Read Admission Online

Authors: Jean Hanff Korelitz

Admission (5 page)

“Oh, I love coming here,” she said heartily. “The kids are so articulate.”

“Yes, they certainly are. They’re happy kids. It’s a happy campus.”

“Yes,” she agreed, because it seemed like the appropriate response. She made eye contact with her orange blanket applicant,
and Joanne, and told the director’s daughter that she was looking forward to her application. Then they were outside in the
bright midday sun.

“I remember this smell of burning leaves,” she said as he walked her to the parking lot. “I think all of New England burns
leaves the same week.”

“It’s a decree!” Roden said. Like her, he was killing time. “So where are you off to now?”

“Oh, Keene. I’m crossing the border.”

“Public school?” he asked. There was an edge of hopefulness. It was bad enough that she should bestow her favors on any other
school but Deerfield. He did not, in particular, wish to share her with his students’ most direct competitors: applicants
from Northfield Mount Hermon, Groton, St. Paul’s.

“No. It’s a new school, actually. I think they’ve only been going a couple of years. Outside of Keene. Wait a minute.”

They were beside her rental car now. She opened up the passenger door and put her satchel on the seat. Then she leaned down
and hunted out the downloaded directions. “Quest School. Do you know it?”

“Never heard of it,” he said with notable relief. “Experimental? Sounds experimental.”

“I actually don’t know anything about it. It’s a first visit for us. And we haven’t had any applications so far.”

“Ah.” He seemed even more relieved to hear this. “Well, good to know what’s out there.”

“Absolutely.” She put out her hand. “Thank you again, I think it was a very successful visit, and I can’t wait to start reading
the applications.”

“Yes. And one or two I’ll be writing to you about.”

“I’ll look forward to it.”

He waited to wave as she drove away, a piece of arcane protocol about how the departing representative of the desirable college
must be the one to break contact. Portia knew it had nothing at all to do with her. Their interaction had been thoroughly
predictable, professional, impersonal. Only a couple of times, in fact, over sixteen years had Portia felt any real connection
with the college advisers she’d dealt with, and both times the locale had been thoroughly remote, both in the geographic sense
and in terms of Princeton’s reach. The first was in the Central Valley of California, where the overwhelmed guidance counselor
was herself newly graduated from community college and responsible for nearly six hundred seniors, many of them the kids of
laborers or Hmong immigrants; the second took place in Sitka, Alaska, where she was the first Ivy League admissions officer
ever to materialize, and the effusive guidance counselor had roused the entire PTA to throw a potluck in her honor, complete
with dried bearded seal meat—an indelible culinary experience. (Portia could only imagine the potluck they must have thrown
five years later, when the student she’d recruited on that trip had won her Rhodes scholarship.) Those two counselors had
both moved on to other jobs, but Portia still thought of them. There had been time for human contact in their conversations,
in their inelegant cinder-block offices, on rickety folding chairs, across laden Formica desks. She still remembered their
names and didn’t doubt those women could produce her own. But William Roden would retain only one fact about her from this
meeting: that she represented Princeton. She might have been lacquered in ivy and leading a tiger, Portia thought, driving
west from Deerfield and winding north into the woods. He would not remember her face, or the fact that she had grown up nearby,
or indeed anything personal about her. It was a good thing she had given him her business card. When it came time to get in
touch on behalf of those “one or two” students he’d mentioned, he would undoubtedly need to reacquaint himself with her name.

I would have to say that I have been inspired the most by my older brother, Tim. Tim was diagnosed with a tumor in his lower
leg when he was 14 years old. I remember when our parents explained to him that doctors would have to remove his leg. He was
incredibly brave. He just said, “It’s all right. I know it has to be done.” After the amputation, Tim worked tirelessly to
rebuild his strength and learn to use his new prosthesis. He eventually joined his high school lacrosse team and now plays
lacrosse at UNH. His fortitude and perseverance have been the greatest inspiration to me, and I hope to follow in his footsteps
at college and beyond.

CHAPTER TWO

I
NSPIRATION
W
AY

A
s borders went, Massachusetts/New Hampshire was not particularly dramatic. There were no long bridges to cross or welcome
centers waiting just past the line, with placards declaring the name of the governor. There weren’t even any highways in this
part of the state, only the lacy network of smaller roads bound from wood to wood, some of them the descendants of far more
primitive roads from a time before the borders themselves. Even so, this reddest of red states had always felt like a very
foreign land to Portia, or so she had been taught to feel in the bluest of blue states she was about to leave. Vermont was
Massachusetts’s natural sibling, its cousin up north. One drove up to Vermont to visit friends, and friends of friends, and
to attend music festivals and solar energy festivals and peace festivals. But nobody you knew lived in New Hampshire, land
of Live Free or Die. Over there they were too busy incubating right-wing politicians and shooting their guns to take much
of a look at solar energy or—God forbid—peace.

Many years before, it had come as something of a shock to Portia when she’d realized, crossing the Connecticut River en route
to her Dartmouth interview, that she had never actually been to New Hampshire. So close and yet, to a girl raised in counterculture
splendor by a mother who was gynocentric in all but her sexuality, an utterly foreign country. As in:
Why would anyone want to go there?

“Why would you want to go there?” her mother would indeed demand six months later. (She was referring to Dartmouth in particular.)
Cornell was pretty. It had gorges. Portia had also gotten into Barnard. Wellesley. There was always UMass just up the road.
But Dartmouth was a school of louts and bullies in a state of louts and bullies. Who needed it?

I need it, Portia had thought. “It will be good for me,” she had said.
If we’re always surrounded by people like ourselves, how can we grow? How can we effect change?
She might not have actually said this part, but she was thinking it, or trying to be brave enough to think it. Because what
she had really been thinking was unspeakable in the presence of her mother. She had been remembering how, on her college tour,
skirting the lovely Green on which freshmen were building their towering stack of railroad ties for a traditional bonfire—one
tie for each of the ninety-one years of their ’91 class—she had had a powerful surge of feeling. There had been a sense of
great order, great beauty, with tendrils of that elusive thing
Tradition
wafting around the handsome students, like the smoke that would itself unfurl from those railroad ties a few days hence.
The Dartmouth girls were—to a one—skinny and graceful, some degree of blond. The Dartmouth boys were not like the boys in
her high school, who had mottled complexions and, more likely than not, hair tied back. Instead, they were like the students
she sometimes saw on the Amherst College campus, where the past year or so she had developed a nervous habit of walking, or
masquerading, to see if she could pass. (Amherst, in fact, would be the only college to reject her: a bitter, bitter pill.)
But here were the same boys, two hours north, with perhaps an extra layer of clothing against the cooler air. And so, when
the decision had to be made, she drew on the full complement of rational ammunition for her mother—the stunning campus, the
brilliant faculty, the Ivy League, for Christ’s sake!—and hid the absolute truth. The truth was, she wanted to be one of those
girls. And she wanted those boys.

Portia would spend most of the next decade in the state of New Hampshire, first as a student and later in her first admissions
job, which was also at Dartmouth and where her first assigned territory was northern New England. In those years, she would
come to know every nook and cranny of the state, charged as she was not to miss a single promising native son (or daughter)
who might not be with it enough to think of applying to Dartmouth. (The college had always looked out for its own backyard,
an academic noblesse oblige that went back to its Daniel Webster days.) In those years she drove every road, paved or not,
from the Presidentials to the shopping outlets along the Maine border, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it coastline, the prosperous
little towns in the south. She might not remember the names of the roads, but she knew where they went, and she had been on
this one before. There was, in fact, a distinct familiarity to the asphalt line coiling through forest, its spent foliage
littering the roadsides, and the faint smell of burning leaves in the car.

MapQuest hadn’t been entirely encouraging in its directions to the Quest School. There was something in the street address
(One Inspiration Way) the Web site hadn’t liked, and Portia had read with some resignation the usual admonition to do a “reality
check” to confirm the existence of the roads and intersections. She hadn’t done it, though. The town, North Plain, seemed
likely to be small, and she figured the locals would know the way, if it came to that; but as she passed through Keene and
north into deeper woods, she started to get a little concerned. It was nearly two, the time of her appointment, and she wasn’t
sure where she was headed or where she was.

When she found a gas station she pulled in, but her cell phone couldn’t get a signal. The teenage boy tending the gas pumps
had never heard of Quest School, or Inspiration Way, for that matter, but the man whose gas he was pumping said, “Wait, it’s
that hippie school, right?”

“I couldn’t say,” Portia said. “I’m afraid that’s all the information I have.”

“Oh,” said the kid. “I know that place. It’s up towards Gilsum, right? They took over that big dairy barn and fixed it up.
I heard they, like, keep the cows.”

“Yeah?” the man asked. “Why?”

The kid didn’t know. Portia didn’t know.

“Can you tell me how to get there?” she asked.

They told her. The drive wasn’t long, but it was complex. The directions involved a red barn, a hex sign, and a new house
with blue shutters. She listened with a sinking heart, calculating: twenty minutes late, at least; half an hour, more likely.
Portia drove away. She found the red barn and then the hex sign, and made the appropriate turns. The road turned dirt. There
were no new houses with blue shutters. There was no Inspiration Way.

But there was, to her great surprise, a large sign for the Quest School mounted on rustic logs at a crossroad in the woods.
It looked handmade, like a student project. She turned down the lane indicated (an unmarked lane, but indeed—she supposed—Inspiration
Way) and drove between sudden fields flooded with afternoon light. Cows grazed to the left. There was hay, baled and piled,
on the other side. Ahead, she saw the white barn with cars parked around it. A group of teenagers played volleyball. Another
group, seated beneath a tree, seemed to be having an open-air class. She drove past them, parked at the end of the row, and
got out quickly, relieved to be only fifteen minutes late. No one seemed to notice her arrival.

Portia hunted in her satchel for the Quest School file. There wasn’t much in it—a sheet with the name of her contact, Deborah
Rosengarten, and the MapQuest directions. Also a printout that Abby, Clarence’s secretary, had given her of the school’s Web
site, most of which was devoted to the mission statement. (“We believe that the purpose of education is to open doors, not
close them. Recognizing that no one form of education will stretch to fit every unique individual, we cherish the beauty of
each distinct mind.”) She shut the door of the car and looked around.

The barn was massive and from the outside somewhat confusing. The great bay doors that had, presumably, once seen herds of
cattle pass through were still in place, but they looked unused, possibly sealed. There was nothing else that looked like
a door, let alone a front door. She walked to the end of the building and turned the corner, coming upon the outdoor class
in their circle beneath a maple tree. The group regarded her with some curiosity, not least the evident teacher, a man roughly
her own age in a white buttoned shirt and khakis.

“You look lost,” he said affably enough.

“I’m here to meet Deborah Rosengarten.”

“Deborah?” He looked at his students. “Anyone seen Deborah?”

“She went to Putney,” said one boy. He had an open book on his lap and looked up only briefly. “She told me she was going
to Putney.”

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