School of Dreams

School of Dreams by Edward Humes

My secondary school (or high school, for you American folks) was a rather pleasant private school in Birkenhead, across the water from Liverpool. You could make a fair argument for saying that it was the best secondary school in the area, although there were a few others that were close. But even if it wasn’t the best, it was almost certainly the most competitive.

Every term, teachers would post a Mark Order on the wall of their classroom, detailing the mark of every single student in every single subject, and their rank. The arrival of the Mark Order was a highly anticipated event which always strangely came unannounced – since teachers would always put them in the same place, a new Mark Order could often go unnoticed for a while. Sooner or later though, a crowd would develop around it as people tried to see who had the top position, and what they’d say to their parents when they found out their new position. Unsurprisingly, competition for the top few spots was fierce, both among students and parents. Even worse was the fact that most students were separated by a mere few marks out of a thousand or so.

And yet for all of this, after reading School of Dreams, I can see that all of the competition and pressure in my school would’ve been less significant than an idle daydream for some schools in the US. Edward Humes watched the top Californian Public school (Public in the normal American sense), Whitney High, for a year in order to write School of Dreams. Whitney High is a selective school that gets good students, and turns them into excellent ones. It has a two-thirds Asian population, and only 12% of the students are white. It is rather odd.

If you’re as interested in the plight of competitive high school students as I am, the news that some students are pressured by their parents to become lawyers and doctors, and work themselves to death not only with academic studies but also innumerable extracurricular activities, will not be surprising. There are plenty of students who do nothing but try to get into HYP (Harvard, Yale or Princeton) every year. However, the School of Dreams shows that this really doesn’t do students any justice. Humes tells of kids (that is, 12 and 13 year olds) who have to chug coffees all day and night just to get their work done, and of parents who throw their child’s artwork out in the street for cars to run over because they see art as a demeaning profession (as opposed, naturally, to medicine).

That’s pretty much how the book starts – plenty of outrageous and unbelievable stories of students and parents being extremely driven and ultracompetitive. After a while, you get a bit numbed to the stories of Asian-American students having only a couple of hours sleep every day. Humes jumps from student to student for the first hundred pages of so, seemingly in a hurry to introduce all of his main cast. He also takes the viewpoint of some of the teachers as well.

That’s right – he switches between first, second and third person tenses during the book, and mostly takes the role of an omniscient narrator. Now, this is OK in fiction, but it becomes problematic in a book like this, especially when he talks about a private meeting between a student and teacher, and you’re left scratching your head wondering how on Earth he knew what they said, let alone what they were thinking. It remains mildly irritating throughout the book (along with his run-on sentences and freakish comma placement) but no more than that.

After a mediocre first half, Humes suddenly kicks things into high gear. He finally tells us about the history of the region the school is in, and explains how the school was founded and why it has become what it is now. And then suddenly everything clicks – he starts to pull out all the really interesting and dramatic stories of how the top physics students fall behind when they have to do actual research instead of rote memorisation, and how George Bush’s brother, Neil Bush, gets shown up when he tries to sell the school on the joys of high tech teaching devices. Maybe this is because of the way that the book loosely follows a school year, and all the interesting stuff just happens to occur at the end. Or maybe he just left all the good stuff to the end. In any case, it’s worth sticking it out to graduation.

Despite all of the faults I’ve listed above, and others that I haven’t (Humes should keep his politics to himself, even if I agree with them), I loved this book. Partly because I love the subject, but mostly because Humes clearly established a strong connection with the school and its teachers and students. By the end, you stop wondering whether he’s using artistic license when filling in people’s thought bubbles because it all just reads so true. It also talks about the tragically broken state of the US educational system, and the way that politicians seem determined only to worry about the worst schools rather than seeing what they can learn from the best, but Humes cleverly concentrates on individuals rather than abstracts, and that’s what I kept on looking forward to.

I’ll be writing more about interesting bits and pieces from School of Dreams over the coming week…

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