Many New York City private-school kids went to the same second-tier Ivy, the University of Pennsylvania, as I did. They were a strange breed; as early as freshman year, even the unattractive and the boring carried themselves with a breezy sense of self-entitlement and contempt for others. They joined all the “good” fraternities; dated girls named Britney and Ally (the types who, I noticed, ordered their Chinese food sauces “on the side”); and, having failed to get into Wharton, majored in economics at the liberal-arts college.
One of these boys lived in my hall, and halfway through the first year he was caught cheating. This seemed very scary to me. Having gone to public school, I envisioned a catastrophic fate for the young man: his parents arriving with tear-stained cheeks and baseball bats, Britney and Ally backing out of their dates to the formal, social banishment, expulsion, early death.
Instead he stuck around, attended many, many sorority parties and ended up at New York University Law School, then and now the No. 4 law school in the country. He was back where he belonged, just a ways downtown from his teenage alma mater, the apparent foundation of his character, Horace Mann.
Who else besides this cheater went to Horace Mann? Eliot Spitzer, Jay Cantor, Robert Caro, Alan Furst, E.J. Kahn, Jack Kerouac, Ira Levin, Kenneth Pollack, James Salter, William Carlos Williams, Roy Cohn, the Fonz, a Murdoch, a Newhouse … lots of guys. And writers! Some very good writers. Then there’s Roy Cohn, and the media people. But like most good schools, all in all, an estimable lot.
Into the mix, throw Andrew Trees, a 37-year-old Horace Mann history teacher and the author of Academy X, a novel billed as a “devilish satire of the culture of power and privilege at a New York City private school.” Mr. Trees was known as “Anonymous” while Academy X was in galleys, possibly because he didn’t want to get fired, more likely to stir up a succès de scandale. His identity was dramatically revealed in conjunction with the release of the finished book.
Now that we know who he is and where he teaches, it seems silly that the book isn’t called Horace Mann—someone might mistake the school for Dalton!
(In The New York Sun, Mr. Trees denied that his fictional “academy” is in fact Horace Mann, but admits that “it definitely draws on my experiences here.” He himself attended Deerfield Academy.)
Publicity scam aside, it’s natural to expect good things from an insider’s account of private-school life. These places, such as Spence and Fieldston and Trinity, are notoriously hard to crack, so protective are administrators of their disturbingly sophisticated youngsters and the institutional policies that enable their dysfunction. And only someone like Mr. Trees, who is witness to the everyday goings-on, can get beyond the clichés. Money, youth, competition, parental insanity, immorality, bad romance, drugs, lost innocence—what does it really sound like in those halls? Are elite private-school parents any more corrupt than the small-town folks who sweet-talk the football coach from the sidelines?
Probably. But Academy X isn’t the book that will prove that point. It’s the predictable story of a sad-sack English teacher named John Spencer who finds himself embroiled in a battle of wills and morals between the administration, his comely students and their comely parents. Caitlyn, a beautiful student in ill-fitting clothes, plagiarizes an essay; parents and deans alike come to her defense, with bribes; Mr. Spencer almost loses his job trying to win hearts and minds, all while lusting after the librarian.
Mr. Spencer’s world is “an ethical wonderland in which up is down, and right is wrong. Where it is not who you are but who you know, not what you do but what you have.” At his school, “things are not so simple here for children—or for parents, many of whom treat the education of their children as a competitive sport.” And: “love may make the world go round, but in New York the axis it turns on is money.” The staleness of these observations has the unintended and unsettling effect of suggesting that perhaps these schools aren’t so bad after all. Or maybe I’ve lived in New York for too long.
Dazed, perhaps, by dreams of Nanny Diaries–style success, Mr. Trees relies too much on his potentially bankable gimmick. He gives us easy caricatures rather than hard-won details about the real life parading in front of him in baby tees.
Speaking of the Baby Gwyneths, there are a few things to learn from Master Trees. One is that male teachers, especially those just a few years shy of legally dating these girls, suffer deeply in this hormone hothouse. I’ve often wondered about this, and it’s true: They can’t help but think about sex all the time, poor things. Mr. Spencer, for example, must desperately focus on a poster of Freud whenever Caitlyn speaks. Forget the crazy parents—what torture to be a grown man in school!
The other revelation—not news, but still a shock—is this: Private school costs $27,000 a year. New Yorkers, still suffocating in the real-estate bubble, will reflexively ask the 21st-century question yet again: Where, dear God, is all the money coming from?
But here’s some consolation. Caitlyn, the rich, hot plagiarist, desperately wanted to go to Princeton. Her father’s love depended on it. With a late burst of wicked accuracy, Mr. Trees condemns her instead to the University of Pennsylvania.
Suzy Hansen is a senior editor at The Observer.