Sunday, February 26, 2006

Prep

When I was in fifth grade, my school's adolescent social world was just beginning to coalesce. My town was tiny, I knew every single one of my classmates, was friendly with all and friends with many. Later, when we all moved up to middle school, I felt as though I were missing some crucial pages of the book you're given at birth - you know, the one that explains everything? But in fifth grade, I was just beginning to feel this way.

I remember lining up to leave the library, and standing in line behind Nik. Even my oblivious ten year old self could tell that Nik was cute and cool, and that I did not have whatever it was that Nik had (what did he have?). So Nik, who hadn't really spoken to me in weeks - months, maybe? - turned to me and asks, How did you get to be so smart?

He was talking to me! He started a conversation with me!

And I, who as a ten year old confused good grades with intelligence, said, Well, if you want to get good grades, you.... I don't remember how I finished the sentence. I do remember his face changing, and the way he turned away in disgust, and my sudden realization that I hadn't answered the question right at all. I doubt he remembers this conversation; I looked back throughout middle school and pinpointed it as my last, squandered, chance.

I went to Stanford with Curtis Sittenfeld. I don't think we ever formally met, but I was vaguely aware of her through various publications and activities. And now, just a few years out of school, she's written a best-selling novel. Prep is an engaging story about a girl from the midwest trying to fit in at an elite East Coast boarding school. Lee makes the most neurotic among us look well-adjusted, and yet can't we identify with her feelings of invisibility, her extreme shyness, her desperate need to be part of things, popular, appreciated, cool? Her desperation itself is what keeps her out. And can't we identify when she criticizes her school and her classmates to a reporter, her observations probably correct, but too biting, and the reporter selects from her words to make them even more biting, but the only one damned by the article is herself? But above all, can't we identify with the thinking, the over-thinking, the re-thinking, with realizing one day that you had it all wrong, but that you still don't fit in?

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