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Author On What She Learned 'Teaching The Children Of The One Percent'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Afterschool snacks served by housekeepers summoned by the push of a button, designer clothes and shoes by the truckload, vacations on private islands but also parents who are never home or always on guard for any hint of imperfection, lives scheduled to the minute and, above all, unrelenting pressure to be exceptional, brilliant, perfect. These were the lives of the students Blythe Grossberg spent years trying to teach as an educator at an elite Manhattan Prep School and as a private tutor for some of the city's wealthiest families.

In a new book, Grossberg takes us into their world and her own decidedly less glamorous one and, along the way, asks hard questions about these families and herself, including questions about what education is actually for. The book is called "I Left My Homework In The Hamptons: What I Learned Teaching The Children Of The One Percent."

And Blythe Grossberg is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

BLYTHE GROSSBERG: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So before we get distracted by all the shiny objects, I do want to make it clear that you have some very important points to make about a lot of issues that this country is dealing with right now. But before we do that, we do need to talk about some of the shiny objects. So what are some of the more astonishing things you encountered as a teacher in these circles?

GROSSBERG: Yeah, I like to talk about the boy who showed up at the salad bar at my school and said, oh, endives, you know. I think he had a little French pronunciation there.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

GROSSBERG: And, you know, I talk in the book about kids' summer vacations, where they were whisked off to, you know, Segway across Cambodia, did all sorts of things that I imagined myself doing one day but had not yet done.

MARTIN: One of the reasons this is so interesting is it - despite the fact that these people have everything and then some, they seem very worried all the time. There's this constant sort of overlay of insecurity that kind of plays itself out with their kids. Tell me about that. Like, why did this translate into this unrelenting pressure on their kids?

GROSSBERG: Yeah, so I think there was, you know, what I think of as a kind of glittering veneer over their lives. And, you know, at first, I was very taken in by this glittering veneer. And, you know, I described going to people's houses and looking at the kids' endless clothing and, you know, one student was a rabid sneakerhead and collected all these kinds of limited-edition sneakers. But I quickly realized that was just a very thin veneer. And underneath the surface, the parents were extremely fretful about their children.

And I think what was really driving them was, you know, a fear that their kids would not measure up to what they had achieved and would not be able to maintain the same way of life that the parents had achieved. And I think, you know, to sort of compensate for this or to try to help the kids along, they basically ran their kids' lives in a way that I think is very similar to the way, you know, an investment bank and Wall Street would be run in that they wanted their kids to meet certain benchmarks on a regular basis.

So the kids really became, like, products rather than people who have failings and setbacks and reversals and everything that kids have on their way to growing up. And the parents were fairly unforgiving of these kinds of setbacks or failings and didn't see them as something that was inherent in childhood.

MARTIN: One of the stories that's in the news right now is this scandal where a number of people have been prosecuted for creating fake profiles for their kids to get into selective institutions, gross stuff like funneling money to coaches so that the kids can get into the schools that way, even though they don't actually play that sport, I think in one case, paying somebody to take the kids' SATs, you know. And a lot of people I think were shocked by this. After reading your book, I take it that you probably weren't shocked.

GROSSBERG: I was not completely shocked. I did not see anything overtly illegal myself, but I saw immense efforts, you know, which I described the book as kind of the Super Bowl of parenting to get kids into these elite colleges. And that is a multiyear process that starts with making sure kids go to the right preschool and hiring a consultant that costs $20,000 to make sure your kids are going to the right, you know, Manhattan or Brooklyn preschool and then making sure that they can stay at their very competitive private school, even if the work at times is too hard for them and all the hours they have to spend and playing these kind of obscure sports that are attractive to schools in the Ivy League, for example.

MARTIN: With all of your skills and with all that you saw, did you ever think about making different choices while you were there, which is maybe working in a public school or maybe working in a less privileged environment to sort of...

GROSSBERG: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Do your part to level the playing field?

GROSSBERG: Yes. So, I mean, one of my issues is I'm not a certified teacher. So, you know, I would have to get certified to work in a public school. But whenever possible, I tutored kids pro bono through various access programs. And also, private schools do have a component of kids who come from really different backgrounds. So it was, to me, really interesting to work with those sorts of students. And I think for a lot of the faculty at private schools, those were the kinds of kids we really enjoyed working with because, you know, education meant so much to them and to their families.

And I talk about one family that was from I think West Africa. And, you know, the parents - their son had gotten in trouble. And they were extremely contrite to an extent that a lot of the more privileged parents were not contrite. And the mother literally said, you know, clenching her jaw, I'm not going to relax until my son graduates from high school.

MARTIN: What do you hope people take away from this book? What is the lesson here? I mean, you learned a lot. What do you want us to learn?

GROSSBERG: Yeah, I think we all have to remember as parents - and this is easier said than done. But, you know, I think our job as parents is to really recognize the person in front of us and, you know, recognize when they might be very different from us for whatever reason and recognize that it's really their right to plot their course in life, you know, with some guidance from us.

In reference specifically to the kids who are, you know, attending these very affluent schools, whether private or public, I think they just need more opportunities to go out to other parts of the community and become involved. And I know private schools say they do these kinds of public service opportunities, but I don't think they have enough of them. And they just really have to get out of these neighborhoods where they live. And I just think it's so essential for these kids to know that there's a bigger world out there.

MARTIN: That was Blythe Grossberg. Her latest book, "I Left My Homework In The Hamptons: What I Learned Teaching The Children Of The One Percent," is out now.

Blythe Grossberg, thank you so much for talking with us.

GROSSBERG: Thank you so much, Michel. I really enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.