The kids sat on the couches and on the floor, some perched on the window seats or leaning against the walls. They seemed to avoid the wing chairs, as if these were consecrated to adults. They smiled nervously at her or did not smile (in case it was a bad thing to smile, in case it made them seem too eager or insecure); then, thinking better of that, thinking that it might make more sense to seem friendly and affable, the ones who had resolutely not smiled began to grin. One bold boy in a green Deerfield Crew sweatshirt stepped into her path and introduced himself.
"I'm almost finished with my application," he said, squeezing her hand a little too tightly. "Just waiting on my physics teacher. I wish you still had Early Decision. I'm totally committed."
"This is Matt Boyce," Roden said helpfully. "Both his parents went to Princeton."
"Yeah, we're total Princeton," Matt Boyce said eagerly. "I was, like, wrapped in an orange blanket."
"I'll look forward to reading your application," said Portia with practiced warmth, noting the scowls of displeasure around the room as this exchange was observed.
Roden was deflecting other students who'd been emboldened by their classmate and held up his hand as they stood to catch her eye. "Later," she heard him say quietly. "Wait till later."
Later meant the inevitable reception, she thought. More bad coffee, but this time with Oreos. And full-throttle adolescent anxiety.
"Okay, settle down," Roden said. "Everyone . . ." He trailed off, eyeing a too-cool-to-care-about-college-admissions trio on one of the sofas. "Hunter, is there someplace else you need to be?"
"Absolutely no, Mr. Roden," the boy said, not giving an inch. "Then let's please quiet down and give Ms. Nathan our attention. She's come a long way to be here with us today, so let's give her a warm Deerfield welcome."
Energetic applause. Portia stepped to the front of the room and gave her audience a swift appraisal. At least sixty of them. It was going to be a tough year for these kids.
"Hello," she told them. "I'm really pleased to be here, because I grew up nearby and I love coming back. Especially this time of year. Actually, any time of year except for mud season." This got a laugh. The tension slipped in the room, just slightly. "I'm a great believer in visual aids," she said, "so I'm going to show you a little film about Princeton. Takes about sixteen minutes. Some of you might already have seen it on our Web site, so you can just amuse yourselves. Work on your college essays or something." Nervous laughter in the room, but they settled in. No one worked on their college essays. They watched, instead, the parade of bright kids through the bright courtyards and leafy glens of the campus and listened to the newly minted Princetonians on the screen speak about their freshman seminars, their adventures of the mind and spirit. "Each of you," intoned Clarence in an address to the freshman class, filmed a couple of years ago in Richardson Auditorium, "is the kind of person your classmates came here to meet." The students were admonished to play with their fancies, to step beyond their comfort zones and take the chance of learning something truly unsuspected about themselves. They were fantastic, articulate, adorable. And when it was over, Portia was not really surprised to see two girls wiping away tears.
"Okay," she said as the lights flicked on. "Lots of great schools out there. Lots of places to get a first-rate education. So why Princeton? What's so great about us?"