An Honor Student in the Bronx – an excerpt from – “The Bonfire of Vanities” by T. Wolfe

“Actually, I’m calling to inquire about one of your students, a young Mr. Henry Lamb” “Henry Lamb. Doesn’t ring a bell. What’s he done?”
“Oh, he hasn’t done anything. He’s been seriously injured.”
He proceeded to lay out the facts of the case (..)
“What I would like to find out, Mr. Rifkind, is what kind of student Henry Lambs is.”
“Waht kind?”
“Well, would you say he was an outstanding student?”
“Where are you from, Mr. __I’m sorry, tell me your name again?”
“Mr. Fallow. I gather you’re not from New York.”
“That’s true.”
“Then there’s no reason why you should know anything about Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School in the Bronx. At Ruppert we use comparative terms, but outstanding isn’t one of them. The range runs more from cooperative to life-threatening”. Mr. Rifkind began to chuckle. “F’r Chrissake, don’t say I said that.”
“Well, how would you describe Henry Lamb?”
“Cooperative. He’s a nice fello. never gives me any trouble.”
“Would you describe him as a good student?”
“Good doesn’t work too well at Ruppert, either. It’s more ‘Does he attend class or doesn’t he?'”
“Did Henry Lamb attend class?”
“As I recall, yes. He’s usually there. He’s very dependable. He’s a nice kid, as nice as they come.”
“Was there any part of the curriculum he was particularly good __or, let me say, adept at, anything he did better than anything else?”
“Not particularly.”
“It’s difficult to explain, Mr. Fallow. As the saying goes, ‘Es nihilo nihil fit.’ There’s not a great range of activities in these classes, and so it’s hard to compare performances. These boys and girls __sometimes their minds are in the classroom, and sometimes they’re not.”
“What about Henry Lamb'”
“He’s a nice fellow. He’s polite, he pays attention, he doesn’t give me any trouble. He tries to learn.”
“Well, he must have some abilities. His mother told me he was considering going to college.”
“That may well be. She’s probably talking about C.C.N.Y. That’s the City College of New York.”
“I believe Mrs. Lamb did mention that.”
“City College has an open-admissions policy. If you live in New York City and you’re a high-School graduate and you want to go to City College, you can go.”
“Will Henry Lamb graduate, or would he have?”
“As far as I know. As I say, he has a very good attendance record.”
“How do you think he would have fared as a college student?”
A sigh. “I don’t know. I can’t imagine what happens to these kids when they enter City College.”
“Well, Mr. Rifkind, can you tell me aything at all about Henry Lamb’s performance or his aptitude, anything at all?”
“You have to understand that they give me about sixty-five students in each class when the year starts, because they know it’ll be down to forty by mid-year and thirty by the end of the year. Even thirty’s too many, but that’s what I get. It’s not exactly what you’d call a tutorial system. Henry Lamb’s a nice young man who applies himself and wants an education. What more can I tell you?”
“Let me ask you this. How does he do on his written work?”
Mr. Rifkind let out a whoop. “Written work? There hasn’t been any written work at Ruppert High for fifteen years! Maybe twenty! They take multiple-choice tests. Reading comprehension, that’s the big thing. That’s all the Board of Education cares about.”
“How was Henry Lamb’s reading comprehension?”
“I’d have to look it up. Not bad, if I had to guess.”
“Better than most? Or about about average? Or what would you say?”
“Well … I know it must be difficult for you to understand, Mr. Fallow, being from Enmgland. Am I right? You’re British?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Naturally ___or I guess it’s natural ___you’re used to levels of excellence and so forth. But these kids haven’t reached the level where it’s worth emphasizing the kind of comparisons you’re talking about. We’re just trying to get them up to a certain level and them keep them from falling back. You’re thinking about ‘honor students’ and ‘higher achievers’ and all that, and that’s natural enough, as I say. But at Colonel Jacob Ruppert High School, an honor student is somebody who attends class, isn’t disruptive, tries to learn, and does all right at reading and arithmetic.”
(…) “Seems like a nice boy. We’re not supposed to call them boys, but that’s what they are, poor sad confused boys with a whole lotta problems.”

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