by Alexandra Robbins
Hyperion, 448 pp., $24.95
In 1741, Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot published a comic novella, The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus. Martinus is the unfortunate progeny of Cornelius, a "grave and learned gentleman" who at the time of his son's conception "had already chalked out all possible schemes for the improvement of the male child." Here, wee Marty is taught Greek: "What most conduced to his easy attainment of this language was his love of gingerbread; which his father observing, caused it to be stamped with the letters of the Greek alphabet; and the child the very first day ate as far as iota."
Many college students would recognize their own upbringings in Scriblerus. Educational cookies have been replaced by Suzuki violin lessons and Baby Einstein DVDs, but the principle is the same: Genius is made, not born. Some present-day Scribleri and their extraordinary lives, works, panic attacks, sports injuries, Adderall prescriptions, and troubled home lives are the focus of Alexandra Robbins's The Overachievers.
The title is too charitable. How about The Basketcase Diaries or One Flew Into the Outpatient Clinic? Pope's rigorous academic model is quaint next to Robbins's depiction of how American students are "educated."
"Julie," a high school senior, is a "straight-A student . . . president and co-founder of the Hiking Vikings (named for [Walt Whitman High School's] mascot), a yoga fanatic, a member of the Spanish Honors Society, and a big buddy to a child in a homeless shelter." She also suffers from thinning hair, which her doctors attribute to stress.
No surprise, given that she and her peers are hammered with adult expectations of hard work and competition from nursery school on. Robbins delivers a satire-defying account of a Manhattan private school entrance interview--for four year olds. She later mentions a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) tutor who was hired to prep a 10 year old. "First, do no harm" might be a good place to start.
Health falls by the wayside for Robbins's subjects. The average student's sleep schedule, she reveals, takes a cue from Count Dracula. But even if extra sleep would improve students' health, it wouldn't do anything about the mentality behind the all-nighter epidemic. Notwithstanding a statistic Robbins cites about fatigue-related car accidents, most students survive bad sleep habits. What stays with them is a need to succeed so powerful as to be its own justification for corner-cutting: No time to find a Muslim to interview for your social studies project? Invent one.
The cheating is bad enough, but more disturbing is that these students could find a mere assignment more important than integrity. Can't build a decent toothpick bridge for the physics contest? Instead of buying one from an upperclassman, don't build one. It's not as if anybody has to drive a truck over it. Yet everything is a matter of life or death. Here is Ryland, a junior:
Ryland realized he couldn't endure another period. He skipped his next class to go to the guidance department, where, still shaking, sweating, and crying, his heart racing, he feverishly attempted to cram for the source of his misery: a physics test.
It's difficult for a well-adjusted person to sympathize. While one's first impulse is to point and laugh, Robbins's book conveys with discomfiting clarity that none of this is funny. The "culture of overachieverism" is making madmen, not Renaissance men. Childhood, emotional maturity, and genuine education are sacrificed for "parenting as product development."
Let's think about the products, then. The most affecting of Robbins's portraits is of "AP Frank," a senior when we meet him and a Harvard freshman for most of the book. His nickname comes from his taking a masochistic number of Advanced Placement classes. The study routine followed by AP Frank and his younger brother--strictly enforced by their Korean mother--sounds like something out of a Maoist reeducation center:
Each afternoon . . . they were expected to sit at their desks in their adjacent bedrooms and study, backs to the hallway, doors open. From an office chair stationed in the hall, positioned precisely so that she could see every move the boys made, their mother peered at them over her newspaper. . . . From 2:30 in the afternoon until they went to sleep, with only a quick break for a dinner . . . she watched them.
By the time AP Frank reaches college, his brother lives with a foster family and his parents' marriage has collapsed. Doubtless an extreme case; but it's the just the sort of thing one imagines will happen to the students Robbins shadows. Anyone forced to do something he doesn't love is bound to crack before too long.
This expectation meets a stubborn obstacle: the students themselves. Tellingly, Robbins never wonders how much of the fault lies with them for worrying about trifles. If the teenager is naturally rebellious, why is he weeping in the guidance office? Why not tune in, turn on, and flunk out? It seems that a transformation has occurred in the way children approach the idea of life: They are hell-bent on impressing everyone but themselves. Friends and family are secondary to the nuts and bolts of schooling.
AP Frank posts to his weblog: "Number of time my friends--who are my family--have saved me, rescued me, brought me back from the horror and terror of being alone: 1461." The honest reader is jarred by how loosely the term "friends" is used by a boy who is scarcely allowed out of his house. He fares better at Harvard, even managing to kiss a girl, but still one feels that he has missed out on some of the most important years of his life.
If The Overachievers elicits cruel judgments, it is only because the reader sees how much better it could have been for these kids. Some, like AP Frank, do end up rebelling against their parents or teachers, but an obvious question lingers: What took so long? It shouldn't require health problems, meltdowns, and misery to let one in on the big secret that there's more to life than good grades or admittance to the best college. But it does--because it is a secret.
For much of our adolescent population, life is easy, so there are few ways outside of the school system to gain any sense of validation or self-worth. But everyone wants to feel important, to stake a place in the world. Is it any wonder that young people seize upon that last, ever-narrowing, measure of success--academic distinction?
The trouble with the term "overachiever," though, is that it implies achievement, and there is little of it to be seen in Robbins's account. We are to take it on faith that her subjects' accomplishments are impressive. When the students speak for themselves, the jig is up. High scores and padded resumes can't disguise the boundless banality, sentimentality, and self-pity of which these Ivy-bound wunderkinder are capable.
AP Frank, with apologies to Jack Handey: "I have realized that with every beginning comes an end, that in hatching, the chick destroys the egg." Sam, the future Supreme Court justice: "He could write [his college essay] about witnessing the decision of Lawrence v. Texas . . . where he had watched citizens in the public arena sitting quietly, tears of joy streaming down their faces. . . . Sam considered writing his essay as if he were gay."
Robbins misses the very point that her stellar reporting conveys, which is that these students are at once superficial thinkers and cunning operators. They want glory; when they act against their parents' wishes, it's because they want it on their own terms. They're best at presenting themselves as overachievers, not at doing worthwhile things, least of all at seriously pondering themselves or the world around them.
"Top" students are rarely great at one pursuit. They must be passionate about many things--not only archery and American history, but also the Sousaphone and Meals on Wheels. They love the concept of accomplishment, but it is unlikely that they would care so much without others to observe their ascent. Their humility--"I wish everyone would stop asking about my perfect SAT score, acceptance to Princeton, etc."--rings false.
Robbins hasn't fallen for it; she's orchestrated it. She is, by her own oblique admission, a recovering overachiever, and too close to the problem to see it clearly. Her recommendations for schools, colleges, counselors, and parents might make life more pleasant for overachievers, but that's not enough. Schools can limit the APs a student is permitted to take, but in the student who takes the maximum, you'll still find that hunger for one-upsmanship.
The Overachievers is a lie that tells the truth. Its anecdotes and figures are engineered to throw the best light on students like Alexandra Robbins. These students exist, whether or not in great numbers, and their attitudes are putting obscene pressure on kids who'd rather enjoy learning. Even the student who knows he can't pull it off receives a confusing, deleterious message from the accolades heaped on what is really a special class of showoff. If this seems alarmist or cynical, look no further than the words that conclude the book:
Ryland happily carried the last of the toy bags to his car, which was crammed to the roof with hundreds of gifts that people had donated because he asked them to. . . . He knew that no matter where he ended up, he would get into a college--a good college--where he would get a solid education, learn subjects relevant to his interests, make close friends, try new experiences, and get involved in activities he was passionate about. As Ryland drove away through snow melting in the bright December sun, he was certain that he was going to be just fine.
Everything will be fine, for isn't that what overachievers deserve? Never mind that the quarter of their lives they just lost could have been spent, ahem, getting a solid education, learning subjects relevant to their interests, making close friends. . . . Suffice to say that when Robbins solicits fan mail for the "main characters," some of us will want to save it for the people we remember from high school, who were more worthy of our best and worst feelings than any physics test could have been.
Stefan Beck is a writer in Philadelphia.