The halls are quieter than I remember. Longer, too. At least I left my four-inch business heels at home, buried under a mound of dirty clothing. Or maybe they're tucked beneath the beige IKEA desk, tangled around an errant set of earbuds. Or by the Craigslist couch I spend three nights a week sleeping on because I can't find the energy to turn off the TV and climb into bed.
The lockers are smaller; not that I have much to put away. My lunch today consists of two Go-gurts and three turkey meatballs in a plastic tub. This isn't part of the act, just the final scrapings of what I had in my fridge.
The best part about pretending to be a teenager again is that I never really stopped being one in the first place.
My Chuck Taylors are much quieter on the marble floor. In fact, I'm such a sneaky fake teen I manage to startle the woman behind the counter in the main office. I have to pretend to clear my throat before she notices me, and even then she jumps and reflexively pushes her computer mouse away, as if her attention to the details on the screen have somehow hurt her by not preparing her for this moment.
I stand, silently at first, shifting on the balls of my feet as I wait to be addressed. When the heavyset woman is finished shooting me her heart attack eyes, she asks rather briskly what can she do for me? I tell her I'm a new transfer student, and I reach in my jacket for the forged transcripts I only just printed from my HP InkJet thirty minutes before. I hope the ink had time to dry.
The office woman, already embarrassed by her reaction and annoyed by my presence, takes little more than a cursory glance over my shoddy forgeries before heading back to her computer. A few clicks and a crash or two on the spacebar, and I've got my homeroom settled. A few more mouse swipes later and all the hard work, the planning, the strategizing is done. Now it's time to settle in for the hard stuff.
At 27 years old, with a waifish frame and diminutive demeanor, I have just become the newest member of the Brookens Preparatory High School graduating class, right here in St. Petersburg, FL.
I am a journalist. My name, for the next few months at least, is Natasha Endall.
Being a teenager in America is really hard. That must be why all the rich foreign families want to send their kids here to grow up: they appreciate a challenge.
By every measurable statistic, the American education system is failing our children. Test scores in New Hampshire, a state once considered to be a shining beacon of the benefits of state-sponsored education reform, have fallen year over year in nearly every category since 2009. In Texas, access to alternative education facilities have been so severely hamstrung by line-item politics that one o ut of every seven children will leave high school as a functional illiterate. In old port and steel towns like Jacksonville, FL, Dearborn, MI, and Sandusky, OH, almost 40% of children living in households earning less than $75,000 a year will drop out of school and never return.
If you think these numbers are staggering, you're not alone. All across America and on the steps of Congress, marches have taken place, cafeteria sit-ins have occurred, pamphlets have been handed out. But with a penniless national government unwilling to intercede on states rights and local leaders already cutting general services to the bone, what's to be done? Even transparent politicians and educational activists will look you dead in the eye and give you the truth: there simply isn't any money.
Just don't tell that to Mark Bunkley, dean of Brookens Preparatory High School. Here in St. Petersburg, Brookens is a shining star, a well-funded example of the inherent power of capitalism. The leafy suburban campus claims just 780 students across grades 9 — 12, with average class sizes no larger than fifteen kids. In Little Rock, AR, sixty percent of the city's students spend their days in a series of temporary classroom modules, thirty-five kids a period. These modules are the sort of pick-up-and-go shelter solutions that arrive out of nowhere when a disaster strikes. But with two of the three largest high schools stalling for cash on long-overdue renovations, the biggest disaster may well be the state budget.
At Brookens, each desk is outfitted with Microsoft PixelSense technology, a digital touchpad that allows for instant file transfer among devices, as well as video programming and interactive learning applications. That's why the lockers are so small; the only thing students need to haul from class to class are flash drives, which hang on lanyards from around their necks like royal jewels of the educational elite.
And elite, they are. At $53,000 a year per head, the uniformed boys and girls who race through the tile halls at Brookens are some of the most monetarily gifted students in the world. Dean Bunkley assures us that it's all being put to very good use.
“The vast majority of tuition is returned to the students”, say Bunkley over the phone. “Often, it's in the form of physical property, like their uniforms and flash memory sticks. Some of it comes back to them by way of the faculty, where we continue to actively and aggressively pursue the best educators in America. Much of the rest of the money goes towards resources, like our digital library or the recent addition of a wheelchair-accessible high dive for a few of our more strategically-challenged students.”
All of this money, this stuff, serves a singular purpose: to better prepare each one of the 780 enrolled students for an eventual life of luxury and privilege. Brookens remains the single biggest preparatory school for secondary educational institutions like Brown, Penn, Tufts, Wellesley, Vanderbilt, Yale and Princeton. Basically, if your college only goes by a one-word name, odds are that you got there by starting out at Brookens.
So what's it like for these students? In a nation of falling averages and broken school systems, they are given the best and expected to thrive. What if they don't? Or — worse — what if they choose not to? With so much handed to them and so much demanded in return, defining success may go beyond the measurables of any state exam.
As a new kid, the first week is always the worst. You haven't mastered the layout of the buildings, so you're constantly searching for familiar landmarks or numerical indicators. To everyone else, you seem like a gaunt woman-child stumbling around with a mix of fear and confusion on your face. Whatever it is, you clearly don't belong in the pack.
Being real-life 27 and fake-kid 17 means that you have a lot of reading to catch up on. Or, rather, TV watching. Within two hours, I realize that my paperback copy of The Catcher in the Rye is not only not going to get me a conversation, it's exactly the sort of reading material an adult masquerading as a teen would trudge out. In my itchy uniform and canvas sneakers, I feel like one of those aliens that landed on Earth and took over the body of a human. I'm walking around, pretending like everything's cool and I totally fit in, when really I'm a mess of jutting elbows and mixed signals. In the rare instances I find myself engaging with a student, I realize that I'm not talking about the things that high schoolers talk about, I'm actually only talking about the things I think high schoolers are talking about. And the knowledge gap is widening.
No one bothered to make pretend-me an It Gets Better video, but that's still exactly what happened. In a fit of self-pity, I threw out the Laguna Beach DVDs I had mistakenly assumed people were still obsessing over, and spent a night in my crappy studio apartment drinking red wine and trying to remember the Pythagorean theorem. The next morning, with my first ever pre-high school hangover, I was paired up with Jeremy* (*not his real name) to compare homework. His was encased on an iPad, a digital version of the sloppy five-subject notebook I was still toting around. As his thick fingers easily scrolled through the PDF file, I couldn't help but notice how meticulous he was. All of his answers were fully worked through, with expandable bullet points if any portion needed further explaining.
We bonded over my notebook, a ”˜relic' he kept laughingly referring to. When the few scant pages of the homework I had attempted came up, Jeremy noted dryly that one of my pages bore a red wine stain in the bottom corner. He laughed, deeply for a boy, and told me that math nearly drove him to drink sometimes, too. Then he asked me where I'd ”˜scored the handle' of wine, and in lieu of telling him I bought it myself, I chuckled wistfully and changed the subject.
Through Jeremy I met Tina, the spunky blonde cheerleader who seemed to want to know everything about my sex life. Maybe things are different in the near-decade since I barely graduated my rural middle school, but I was shocked at the assumption that teens are just rampantly orgasming all over St. Petersburg. If Tina's constant enquiries were any indication, real-me was getting a lot less play than fake-me could have, with a little more eyeliner and few inches off the length of my school-issued skirt.
By winter break, I felt like a kid again, with the only exception to the clichÃ© being that I actually was supposed to be a kid. Again. My small crew of Tina the now-popular cheerleader and Jeremy the bookworm had blossomed to include Trent the goth kid and Martin, the Austrian foreign exchange student who always seemed so shy that he never took his hands out of his pants.
We weren't exactly the Breakfast Club, but in a school full of privilege, we were probably the closest thing to it. Not that any of these kids had ever heard of the Breakfast Club.
My reincarnation as a Brookens Preparatory senior was beginning to give me more closure on my own teen past than I had anticipated. The modest high school story I grew up living was littered with hookup failures and misguided attempts to seem cool. Once, in tenth grade, I became utterly convinced that a senior boy named Luke Grasznor was going to ask me to the prom, based purely on the fact that one day in the hall he told me that he liked the way I smelled. I stopped showering for two weeks, with the implicit idea that you can never have too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to stench. In the end, Trent asked out a ninth grade girl whose parents had just emigrated from Bratislava. If you can't out-stink a girl from the Eastern bloc, what chance do you have?
But by early spring at Brookens, the lies were beginning to compound themselves. It's one thing to tell a bunch of high schoolers that your parents work for Enterprise Rent-A-Car and that's why you got moved to St. Petersburg for your senior year of high school. It's quite another to look your best friend Jeremy in the face and act like you don't know who or what the Rugrats are, or that you were too young to remember Kid Rock's early hits.
I often found myself jotting down scraps of stories I had told this person or that person in my five-subject notebook, a penciled in look at the frayed edges of the truth. Stories only became more problematic when I blended them with my own true history as a way to keep myself sane. Natasha Endall was becoming something more than just a one-year figment. She was, in ways, becoming me. And, to my surprise, I was also becoming her.
With Jeremy, it never seemed like work. For a high schooler, he seemed so much older and wiser than the other kids that it put my ageist ideas to rest. He was kind and compassionate well beyond his years, with a genuine concern for my occasional post-work drinks that he (rightfully) thought of as post-high school trouble signs. Tina, for all of her chirpy quirks, quickly made herself a confidant, always pushing at the edges of the envelope that contained my growing relationship with Jeremy.
Trent the goth, constantly clad in black and spouting anti-establishment rhetoric whenever possible, became a close friend if only at his own insistence. Outside of this job, my liberal leanings wouldn't have extended as far as Trent's dangerous talk of bully redemption and sacrificial heroism. Yet there was something strangely satisfying about the way he was able to sum up Brookens so succinctly. On more than one occasion, Trent and I would drive to the Sonic and share some tater tots, while I checked my phone and he categorized all the cliques of kids he's go after first in the event of a school shooting.
Martin, the foreign exchange student, wouldn't stop making sexual advances at me.
The pressure that American students feel often manifests itself in odd ways. For all of our deep discussions and sacrosanct confessions to each other, the group of teens that I had befriended rarely seemed engrossed in the truth. Rather, much like millions of high schoolers across the nation, they undoubtedly locked in to a self-preservation instinct, where underlying truths and bared wounds leave nothing but permanent emotional scars.
Besides Jeremy's mathematical wizardry, none of us were particularly bright students. At times, it felt like we were all going through the motions of a high school educational experience, no doubt zombified by the years of institutionalized neglect that had preceded our senior year. Why, with so many tools at their disposal, were four otherwise bright teenagers on the verge of failing out of one of the most gifted programs in the nation? And why was this happening all over the United States?
Answering that question requires a short lesson on policy. Since the mid 1950's, the United States federal government has repeatedly decided to stay out of state politics on the issue of education. While different testing methodologies across state lines have sown confusion and frustration with many high level analysts looking to correlate student aptitude with school systems, most research seems to miss the point. It's not how a student is tested, but why. And with no concrete nationwide governing body to assertively answer these and other tough questions, the students of America may not get an answer to their educational woes any time soon.
For Brookens, the path seems clear. Graduate, coast into a New England scholastic powerhouse for four to seven years and glide out the other side with a slick diploma and the seal of economic approval. Yet nearly every high school alumnus interviewed for this story (most of whom declined to speak on the record) expressed a level of measured disappointment at the process that had been handed to them. Money, it seems, may not directly equal rising test scores after all.
What is true, is this: students raised inside upper-class homes simply have more opportunities to interact and succeed on a group level. From polo to Easter egg hunts, these children are constantly rubbing elbows with rich, experienced members of society, or congregating with like-minded peers outside of the classroom. This socialization, more than anything, is the reason why students succeed.
There is a Mason-Dixon line of poverty, where the bottom drops out on the educational experience, and it's just above $52,000 a year per household. Any more, and your successful path into the world of business is all but assured. Any less, and your chances of rising above gas station attendant at some point in your career start to plummet. Again, money is the indicator, but it's not the cause. With fewer opportunities to interact and build a successful group foundation (be it due to a series of necessary summer jobs, or the rural expanse making regular group functions difficult), the rich will become more socially fulfilled, educationally richer, and monetarily wealthier as a result.
More than anything, that's why this group of teens I had ashamedly come to identify with seemed to fail. All of us were one-year transfer students, including Martin from Austria, who didn't quite understand the temporary nature of his stay, and kept on insisting I marry him.
Like almost every other teen high school experience, the one-year experiment of Natasha Endall became focused on the prom. It seemed only natural, after all, that the culmination of a year's worth of undercover work would happen on the one night when everyone agreed to become someone else entirely, done up in dresses and tuxedos that otherwise seem so foreign.
Over the seven months that I had become embedded at Brookens Preparatory High School, I had begun to feel the sort of pressures and commitments that I had largely pushed from my memory in the decade since my previous high school experiences. Especially here, in the warm underbelly of a dying system, the latent insistence that we all must somehow act as tentpoles of success for education in America was overwhelming. As we neared the inevitable awkwardness of the senior prom, each of us grew more fractured. It seems that no one escapes high school truly unscathed, regardless of his or her money shield.
Trent's passing discussions of school shootings had grown more fervent. When he managed to drop an entire notebook full of diagrams and printed pages on homemade nail bombs, I grew concerned. The intense toll of a year at the nation's most well regarded prep school was beginning to take its toll.
Tina had become obsessed not just with my (non-existent) sex life, she had meticulously charted the teen exploits of every other cheerleader on her squad. At one point, I walked in on her in the digital library, graphing the information and whispering furious bits of information into a tape recorder. In the high stakes arena of private education, Tina had begun focusing on the trivialities to spite her education.
Even Jeremy had begun to show the signs of wear and tear after a rigorous year at Brookens. He began to routinely accuse me and other teens of binge drinking, but would promise not to tell if we spilled the beans on where we'd gotten the booze. I tried to explain to him that a small amount of high school drinking was to be expected, but the always mathematical Jeremy seemed convinced that a larger problem existed. Typical avoidance.
Martin, the Austrian exchange student, was so out of place in this teen pressure cooker that he had been put on probation for accidentally wandering into the women's changing rooms during a swim meet. When Dean Bunkley found him, he'd taken almost every piece of underwear in the entire locker room and stuffed them into the front of his shirt, out of fear. Poor Martin.
We were all on the edge, ready to burst away from the forces surrounding us, demanding more. My routine reports to my editor had become sporadic, and even when they arrived the parcels of information seemed nearly indecipherable.
There are a dozen places like Brookens throughout America, but they aren't educational facilities. They're practically internment camps, where friendship and meaningful relationships come at such a high price, the mental debt can be overwhelming.
Maybe I couldn't save the dozen other Brookenses in California or Oregon or New Hampshire. I couldn't even save the other 776 uniformed high schoolers around me. But, maybe, if I told the truth, I could save these four misfits that I had come to love.
Sitting next to the dumpsters out behind the squash building on prom night, my secondhand pink dress tattering at the shoulders, I burst into tears. I told Jeremy and Trent and Tina and Martin everything, from the day I got my assignment through that very first day, with the Converse sneakers and the Go-gurts. I explained to them about my reports to my editor, my obsessive use of my camera during our intimate moments of friendship.
I revealed to them that I wasn't really Natasha Endall.
And that I wasn't really 18.
It turns out, neither were they.
Jeremy is not Jeremy. He is a 24-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter, doing an extended piece on teenage drinking. His math skills are a natural byproduct of his job staring at graphs and spreadsheets all day, and he was convinced that his hard-hitting piece on the underlying alcoholism affecting today's affluent teens would break him away from the monotony forever. Instead, all he got was me, an occasional wine abuser with one too many red wine stains on her homework.
Tina is not Tina. She is an up-and-coming junior editor at Vanity Fair, and she's actually a very spry 32. Her cheerleader demeanor wasn't entirely an accident — she worked sideline gigs throughout college and even spent a year moving her body for money at Boise Arena Football League games. Now, she is firmly entrenched in the politics of slick magazine writing, and an explosive piece detailing the sexual exploits of upper-crust teens is exactly the sort of thing that shoots you to the top of the CondÃ© Naste ladder.
Martin the Austrian exchange student is actually Marvin Kholicky, a convicted sexual predator who is now currently serving 17 years at a medium security facility outside of Jacksonville for his time spent at Brookens Preparatory High School. In an oddly perverse way, he was truly the most honest of us all.
Most shocking of all, Mr. Bunkley announced on stage at prom to being Alex Karras, the acclaimed actor behind the lovable George Papadapolis character from hit 80's TV show Webster. He is currently on trial for fraud and improper use of state funds.
Being a teenager in America is really hard. What's easy, apparently, is pretending to be a teenager. I did it for several months, living amongst a youth that I felt disconnected with yet deeply longed for. I thought that I could fool them all into believing I belonged, so that they'd treat me as an equal and let me into their world. I wanted to understand why America's children were failing out at such staggering rates. And in my blinding search for acceptance, I became the most deceived. ♦