's just out of rehab. She's vlogging with her rehab buddies and you see those vlog posts as you read the novel.

On Rose jeopardizing her career – and more – in her effort to get her daughter into the academy

Not only that, but Rose also jeopardizes one of her closest friendships — in fact, several of her closest friendships. And one of the things I wanted to explore in the novel is that tight relationship between friendship and parenting and the conflict that those two can often present.

On kids absorbing their parents' anxiety

The kids in the gifted school are intensely anxious and one of the things that they're very anxious about is ... what their parents think of them. They want to succeed because their parents want them to succeed. The novel opens with what I tried to write as a very kind of dark suspenseful scene of ... [one of the kids ] taking an IQ test. A very — to her mother anyway — a very high-stakes IQ test. When the novel opens she's filling in a bubble sheet. And so I wanted to think about pressure from the ground up, from the pencil up.

On whether the kids actually want to go to this school

It seems like a fantastic opportunity — the parents are excited about it. They're excited about small class sizes, they're excited about what the next thing their kids can get might be. But, really, do the kids want to go? Do the kids want to take that IQ test? Do they want to put their admissions portfolios together? In that sense it goes to that larger theme of: What parents ask their kids to do that the kids might not be willing to do themselves.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We go now to the lovely city of Crystal, Colo., where parents will do just about anything to get their adored and coddled children into a new academy for only the most intelligent and talented students. Sounds familiar, thanks to the college admissions scandal involving, for example, two famous actresses, multiple CEOs, real estate investors and a fashion designer. But Crystal is a fictional place where the novel "The Gifted School" takes place. And Bruce Holsinger is the author. Good morning.

BRUCE HOLSINGER: Good morning. It's wonderful to be here.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, lovely to have you. What was your reaction to hearing of the real-life college admissions scandal?

HOLSINGER: Well, I suppose like everyone reading the news, I felt a shiver of self-recognition because I don't think there's a parent in America who hasn't had anxiety about, you know, where their kid goes to school. Felicity Huffman, her behavior might seem really out of proportion. It might seem that, you know, we would never do anything like that, but you could imagine that it was, you know, love that drove her in some ways. It was a desire for her kids to succeed.

What she did was felonious, of course. Not all of us are committing felonies to try to get our kids into a good school. But, you know, there is a sense that parents will stop at nothing. And in "The Gifted School," I wanted to explore that dynamic. I wanted to think about the ways that all parents will push that envelope.

MONTAGNE: The novel focuses on a middle and high school called Crystal Academy. There's a group of four mothers, best friends, who are dead set on getting their own kids admitted. Give us a brief portrait of them. They're very distinct.

HOLSINGER: Yes, absolutely. So Rose, who's the central protagonist of the novel, she's a pediatric neurologist, a very high-powered scientist, also a medical doctor. And then she has three close friends. One is Samantha Zeller, who is a stay-at-home mom. She comes from a very wealthy family and is the kind of queen bee of their group. There's another friend, Azra, who is divorced from her ex-husband Beck, who's kind of a Bernie Bro type. And they have two boys, twins, who are star soccer players. And then the final of the four friends is Lauren. And she's a widow. She has two kids. One is Xander, who's a chess prodigy, and the other is Tessa, who is a troubled teen. She's just out of rehab. She's vlogging with her rehab buddies. And you see those vlog posts as you read the novel.

MONTAGNE: These mothers, and other characters, they'll go to almost any length. After Emma Zeller doesn't score high enough on her IQ admissions tests, her father tries to get her an ADHD exemption, which is...

HOLSINGER: That's right.

MONTAGNE: ...One of the things that we were hearing about in the real-life scandal.

HOLSINGER: That's right. That's right. And there's another parallel. You know, it's that idea of using your position in order to - I guess, you know, you could call it privilege hoarding - in order to buy advantage - more advantage for your child. And in "The Gifted School," Kev - that's Emma Zeller's dad - he's a member of city council. He's a powerful businessman in the community. And he uses that influence to accrue advantages for her.

MONTAGNE: Now, who are these parents really doing all of this for, do you...

HOLSINGER: Well...

MONTAGNE: ...Suggest?

HOLSINGER: ...There's the question. You wonder if these kids in "The Gifted School" really want to go to this school, to Crystal Academy. You know, it seems like a fantastic opportunity. The parents are excited about it. They're excited about small class sizes. They're excited about, you know, what the next thing their kids can get might be. But really, do the kids want to go? Do the kids want to take that IQ test? The novel opens with what I tried to write as a very kind of dark, suspenseful scene of Emma Z, one of the two Emma's - Emma Zeller...

MONTAGNE: The two little girls.

HOLSINGER: ...Take...

MONTAGNE: The little girls.

HOLSINGER: That's right.

MONTAGNE: And these are all...

HOLSINGER: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: ...By the way, about 11 and 12-year-olds.

HOLSINGER: Yeah, they're rising sixth-graders, these kids. And so the novel opens with Emma taking an IQ test, a very, to her mother anyway, a very high-stakes IQ test. When the novel opens, she's filling in a bubble sheet. And so I wanted to think about pressure from the ground up, from the pencil up.

MONTAGNE: Well, I also wonder, does it reflect anything you've seen in the mirror with your own children?

HOLSINGER: Yes. Now, the novel is set in a fictionalized town, but it's loosely based on Boulder, Colo., which is where I taught for a number of years. And that's where our kids were born. It's the kind of place where pressure-parenting is the name of the game. And so, you know, I think from when our kids were young, we really perceived that kind of culture of parental competitiveness. And, yeah, I think it's inevitable that it affects the way you parent.

MONTAGNE: Yeah, it's hard to not want your kid to be a genius (laughter) from the start...

HOLSINGER: Yeah, of course.

MONTAGNE: ...In some form.

HOLSINGER: Well, and that's why the story is, in some ways - it's about all of us because everybody believes their kids are gifted on some level. So what is giftedness? You know, how is - again, how is it assessed? We all want the best for our kids, but we all may be confused in some ways about what that can be.

MONTAGNE: Writer Bruce Holsinger's new novel is "The Gifted School." Thank you very much for joining us.

HOLSINGER: Absolutely. It's been a pleasure, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.