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The Gifted School

by Bruce Holsinger

Hardcover, 452 pages, Riverhead Books, List Price: $26 |


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Bruce Holsinger

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NPR Summary

The students and parents of a tight-knit community find their bonds nearly destroyed by competitiveness when an exclusive school for gifted children opens nearby, in a story told from both adult and child perspectives.

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Excerpt: The Gifted School



The school came up a few minutes after the blessing. Edgar was reaching around to refill wine glasses when he asked, “So, Rose, will y’all be putting in for this academy?”

“What’s that, Edgar?”

“It’s the new—Samantha, hon.” He raised his voice. “What’s that special school you were talking about with my eldest grandson? The gifted school.”

The word gifted slashed like a guillotine through other topics. Around the table the talk ceased.

“It’s called Crystal Academy, Dad,” Samantha said into the silence.

“A private?” Azra asked, apparently as clueless as Rose.

“No actually.” Lauren leaned in, turtling out her short neck. “It’s a public magnet school for the profoundly gifted.”

“They’re hailing it as the Stuyvesant of the Rockies,” said Kev grandly.

“A high school?” Rose’s question.

“Grades six through eight in the lower school, and the upper school is nine through twelve.”

“Oh,” said Rose. Profoundly gifted. Words to make the bones sing. This must be the mysterious “other option” Samantha had been hedging about at RockSalt last week. “What, a city school, just for Crystal kids?”

“Oh no,” said Kev. “It’s a joint venture between the City of Crystal and the Four Counties.”

“All five school districts?” Gareth asked. “But that’s a huge pool of eligible students.”

“No kidding,” said Samantha. “Over a hundred thousand kids for just a thousand spots.”

“The one percent,” Blakey observed snidely. Everyone laughed but she was right: one in a hundred. Kev’s acerbic sister was enjoying the conversation, Rose could tell, watching the reactions among her sister-in-law’s friends as they took in the news about the school.

“How does admissions work?” Azra asked.

“They’re doing it as a test-in.” Lauren, happily in the know. “A first round of CogPROs in the districts starting in March, then more individualized assessments in a second round.”

“CogPROs?” someone asked.

“Cognitive Proficiency Test,” said Lauren. “It’s a standard IQ battery.”

Over her wine glass Rose looked a question at Gareth and he shrugged it right back. Neither of them had heard a word about this school.

“Where are they building it?” Gareth asked.

“The upper school will be out in Kendall County,” Kev answered. “But the lower school is going in the old Maple Hill site.”

“Six or seven blocks from here.” Samantha nodded vaguely west, in the direction of her back deck.

“It’s a done deal,” said Kev. “The contractor’s an old buddy of mine and they finalized the building permits last week. The refurbish kicks off in January. They’ll be up and running by July, hiring staff this spring for a fall opening. These guys are moving fast.”

How do you know all this? The question never reached Rose’s lips, because the Zellars always knew, and besides, Kev had been on City Council the last three years. Any big building project in town, let alone one as visible as a new magnet school, would already be on his radar.

 “So, Rose, will you apply for Emma Q?” said Edgar, still pressing for an answer.

“Who knows.” Rose was already seeing years of small classes, innovative pedagogy, Barnard admissions staff cooing in approval. “We might check it out.”

“And what about you, Tessa?” Blakey said.

Rose looked up. Blakey was leaning over her plate, looking at Lauren’s daughter in a not entirely friendly way. She had a surly mouth and flat affect that made her come off like a disaffected cop. “Think you’ll apply?”

Tessa, chewing, held up a finger. “I’m not really the gifted type,” she mumbled after she swallowed.
“Well you’re obviously a bright young lady,” Edgar said. His gaze wandered down to the top of her dress, a low-cut green velvet or velour, one of her own creations. “And everyone has gifts of some sort or another.”

Tessa screwed up her face. “I like to draw, I guess.”

“Do you now,” he said. “And what is it you like to draw, sweetie? Landscapes, that kind of thing?”

“Mostly fashion. Like clothes, outfits.” She pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. “Shoes sometimes,” she said.

“Tessa has an incredible sense of style,” Azra put in from four seats down. “Tessa, tell them what you told me the other day. At BloomAgain.” She looked around the table. “Tessa’s been working for me at my store, a secondhand consignment place,” she explained.

“Oh,” Tessa said. She looked resistant and uncomfortable. She pushed at her hair some more. The table had remained silent, everyone curious about the exchange. Rose stole a look at Samantha, who had already started in on the rapid sequence of blinks she performed when impatient. (Wouldn’t do to have the Zellar Thanksgiving banter hijacked by an outsider, let alone a troubled young woman like Tessa Frye.)

“You said you think of dressing as an art form,” Azra coaxed. “Like sculpture or painting, right? But instead of stone or canvas you’re working with people.”

Tessa’s napkin was pressed to her lips. She removed it and started weaving it through her fingers.

“Well,” she said, looking at Edgar, “it’s kind of hard to explain. Sometimes I can see the shapes of faces and I understand, like, exactly what kind of outfit would work with those cheeks, or that haircut. Or what colors people should be wearing to complement the hue of their irises, or the shade of their skin. I also think about fabrics a lot, like texture and density and the way things hang. Sometimes I think about what a pair of pants would sound like when the legs touch, depending on the fabric. The resonance of that. I remember my dad had this barn coat he always wore when I was little. It was made out of this thick cotton-wool blend that—”

 “And who’s that lucky fellow—your daddy?” Edgar surveyed the crowded table, assuming one of the non-Zellar men there that day was Tessa’s father.

“He’s dead,” Tessa said, watching him.

“Goodness.” Edgar looked stricken. “I’m sorry, dear.”

“That’s okay,” Tessa went on, more brightly now, opening up. “Anyway it was a cotton-wool blend that I’ve never seen in anything else since. When I scratched his pocket with my fingernail it made this beautiful ringing sound, and I keep thinking if I got some of that cloth and made something with it I could hear that same sound again. It’s stupid, but.”

With her eyes still on Kev’s father she forked a piece of turkey and chewed it slowly.

“Well,” said Edgar after a pause. “You do sound like a gifted young lady.” He reached across Blakey’s plate to pat Tessa’s hand. “Quite an imagination.”

“That’s so nice,” said Tessa, scooping her head over her food. “I could show you my sketches after we eat, if you want.”


“Hey Tessa?” Lauren barked sharply down the table, before Edgar could reply. “Let’s just see if we can get you through junior year, okay? We’ll consider that a victory.”

Tessa’s eyes flashed then dimmed. She looked down at her plate. The table went still, the only sound in Rose’s ears the clink of silver on china. From her angle Lauren’s face was obscured but Azra and Gareth were staring across at her, appalled. Samantha was looking off somewhere, lips pale and taut. Even the children had picked up on the sudden hush. Rose looked down into the parlor at the first kids’ table and saw Emma Zellar’s eyes roving from Tessa to Edgar to Lauren and back, missing nothing; and there was Q beside her, neck bent over her food, gobbling through a gravy-soaked pile of mashed potatoes.

“Well Happy Thanksgiving,” someone deadpanned into the silence. One of Kev’s brothers, Rose thought. Blakey made a low cruel laugh, and immediately Rose could see how this exchange would be parsed up in Steamboat, the big family cackling over that unfiltered friend of Samantha’s who’d been such a bitch to her peculiar daughter.

Rose got a patch of heat in her throat, feeling for Tessa—but oddly for Lauren, too, the way she had tainted the meal. Only a few at that table knew what their diminished family had endured over the years, the source of these occasional darts.   

“Hey let’s get these cranberries moving around.” Samantha lifted a cut glass bowl, passed it down, and the feast resumed. A rough place Zellar-smoothed.