She is named Madison, because aren’t they all? Madison will soon enroll at the schmancy private high school where I work, so she came in to tour the joint and talk logistics: which classes and how many, when school begins, whether to play a fall sport. I have such a meeting with every new freshman. Usually, the meetings go like this:
Me: Hi! I’m Cate.
Student: Hi. I’m Madison. [Or Maddy or Maddi or Maddie. Goddammit.]
Me: So what classes would you like to take next year?
Student: English, history, math, science, gym, choir, and French.
Me: Great! And how are you feeling about starting high school?
Student: Fine. Can I go now?
With this Madison, things were different. I detected a whiff of trouble right away.
Me: Hi! I’m Cate.
Student: I was wondering, can you take two languages as a freshman, because right now I take Mandarin at my school but I also take French and German with outside tutors and I’m worried I might have to drop German, because I want to concentrate on my other studies, but my mom speaks English, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Tagalog, and Japanese, and she thinks it’s really important to be multilingual.
Me: … so you must be Madison
Over the next forty minutes, I learned more: Madison swims competitively, rides horses, loves French, hates math, and adores big cities; she spent her early years in Manhattan. She has her life planned out. She wants to go to Amherst College and then be a money-market trader or a private wealth manager—she hasn’t decided which. She and her mother would love to move back to New York but have decided it would be a bad idea since there’s no way Madison could compete with those New York private-school kids.
Her college prospects are more promising if her family stays put, right here in Portland, Oregon.
I listened patiently to all of this for as long as I could stand. I did not interrupt to ask, for example, why someone who craves the big city would want to spend four years in Amherst, Massachusetts; why someone who hates math would want to become a money-market trader; or what on earth a private wealth manager is and how, at age thirteen, she knows.
My school is a magnetic draw for the Madisons of the world, so I had those answers already.
But when she told me all her New York friends have been “doing extra stuff to get ready for college since they were, like, four,” I cracked.
“Four?” I cut her off midsentence. “Do you think that’s healthy? Does that make any sense at all?”
Madison had the grace to blush. “Well, maybe not four. But I’m about to start high school now, and I feel like I’m already behind.”
Behind what? I screamed inside. Behind whom? Behind because you’re studying four languages? Behind because you’re training in two sports? You’re prepubescent. How far behind can you be?
Madison kept going. “I know I need a hook for colleges, you know? Something that will make me stand out from everybody else. I haven’t figured out what my hook is going to be yet. But I want to make sure I’m on track.
I went ahead and said the right things for a person in my position at a school like mine to say, laying out phrases like Tarot cards.
I help a lot of kids apply to college, and the ones who are passionate and motivated, like you, always end up with great choices.
Yes, ninth grade is awfully early to hire a private college counselor.
Admissions offices will not compare you to students from New York.
Don’t worry, honey. You’re on track.
Madison smiled knowingly at these words, and nodded as though to humor me. I recognized her look. It said: You’re nice and all, but seriously, you believe in Tarot cards?
After that, there wasn’t much else. I signed her registration form, sent her to lunch, and tried to figure out why the encounter was ruining my day.
It wasn’t the money-market thing. Most of the kids at my school are savvy enough to say they want to become professors or surgeons, but Madison is far from the only one whose career in finance was planned before she could walk.
Nor do I have any special prejudice against Amherst. I like Amherst. And New York.
During that conversation, though, Madison’s entire life flashed before my eyes. She’s right about having a “hook.” She’s a musician, an athlete, a polyglot, and a smart little cookie; if that alone can’t get her into Amherst, her parents are more than capable of offering the school a new building to sweeten the deal.
And after that, degree in hand, she will surely have the connections and know-how to become a trader. Or even, God forbid, a private wealth manager.
She will go to college in western Massachusetts, all the while wishing she were in Manhattan; graduate and move to Manhattan, where she will work too many hours to see the city in daylight; earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, have no time to spend them; and awaken in a cold sweat forty years from now, remembering, too late, that she always hated math.
Trying to tease out my own complicity in this system depressed me further.
Didn’t get much else done: I puttered around, prepared for a faculty meeting, met with a few other kids. I’ll see Madison again in September, if not before. In this uncertain world, though, I know one thing for sure:
That girl is on track.
Cate Glass is a bike-commuting queer girl who has lived on both coasts. When she is not writing, teaching, or riding in the rain, she enjoys paddling her canoe and reading entire books in one sitting. Cate is passionate about gender justice and equality in education and makes her home in the Pacific Northwest. Find her online at www.categlass.com.