The essayist Caitlin Flanagan once sought to explain why American adolescents seemed so attracted to the Hunger Games novels, which pit teenagers in a dystopian land against one another in a series of competitions-to-the-death to allow their families to survive. The series, she wrote, is “macabre and gory, and it describes a world of extreme physical privation, which is always of deep interest to children. But it also suggests that a teenager is capable of making a real contribution to others using only her wits, and sometimes nothing more than the simple, physical fact of her existence.”
Compare that, Flanagan suggested, with the coming-of-age challenge that most American teenagers undergo—college admissions. “They are hobbled and childlike, deeply dependent on the parents who make their participation in the various belt-notching exercises possible,” she explained. “What they are really prepared to do, at the end of all this, is only one thing: to replicate the society that has created them. It’s a closed system of test-takers and French horn players.” If it seems that the 17- and 18-year-old Los Angeles boys profiled in Jeff Hobbs’s Show Them You’re Good are adrift, that’s at least in part because they are looking for a test to see whether they are ready for adulthood—and college admissions do not feel like a “real contribution.”
Whether they are wealthy or poor, Hispanic or white, from stable families or chaotic ones, the boys here seem to be looking for ways to prove themselves but find themselves floundering in the strange expectations of their parents and teachers. At a time of life when earlier generations of young men might have been helping to support a family or even defend their country, these boys are preparing for the SATs or writing personal essays or engaged in mock-trial competitions. And the sense that both this process and the prizes that ostensibly wait for them are trivial strikes them all at some point.
As Hobbs writes: “This was the first major contest in their lives, the first emphatic demonstration of their standing among greater society.…Certain elements were within their control, or at least gave the illusion of being so, such as how well they organized materials and wrote essays. Many other elements were as governable as a faraway star.”
Hobbs offers us the example of Carlos, whose parents came here illegally from Mexico but who manages to get into Yale, following in his brother’s footsteps. Sometimes he is grateful, but other times he wonders about the fates of his classmates and the strangeness of the fact that he is being rewarded with the highest honors in American society while his parents are constantly worried about deportation.
The admissions process is very different for the kids who attend the Amino Pat Brown Charter School in Los Angeles, where Carlos got his secondary education, from those at Beverly Hills High. But Hobbs is careful not to make Show Them You’re Good a simplistic story about two Americas and the boys from different sides of the track who represent them. Among the book’s affluent kids, we read about Owen, the younger child of a mother who is bedridden from what may be Lyme disease. He struggles with whether to leave home for college at all, knowing that he will be abandoning his debilitated parent. Owen, Hobbs writes, “became inured to that aspect of life that many people his age were still sheltered from, or were able to consciously ignore, but was impossible to elude in the end: the terrible randomness of chance…In his case this randomness had manifested itself as the prospect that a mite the size of a pinhead whose weeklong life-span had played out two decades before he’d been born had injected his mother with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, and in its thrall he’d progressed through the confusion that was high school.”
Nor does Hobbs dismiss the difficulties for middle-class families who are trying to get their kids a decent education and then pay for college. Sam’s Jewish father and Chinese immigrant mother had “chosen to spend much of their income on a rental unit within one of the most expensive zip codes in the country, giving up space and disposable income for the guarantee of a good, free primary education.” And “Sam was reminded of this sacrifice constantly and from all angles. Its resulting claustrophobia had in some ways defined his youth.”
Hobbs swallows whole some of the common misconceptions about college admissions. He says that “admissions officers, regardless of GPAs and event SAT/ACT scores…would always look at where they lived and how their surnames were spelled and wonder a little extra about their capacity to weather the many-layered rigors of high-level college work.” In fact, most admissions officers don’t worry enough about such things, which is why kids with lower SAT scores get admitted to higher-level schools and either drop out because the work is too hard or switch to a less difficult major.
All the boys at the charter school are interested in science and math studies. But college can make a hash of that interest if a kid isn’t properly prepared. He writes about Luis, a friend of Carlos’s who gets into the University of California at Santa Barbara: “As Carlos had done at Yale, Luis dropped physics at UCSB. For four years of high school, the boys had largely condemned the humanities as a refuge for flighty nitwits. They’d all hewed to the conviction that true intelligence was most usefully applied to science and math. A few college courses had left Luis not just humbled by the difficulty but also stunned by the possibilities in other, heretofore unconsidered areas of intellectual and professional life.” Alas for them, they will also be stunned to learn just how much more money they could have earned for themselves and their families had they stayed in a STEM field or gone to a college where they could have excelled in one.
Hobbs does not offer readers much in the way of an argument about how boys are being raised today, but the pictures he paints are stark. From the boy who was conceived using a sperm donor to the one whose dad tells him he will never amount to anything, the importance of fathers and the devastation wrought by their absence are everywhere in this book. Their teachers try to help. One teacher offered a “kind of roundtable discussion regarding what exactly it meant to be a young Latino male in the world. How to maintain dignity and place in a society that seemed to feel most comfortable with their residing on the periphery.” But schools—even filled with male role models—are not enough. Show Them You’re Good offers another data point for the increasingly authoritative case that the process by which boys become men in modern America is broken.
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