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 élite.

And élite, 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 cliché 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 Condé 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. ♦