What better way to end this season's college admissions sweepstakes and sign off for the summer than with the story of Adam Wheeler, the collegiate James Frey, a man who seems to regard reality as nothing more than a canvas on which he can paint his allegedly embellished portrait.
I say allegedly because there are 20 counts of various kinds of fraud pending against the young non-undergraduate, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. By the way, someone might remind his defense lawyer of that basic concept, as the guy was already quoted taking the aberrational-behavior defense out for a test drive:
"He's never been in trouble before," said lawyer Steve Sussman, which kind of implies that he's in trouble now, though I'm sure that if Sussman were asked to parse his comment he'd say the trouble is the legal brouhaha, and not anything Wheeler did to bring it on.
Right. For those of you sane enough to be distracted by the BP oil spill or Elena Kagan's nomination - that is, for those of you who don't have a graduating or incoming high school senior - here's the nutshell version of the Adam Wheeler story:
He was a sophomore at Bowdoin before transferring to Harvard, where he won an English prize his second year and collected about $45,000 in financial aid. He applied for both a Rhodes scholarship and a Fulbright fellowship, and why not, given his perfect SAT scores, his straight-A record, and those amazing recommendations.
Problem is, none of the above is true except for the Bowdoin part, at least until he got suspended. We know this only because an eagle-eyed professor saw an uncanny resemblance between a section of the Rhodes app and something a colleague of his had written, which was the beginning of the end of the house of cards.
Let others debate issues of ethics, stress and expectations. The pressing question raised by l'affaire Wheeler is, How do you fake your SAT scores?
This is the kind of revelation that could help keep journalism alive, folks. You can alter your SAT scores. I like to think that right now a handful of intrepid young reporters are scrambling to beat each other to the scoop. A message to the one who figures it out: My email's at the end of the post. Deliver the clip proving you're the one who got the story, and dinner's on me.
In 1943, legendary screwball comedy director Preston Sturges made "Hail the Conquering Hero," in which a nebbishy Eddie Bracken, whose chronic hay fever got him discharged early from the Marines, hides out in shame until his nonexistent tour is over, rather than confess that he's failed to honor the legacy of his late father, who died a hero in World War I.
A bunch of Marines he meets in a bar loan him a uniform and some medals so he can finish up the fiction, go home, and make his mama proud. But he does it reluctantly, out of love, and with full awareness of how wrong it is - and then he confesses and asks his hometown's forgiveness.
Today's phony aspires not to good deeds but to a great resume, pleads "not guilty" despite an Everest of evidence, and his lawyer trots out some pale notion of innocence that seems based not on truth but on frequency.
Will those of you who think there are only 10 schools worth going to take this as a cautionary tale? Probably not; you'll write him off as a marginal wacko.
At your peril. I'm headed for summer hiatus, as are the rest of you, I hope.
I do want to leave you with a little ray of happiness, though, so consider a story that got not one-hundredth of the exposure the fake-student story got. Tiny Grinnell College, in tiny Grinnell, Iowa, is one of those impressive small liberal arts colleges that college fashionistas ignore because, well, it's in Iowa and it isn't part of the Ivy League.
But if an institution can have a conscience, Grinnell is in a league of its own: This year the class of 1960 celebrates its 50-year reunion - in part, by helping to pay down the college debt amassed by the graduating class of 2010. The school's financial aid department identifies high-need students who've distinguished themselves, and the alumni donations are applied to current-year financial aid, both federal and institutional loans.
Every year, graduates get a hand from graduates who preceded them by half a century. Fifty years from now, the class of 2010 will return the favor and help out the class of 2060.
I'd like to think that officials at other schools are going to write in, irate that I failed to mention similar programs at their schools. I can't imagine any situation where I'd be happier to be corrected. Bring it on: I'll come out of summer hibernation to share the information.