March 29, 2011

Behind the Book: Becca’s brownie

Behind the Book by
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For the first few months that I knew her, Becca Jannol existed merely as a stack of paper to me. I met her in the winter of 2000, when hers was one of nearly 7,000 applications for admission to the Class of 2004 at Wesleyan University, an excruciatingly selective liberal arts college in central Connecticut. The previous fall, Wesleyan had agreed to grant me an extraordinary opportunity: a close-up look at how a college with 10 times as many applicants as seats in its incoming class made the hard choices necessary to whittle down such a list.

I had approached Wesleyan in my capacity as a national education correspondent at <I>The New York Times</I> and was permitted by the university to read the applicants’ files and eavesdrop as their cases were debated. The only restrictions were that I not refer to the applicants by name in my articles or seek to talk to them, at least until they had received word from Wesleyan on whether they had been accepted, rejected or put on the waiting list. No one, certainly not me, wanted to telegraph a decision to an applicant prematurely via the front page of <I>The New York Times.</I> But when it came to Becca, a 17-year-old senior at the elite Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, the details would be impossible to mask. Her essay was about being suspended during her sophomore year for accepting a brownie, laced with marijuana, from a fellow student.

As the admissions season was winding down in March 2000, Becca’s was one of the 400 applications that the admissions officers considered too close to call so much so that it was debated by the full 10-member committee, with the vote of the majority deemed to be binding. Though she had more A’s than B’s and had recovered from her suspension to be elected chair of the honor board, her SATs (in the high 1,200s) were low by Wesleyan standards. Nonetheless, it was the brownie that dominated much of the discussion.

Ralph Figueroa, a veteran admissions officer (and former lawyer) from Los Angeles who had met Becca, championed her case by saying she had been the only student, among the two dozen who had accepted the brownie, to turn herself in. But some of Ralph’s colleagues were skeptical. She may have turned <I>herself</I> in,” one officer said. But she didn’t turn in the brownie.” I knew as I listened to this debate that I wanted to write about it in the <I>Times</I>, not least because it showed how a momentary brush with drugs, even if owned up to in one’s essay, could taint an applicant. Never mind that some of the people in that room had no doubt sampled a pot brownie at Becca’s age, if not something stronger.

My dilemma was this: Even without her name or that of her school in the newspaper, Becca would surely recognize herself in this dialogue, as would many of her classmates. After the committee had decided Becca’s fate (which I’ll leave unspoken here, to preserve the suspense for those wishing to read about her in my new book, <B>The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College</B>) I let Wesleyan know that I was interested in her. I had not told anyone previously because I had not wanted to influence the decision, which was now final. It was decided by Wesleyan that Becca’s guidance counselor should be called, to relay the decision a few days early (this was not uncommon) and to give Becca a heads-up of the <I>Times'</I> plans. Her response was immediate.

“Not to hurt the feelings of <I>The New York Times</I>,” she reportedly said, “but I don’t know anyone at my school who reads it. They can write whatever they want about me.” I was far more relieved than hurt.

After Viking agreed to expand my series into a book, I knew I wanted to tell Becca’s story at length. Indeed, she was one of six especially compelling applicants each representing a different aspect of the admissions process whose files had crossed the desk of Ralph, my main character, as I looked over his shoulder that year.

Now it was Viking’s turn to be anxious. I was insistent that each of the applicants profiled in the book be referred to by name, which meant that I would be seeking Becca’s permission effectively to  “out” her first experience with drugs, however fleeting it was, in a work of narrative nonfiction. I felt that telling Becca’s story was so central to what I wanted to accomplish that, during the summer after she graduated from high school, I sent her a free plane ticket from Los Angeles to New York City, where I live and work. Her mother, who had been trained as a teacher, agreed to tag along, as suspicious of my intentions as Becca surely was.

When we finally met, over breakfast at a Midtown restaurant, Becca’s answer to my request was immediate: She wanted to tell her story as much as I did. She was proud of all she had learned from her experience with the brownie and still bruised by the way her application had been received by some of the admissions officers at Wesleyan, and elsewhere. We would spend the next six hours of that day on a bench and a boulder in Central Park, as Becca—who was both shorter (barely over five feet tall) and sunnier than in my mind’s eye—spoke, and I took notes. Like the five other applicants to Wesleyan profiled in the book, Becca came to trust me with the most intimate details of her life.

In the end, the process of getting to know her which had begun with a sheaf of papers containing her SAT scores, grade point average and essay came full circle, when Becca gave me unfettered access to her most guarded possession, the pages of her journal. She had saved everything she wrote during high school, including the entry from that fateful day in October when she took a few bites of that brownie, something she had attempted neither before or since, she assured me. Any teenager or anyone who had ever been a teenager or the parent of one could surely relate to the internal turmoil she had somehow captured on paper that day.

“How painful could it have been to just say no, or stop?” she wrote. The scariest part is that I thought I knew myself. I’m not who I thought I was. I should accept that I am not a leader.” Everyone wants to know, Why, Becca why?” she added. I don’t know.”

<I>A staff reporter for</I> The New York Times <I>for more than a decade, Jacques Steinberg is now the paper’s national education correspondent. Winner of the 1998 Education Writers Association grand prize, he lives in New York.</I> The Gatekeepers <I>is his first book.</I>


Jacques Steinberg

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The Gatekeepers

The Gatekeepers

By Jacques Steinberg
ISBN 9780670031351

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