Here’s a bodice ripper that uncovers a suicide bomber. The bodice ripping doesn’t need much explanation. The suicide bomber does.

She thinks that our best private Independent schools are forcing parents in elementary school to give their children drugs to improve behavior and enhance academic performance, not for medical reasons. They are forging school and medical documents to accomplish this. It’s a massive conspiracy that involves the highest officials in these schools. The assumption is that it’s not limited to one school.

The author, Bronwen Hruska, is writing from a personal experience she had with her two boys in Manhattan, where she is a successful journalist and screenwriter. This is her first novel. I bet she hasn’t been invited to many “parents in action” meetings lately.

This very unappealing topic needs a thick sugar coating to make it even mildly palatable. Our lives are already littered with failed institutions – broken marriages, splintered families, hippie church services, unfulfilling careers with endless, meaningless meetings, political offices going to the highest bidder, sporting events where college scouts outnumber the students, etc. To bring down two more that we still trust – private schools and top-flight medical groups – is almost more than we can bear. But down they come, smothered in a love story with lots of sex.

The hero of this novel and his fourth-grade son (who is more mature than the father, but that’s the subject for another novel) have been abandoned by the mother, but her parents are still paying for their grandson to go to the best private school in Manhattan. The father has all but given up on his desire to be an artist and works for a sleazy tell-all tabloid. Since he has no wife he has to go alone to the modern version of a PTA meeting and that’s where an alpha wife accosts him in a designer bathroom. All he’s trying to do is find out who his son’s new teacher is because the last one left teaching suddenly.

He’s doubly concerned because the school shrink is convinced his son needs to be medicated. He doesn’t get much information from the alpha wife but he doesn’t stop trying. Luckily his son’s new teacher is sexy and hasn’t bought into the school’s Ritalin program yet. Unluckily she’s the shrink’s niece.

If it sounds a little too predictable, it is. The dialogue is straight out of a soap opera. But the urgency of the topic (not the sex) keeps the reader turning the pages. It has the classic house of cards structure where everything falls apart but then just as unbelievably everything comes together again.

It would have been nice if Hruska had spent more time describing the school. The scenes that take place there are dead on. The school psychologist, the headmaster, the head of the board of trustees and the friendly board member/enabler are all people anyone who has been involved in private education knows all too well.

It’s unfortunate that the Ritalin conspiracy is treated like an isolated incident rather than the tip of the iceberg. It’s pretty clear that there is a lot more going on than just this. And when you take down one bad administration, a worse one always takes its place because now there’s one more administrator added to the staff, a person whose only job is to weed out the kind of people who brought down the last administration.

And the helicopter parents who demand that their fourth grader reads at an eighth-grade level and are willing to spend $50,000 a year and a million phone calls to make sure it happens get off scot-free. They are only victims of the same nasty plot.

But despite these objections Hruska has done something good. She’s uncovered a fact that we would like to ignore. The best schools are just as guilty of bad educational practices as the worst urban lockdowns.

They are guiltier, in fact, because they do it behind their ivy-covered walls and flashy curricula and tony sports programs and mind-numbing activities. What makes it even worse is they don’t have to fall for every educational fad or trick that comes along. They have the money and the independence to just say no. That’s why they’re called “Independent Schools.”

I taught at a good school once. I didn’t know how good it was until it tried to get better. That was before bureaucracy took over and committees, sub-committees, long-range plans, wellness and all the other things were invented to keep administrators busy and teachers from teaching.

At the good school, on the other hand, the headmaster was always outside your classroom door just when things started to go bad. He always wandered the halls when he wasn’t writing college recommendations or doing admissions interviews or most of the school discipline.

As for parental involvement being the panacea for what ails schools, fugetaboutit! The headmaster at the good school didn’t allow parental involvement. He interviewed the parents just as much as the child. He had to be certain the parents were capable of discussing ideas at the dinner table and were likely to provide a setting where homework could be done in peace.

Flash forward 40 years or so of improvements and you have an upside -own world where even the best schools are terrible.

The unintended result of male and female private schools 40 years ago is that boys have to be given speed so they can compete with girls. The more manly the boys are the more drugged they have to be. The same girls who were supposed to be ill-equipped to compete in a curriculum designed for boys have now taken over the schools. I was there when coeducation started. The older teachers were sure the girls couldn’t compete. They were dead wrong. I had the first honors freshman class where boys and girls sat in the same room and read the same books. It wasn’t a fair fight. Within weeks the boys were begging me to meet them without the girls.

It turns out girls learn well from boys and male teachers because they value the relationships and will patiently wait their turn and do their homework. Boys, on the other hand, value competition and being right. They don’t care much for the agonizing process that results in learning especially when girls are better at it. The boys enter into an educational death spiral because they refuse to compete on the girls’ terms.

They start playing video games instead of doing their homework plus they misbehave. That’s where the medication comes in.

Even more ironic is the fact that when schools of excellence are confronted by real mental illness in their students, they prefer to ignore it or claim student laziness or expel the student as a danger to others.

This novel is a pamphlet with sexy pictures on a topic that deserves a broadside.


By Bronwen Hruska

Pegasus Books

330 pages, $25

William L. Morris is co-creator of The News’ poetry pages and is retired after a career teaching in private schools.