By Chet Yarbrough
The Topeka School
By: Ben Lerner
Narrated by Nancy Linari, Peter Berkrot, Tristan Wright
Ben Lerner is a writer with academic and literary awards that attest to his intelligence and accomplishment.
“The Topeka School” appeals to those who are blessed with intelligence, raised by accomplished parents, and unburdened by financial insecurity. It is a story of a child bully that grows into adulthood.
To paraphrase Leonardo da Vinci “…men who desire nothing but material riches are absolutely devoid of wisdom, which is the food and only true riches of the mind.”
“The Topeka School” makes one wonder what makes a child become a bully. Does affluence have anything to do with it? Is it because of superior intelligence? Is it because of genetic pre-disposition? Lerner creates a boy’s childhood that suggests some bullies do come from the aforementioned.
Trump’s penchant for bullying is unrequited in spite of being among the most influential leaders in the world.
Adam Gordon is Lerner’s main character in “The Topeka School”. Adam is a highly competitive youth who excels in public debate because of his innate intelligence, training, and articulateness. His mother and father are accomplished professionals.
Unlike Donald Trump, by the end of Lerner’s story, Adam has grown into a responsible adult.
In a pique of self-righteous indignation, Trump refuses to accept defeat in a race for a second term.
Even as a “Lame Duck”, Trump compounds his self-righteousness by firing and replacing government leaders who have questioned his judgement.
In contrast to America’s Presidential bully, the “Topeka School” hero’s journey involves many experiences that resonate with most boys who grow to manhood. To a large extent, Adam outgrows his penchant for bullying by resorting to reason rather than force when confronted with opposition. However, he can still lose his temper when reason and polite argument are ignored.
“The Topeka School” largely takes place in the 1990 s but is brought current with a reference to family separation actions of ICE; warranted by President Trump.
Adam and his foreign born wife and two children attend an ICE’ protest. Adam confronts an ICE officer who tells him to have his daughter stop drawing on the sidewalk outside of the ICE office. Adam engages the officer with arguments about public space and the erasable nature of chalk on a sidewalk. Adam handles the confrontation as a mature adult; not a bully.
The structure of “The Topeka School” is disconcerting and may make some reader/listeners put the book down. The book will lose some who cannot identify with Lerner’s characters because of their social status and accomplishment in life. The struggles of the Gordon family seem distant from the lives of many people who do not come from families as smart or financially accomplished as those in Lerner’s story.