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.
“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.
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.
Adam is a body builder who suffers from migraine headaches. The source of his headaches is not clearly known. Adam is treated by a psychiatrist and emotionally supported by his parents.
By the end of Lerner’s story, Adam has grown into a responsible adult. His journey involves many experiences that resonate with all 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.
Lerner tells a story of an incident in a park with a father who condones his son’s bullying of Adam’s two daughters. The young boy will not allow the daughters to play on a public park slide. The little bully resorts to calling the girls ugly and refuses to let the daughters on the slide.
Adam sees the father sitting on a bench in the park observing his boy’s behavior. Adam walks over to the bench to talk to the father. He fails to persuade the father to discipline his bullying son He asks the father to tell his son to share the slide. The father argues the children should work it out among themselves. Adam explains the “ugly” insult to his daughters and that the boy would not allow them to use the slide.
The father demurs and tells Adam to quit talking to him. In frustration, Adam slaps a phone out of the father’s hand. Whether the incident grows beyond the slapped phone is unrevealed but, under the circumstance, Adam’s frustration seems justified; not as a bully, but as an aggrieved parent.
“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.