Admission: Chapter One
Clarence had come from the Yale Admissions Office, a fact more than a few Princeton alumni were still—rather comically—grumbling about. Before he had been an admissions officer he had been a professor of African-American history at Yale, in fact the head of that fractious department, where he had taught the music, culture, literature, and lore of the Delta, an immaculate gentleman in full Savile Row regalia holding forth on Howlin' Wolf, Leadbelly, and Blind Willie McTell. He had an ever present silken handkerchief in the breast pocket of his beautifully cut jackets and a silken voice that rumbled an accent north of the islands and west of the United Kingdom. Before an audience he was magic, his beautiful voice equally calming to the jittery freshmen at orientation and the alternately fawning and preemptively furious parent groups he addressed. He could, better than any admissions officer Portia had ever worked with, soothe an irate alumni parent whose child Princeton had turned down, and unlike every other admissions officer Portia had ever known, he was never seen hauling around great sacks of folders but seemed to be able to retrieve an astounding range of data from memory. His office, too, was always serenely uncluttered, with a perennial vase of calla lilies on the corner of his desk and a rather nice Asher Durand on loan from the Princeton University Art Museum on the wall behind him. It was a far cry from the mixed-up-files cacophony the room had been when it belonged to Martin Quilty. (Back then, only Martin's assistant could guess in which pile or holding bin something might be stashed.) Portia, who was nothing if not supremely well organized herself, could only aspire to the minimalist mastery of her new boss. Theirs was not a warm relationship, obviously. But she did appreciate the calm. And she did appreciate that Asher Durand.
After they landed, Portia made her way into the terminal, pulling her small suitcase behind her. There was a real chill in the building, and she held the lapels of her tweed coat together at the throat. She wore one of the outfits she now rotated for these visits: a synchronicity of tweed and cashmere and brown leather boots, überschoolgirl, Sylvia Plath minus the pearls and plus the sunglasses, but comfortably of the world she was about to enter. The previous May, on her first visits to New England prep schools, she'd learned that they had rituals of their own, with more graces and ceremony than she'd been used to in, for example, a Bay Area public school. Typically, some sort of tea-and-cookies affair followed her presentation, which took place in a slightly shabby, generations-old salon, under the watchful portraits of (white, male) alumni. The first time she'd been ushered into one of these receptions—at Andover, as it happened—she'd experienced a discomforting moment, a kind of self-detected fraudulence —clad as she was in her basic black jeans and careless sweater. No one had ever discussed wardrobe with her or suggested she might be letting down the institution with her evident sartorial imperviousness, but the plain surprise in the eyes of the college adviser, the teachers, and even a couple of the students had sent the message home effectively enough. Later that day she'd dropped nearly a thousand dollars at an Ann Taylor outlet on the way to Milton Academy.