A Class Apart by Alec Klein (Simon & Schuster Paperbacks; $16.00)
I have always been fascinated by children geniuses — prodigies. Movies like Searching For Bobby Fischer, Little Man Tate, and Red Violin, all movies that feature a chess prodigy, a math prodigy, and a musical prodigy, respectively, have always been one of my favorite movies because the main characters are usually children with extraordinary talent and abilities that defy logic and science.
What is it about these little children with brains filled with gray matter the size of Einstein and Mozart that makes them so special? How is it possible that someone so young can memorize forty classical piano and violin pieces in front of a large audience with the confidence of a seasoned and adult musician or compute multiplication of large numbers in their heads in a snap? How is it possible that someone so young and so little — something that comes in such a small package — compete in quiz bees and musical contests on an adult, competitive, and professional level?
When I saw a copy of this book, A Class Apart by Alec Klein, with the subtitle “Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One Of America’s Best High Schools,” I knew I had to buy it. As the subtitle suggests, the book is about the students who go to one of the best high schools in America, Stuyvesant High School in New York. In this book, Klein of the Washington Post was granted access to the school, its faculty, and its prodigious students, to find out the real essence and meaning of public schooling. Being an alum of Stuyvesant himself, it was easy for Klein to gain the access he needed, and being a reporter for the Washington Post certainly gave him the cache one needs in order to do such a daunting journalistic task.
Here, he follows the lives of the multidiverse and multitalented students of Stuyvesant, especially of three high school students; one is the captain of the football team named Romeo, a boy who teaches himself calculus during his free time to impress the girl he likes; another one is a seventeen-year old poet named named Jane, a girl who is battling heroine addiction; and another one is a ten-year old kid names Milo, a boy who, despite his young age, attends the school because of his Polaroid-like memory and his genius IQ.
Klein’s narrative in this book displays his journalistic and writing talents. He paints the school and its students sympathetically, and shows how even the brightest students still need the the guidance and special attention every child and teenager needs. He shows the neuroses, compulsions, and obsessions of the students and teachers alike, even of the the parents. In Stuyvesant, everyone is so competitive academically that students shamelessly demand their teachers to “better give them a high grade” so they can get a bigger chance of being accepted into Harvard or into one of the Ivies.
In Stuyvesant, unlike your typical high school where jocks and cheerleaders rule, to be regarded as a brainiac or as a nerd is an honor and high social status. To be anything short of that is deemed inferior. This alone is an indication of the kind of students that get accepted into this high school. The students here belong to the brightest of the brightest, the most ambitious of the most ambitious.
A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure, Passion Inside One Of America’s Best High Schools is, more than anything, about the relationship of the caring adults who guide and teach the gifted, and sometimes troubled, kids of Stuyvesant High School. Klein triumphantly weaves and intersects the lives of the people who belong to the special world of Stuyvesant. Honest, detailed, well-written, and well-researched, A Class Apart will make you laugh, cry, smile, and will at times, break your heart. Filled with stories and anecdotes that dedicate each chapter to one student, event, or teacher, this book is designed easy to be followed, and has the right amount and balance of journalistic and creative writing one needs in a non-fiction/part-documentary book. Indeed, Klein is one master storyteller and one great reporter.
Rating: 5 of 5 stars