On the first day of ninth grade, I was dropped off at the wrong high school—an all-boys Jesuit academy called Fordham Prep—and through a series of tragicomical misunderstandings too complicated to explain here, wound up staying through graduation.
Up till that point, I’d been exclusively a New York City public-school kid, where I’d spent nine years as a reliably mediocre student. In truth, my “C” average was deceptively flattering: My overall GPA was given a crucial bump out of the “D”-level basement by the lone “A” I could be counted on to earn in my English classes.
Despite my subpar scholastic track record, however, when I advanced from elementary school to junior high, I was, in what can only be explained as an administrative error, placed in the city’s now-defunct SP program (“special progress”—essentially a gifted-and-talented curriculum), in which students completed three years of schooling—seventh, eighth, and ninth grade—in only two. During that time, I took two years of Latin, algebra, biology—all before I ever set foot in high school. I passed them all, too—painfully and often barely, but still.
And this was at a junior high school, I should add, that was at the time regarded by pretty much everyone in the neighborhood as a disgrace—an unfortunate but unavoidable way station between elementary school and high school. (I wonder what Neil deGrasse Tyson, an alumnus, would have to say about that?) Parents simply pinched their nostrils, registered their kids, and counted the days till they’d move on to the Bronx High School of Science or some other esteemed learning institution where their real education would resume in earnest after a two-year waste of time—an institution like, in my case, Fordham Prep.
THE “ZONE UNKNOWN”
When I wound up at the Prep’s doorstep, however, the syllabus I was handed looked alarmingly familiar: introductory Latin; algebra; biology—I think you see where this is going. The lion’s share of kids who attended the Prep were coming from the parochial school system, and Fordham’s curriculum was designed to pick up where that left off. Trouble was, I’d left those courses in the dust already, but when I explained my predicament, the administrator—I’ve long since forgotten his name (or more likely just willfully repressed it)—got a look on his face like he’d just swallowed a lungful of bus exhaust and said, “But… that was public school?”
Indeed, this was a “fresh start”—one whereby Fordham would graciously overlook my plebeian origins, and that meant erasing all trace of them. Good news: None of it ever happened! Admission to the Prep was a rarified privilege, I was assured, for which to be grateful. Fordham Prep’s name, after all, was uttered almost exclusively in whispered, reverential tones—the Prep!—and the honor of attending was one most of its students had been anxiously anticipating since preschool. It all meant nothing to me, though: Six months earlier, I’d never even heard of the place. This perhaps gave me a more sober—a more realistic—perspective on the school, even at fourteen years old, than my peers or their parents.
The Prep’s sterling reputation for academic excellence, I argued without success, was largely a product of skillful self-mythologizing. Christ, how good a school could it have been, really? After all, I got in! Shouldn’t that have been the first red flag? Bronx Science—a public high school—walked the walk: They quite rightfully wanted nothing to do with me.
And my own dismal grades notwithstanding (though I did make the honor roll freshman year, but any idiot can ace a bunch of classes he’s already taken—and passed—before), there were some objectively intellectually challenged students at the Prep. I was a longstanding public-school kid, and knew a knuckle-dragger when I saw one (I preferred their company, for the most part), and that place was wall-to-wall with them. All of which prompts the question: How did Fordham achieve—and sustain—such impeccable standing if they were admitting riffraff like yours truly?