Transcript

504:

How I Got Into College
Transcript

Originally aired 09.06.2013

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

All across the country this month, college freshmen are starting their new lives at their new schools. And it is so hard to get into so many schools these days. At Columbia University in New York City, 33,000 people applied. 31,000 were rejected. That is fewer than 7% getting in. And the students who did get in, the students who made it here, they still wonder how they did it. You know, it was so hard to get here. What was it that worked? And they have their theories.

Female Student 1

I think it's because my application was, like, very focused on physics, and especially females in physics, because obviously that's a problem.

Female Student 2

I had decent SAT scores. And I had a good GPA. But I think a big part of it was my essays.

Ira Glass

These Columbia students talk to reporter Phia Bennin on their very first day on campus. It was obvious who was a freshman, because they all had to wear neon bracelets, like they were at a water park.

Male Student 1

Well, I've been a competitive gymnast for my entire life.

Female Student 3

I was a rhythmic gymnast, and I competed for the US National team.

Male Student 2

I don't know. I'm pretty diverse, I guess-- Hispanic, disabled, good grades.

Male Student 3

I'm an Eagle scout. That might have helped, too.

Ira Glass

But you do not have to talk to many kids or scratch the surface very far at all before you get this response to the question, what got you into this school?

Female Student 4

I have no idea.

Male Student 4

I still actually have no clue whatsoever.

Female Student 5

Just like the percentage of people that get in is absolutely minuscule. So it really is-- it's just kind of what the admissions officers see in you. And I have no idea what they saw.

Phia Bennin

You have no idea what they saw?

Female Student 5

No.

Ira Glass

I totally relate to that. I remember I was completely clueless when it came to applying to college-- what to do to get in, what to stay on the essays to convince them that I was worthy of their schools, and even more basic than that, I really had no idea what would possibly make one school better than another. How to figure out what schools I should apply to-- it was overwhelming.

And today on our show, it's September, it's back to school. We have stories of some of the most boneheaded things people try to do to get into college. Plus the truly incredible story of how one man made it into college-- that story from writer Michael Lewis. From WBEZ Chicago, it is This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One. The Old College Try.

Ira Glass

Act One, The Old College Try. So here at our radio show, we went looking for a college admissions officer who would tell us the most misguided things that people do when they're applying to schools. And we found Rick Clark, who is director of undergraduate admissions at the Georgia Institute of Technology, better known as Georgia Tech. And he said that he and his team are regularly getting emails and phone calls from parents who are pretending to be their own kids. And he sent me some of these emails with the names redacted.

Ira Glass

You forwarded an email like this to us. This is from a mom's email address. And then it's signed from a son.

Rick Clark

Yeah, yeah.

Ira Glass

And it says, "I was impressed by GT's beautiful campus and its close proximity to so many athletic teams and facilities in Atlanta. I look forward to speaking with someone from the business school. Thanks again for taking the time to meet with us on Saturday. And thanks for the awesome t-shirt." Now the word awesome, is that the most common word that parents use to imitate their kids?

Rick Clark

I'd say awesome and cool. Those would be-- you know, if they throw those in, I think they feel like they're covering their bases on impersonating a high school student. But ironically, I really almost never in fact see that in an email from a high school student.

Ira Glass

Ah. So duplicitous parents, please take note. And then on the phone, when the parents call on the phone, do they use the word awesome?

Rick Clark

I actually just did hear from one of my staff members who said they talked to a mom the other day who clearly was trying to sound like her 17-year-old daughter. Not so much in the language she was using, but masking her voice. About 15 minutes in, she started using "she" instead of "I," even saying "what if she-- I mean I-- wanted to list more activities on the application?"

Ira Glass

Rick Clark says that one thing that has amped this up, all the parents getting in touch, is that lots of schools take into account whether a student shows something called demonstrated interest in their college, meaning did they show up on campus? Did they write emails to the admissions office afterwards? Were they in touch?

Georgia Tech, he says, does not take that stuff into account. But parents do not seem to have gotten the memo on that. He forwarded me an email that a mom wrote to her kid offering the kid $20 if the kid would email the admissions office. Which might have been fine, if she hadn't accidentally sent her email to the admissions office. And Rick Clark says that he gets where the parents are coming from. He is a parent himself. He wants to do everything he can for his kids.

Rick Clark

In fact, we've got a five-year-old right now on a waiting list for a charter school.

Ira Glass

Oh, so you have to deal with some admissions persons.

Rick Clark

Yeah, I'm getting a little taste of my own medicine, because my kid is like seventh on this waiting list. And my wife the other day is like, we're going to call them every week and see where he is. I'm like, whoa, whoa. You are really flirting with the line between loving him and just really being a stalker here.

Ira Glass

So you forwarded this email that you all got. And I guess I shouldn't have been surprised by this. But I got to say, I didn't think-- it's from somebody whose kid is not even applying to college. It says, "Dear Sir or Madam, My second grader--"

[LAUGHS]

Rick Clark

[LAUGHS] I'm sorry.

Ira Glass

I can barely finish this sentence. You can tell you know this email.

Rick Clark

Yeah, absolutely.

Ira Glass

"My second grader has decided on a career in electrical engineering. He is leaning towards MIT, but I do not find them helpful and would prefer a Southern culture."

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

I like that he's playing on your pride, on your southern pride. "Would you please tell me how to prepare him for admission? He will be an Eagle Scout by then and wants to go to the best school. Please advise."

Rick Clark

Yeah. I mean apparently MIT needs to pay more attention to seven-year-olds in their admission process.

Ira Glass

Rick Clark also sent me a bunch of college essays written by kids that they have gotten at Georgia Tech, again, with the names redacted. Turns out one common mistake that kids make when they're writing their essays is that they're sending out so many applications, they leave the names of other schools in their essays to Georgia Tech.

Rick Clark

All right. This is one, in fact, in a-- I don't know-- 14-line short essay, they twice mention a wrong school name. "So after visiting the campus, reading the information brochure, and researching the university website, I understand and believe that Duke offers what I hope to gain from my college experience.

Ira Glass

And they're writing to Georgia Tech.

Rick Clark

And then it skips down a couple lines. And this is what really blows me away, because there's like four words here separating two school names. "I've chosen to apply early decision to Georgia Tech, because I believe Duke is the ideal university for me."

Ira Glass

Are there trends in what kids are writing about-- where you feel like you see little fads and you get sick of them?

Rick Clark

Oh, well the age-old one that-- I mean, again, pretty much anybody that you would interview who's been in college admission for any period of time would be-- you know, we just call it now the mission trip essay. And great to go on a mission trip, great to have a cultural experience. But inevitably, the way it reads is so predictable.

You know, we flew down to somewhere in Central America. And we got off the plane. It was really hot. And we got on the bus, and 20 miles outside of the village, our bus broke down. But we got picked up by like a chicken truck and taken into town. And then, over the course of my time there, I went expecting to help others. But it was, in fact, me who was changed.

And even just when you first start reading that essay, you're like, oh, here it comes again.

Ira Glass

Most college essays are pretty bad. Rick estimates that only one out of every 20 or so essays that he reads is any good at all. That is 19 bad ones, if you're counting at home. But he says that he and his colleagues believe that they themselves are partly to blame for the essay questions that they actually put onto the applications, questions that always get the same kind of mundane suck-up-ey answers from kid after kid after kid. Colleges just market themselves so aggressively to so many people.

Rick Clark

There's a girl that lives just on our street. And she's a senior this year. And she brought me over the stack of mail that she got from schools. I mean, this was just the last, like, two months worth of mail. And it had to be two feet tall. And opening those up, you put your hand over the name of the school, and it could kind of be any place.

Ira Glass

It's funny when you put it that way. Its almost like the schools are being as generic in what they're saying to the students as the students are to the schools.

Rick Clark

That's right. Nobody puts, like, dead squirrels on the front of their college brochure. It's all like football teams winning, beautiful sunny day, kids under a tree with a professor. That's like every other page. It just runs together.

Ira Glass

Rick Clark, director of admissions at Georgia Tech. Go Jackets.

Act Two. My Ames is True.

Ira Glass

Act Two, My Ames is True. Michael Lewis is a pretty well-known writer and reporter. His books Moneyball and The Blind Side were made into movies. He has two best sellers about Wall Street, Liar's Poker and The Big Short. But this particular story happens long before he was writing books. He was in seventh grade in New Orleans, trying to avoid reading them.

Michael Lewis

And the English teacher, Mr. Downer, asked us to write a book report on a novel called Johnny Tremain. And I went home, and I looked at the book. And I noticed on the back there was this great book report of the book. And it was just on the back of the book.

Ira Glass

Oh, you mean like the little summary?

Michael Lewis

The little summary. And I just copied it out and handed it in and was kind of pleased with it. It came back with an A on it. And it says "see me" on the top, in a big red ink. And I go to see Mr. Downer. And he says, that's plagiarism. Oh my god, what's plagiarism?

Ira Glass

You've never heard of it?

Michael Lewis

Never heard of it. And the concept was alien to me. I just thought it was an odd concept, because you repeat what other people say all the time. I was just repeating what someone else said. It just seemed like a very intelligent thing to repeat. And I was telling him this. I thought I was saving us all a lot of trouble.

Ira Glass

Saving us trouble like--?

Michael Lewis

Like it will save him the trouble of reading something really awful. And I wouldn't have to write a boring book report, or even read the boring book. I was doing both of us a favor. And it seemed kind of counterintuitive to have to generate a thing that had already been done.

Ira Glass

Mr. Downer does not agree. And the middle school principal decides to expel Michael.

Ira Glass

And at this point, do you understand what's wrong with what you've done?

Michael Lewis

No. I'm indignant. I understand I'm supposed to feel it's wrong. But I don't feel it's wrong.

Ira Glass

Michael Lewis is-- by the way, if you're a seventh grader hearing us talk about this right now and you want to try this with one of his books in your classroom, you totally have his blessing. He wishes you the best. Though he is pretty sure you're going to get the same results that he did. Anyway, ultimately, his parents get involved. Seventh-grade Michael Lewis is not expelled from school.

Michael Lewis

But what I have to do is write 100 times a phrase that Mr. Downer has written on the blackboard, I will not plagiarize the work of others.

Ira Glass

Wait--

Michael Lewis

The punishment is to plagiarize, 100 times, over and over and over. And I didn't understand really the point of this. Because I thought, well this is just plagiarizing again. You just want to show me that it's supposed to be hard work to plagiarize? That was the--

Ira Glass

So this has become one those stories that Michael has found himself telling, you know, now and then over the years.

Michael Lewis

Every now and then I wheel it out. And at some point it occurred to me that the mere fact I like this story says an awful lot about me.

Ira Glass

So what does this one say about you?

Michael Lewis

Well, I think it rhymes with sort of my world view, and the general sense that authority is often absurd, a general sense that punishments often don't fit crimes, a general sense that often things that are supposed to be wrong don't actually feel wrong, and maybe they aren't as wrong as people say.

Ira Glass

You know, we all have certain stories from our childhoods that we've tried out from time to time, out of all the thousands of things that ever happened to us. And usually there's not many stories that we'll actually trot out, right? And the choices that we make, the selection that we make of which incidents we find ourselves telling people, it says so much about us and how we see the world, which ones we pick.

And I bring all this up because the actual, real story that Michael Lewis is here on the radio show today to report is a very good example of that. Of course, this is our "How I Got Into College" show, so this is the story of how one guy named Emir Kamenica got into college. But it's also an illustration of this other thing. Anyway, here's Michael.

Michael Lewis

I think if I were telling you Emir's story, I would probably just start it at the very beginning-- how he was born in Bosnia in 1978, how he grew up in Sarajevo with loving parents and a happy family. But it's his story. So let's let him tell it the way he tells it.

Emir Kamenica

All right. Well, I guess the natural place to start the story might just be the outset of the war, which I was 13 at the time. The war, from my perspective, because I wasn't particularly paying attention to the political situation, comes truly out of nowhere. One morning you wake up, expecting the world will look just the way it did yesterday. And instead there are these people in leather jackets with stockings on their heads and machine guns in their hands.

Michael Lewis

So the Serb troops hadn't gotten to his neighborhood yet. And one Sunday, his mother took Emir and his sister across the river to visit his great-aunt. The walk was about a mile.

Emir Kamenica

So when we realize this might not have been a good idea is when we start crossing this bridge. Some shooting starts, and it's clear some people are shooting at us, because you can see the bullets ricochet around. And we just kind of run.

Michael Lewis

They managed to get to the other side of the bridge without getting shot, but they couldn't go back. And his dad was trapped back where they lived. The Serb troops wound up killing a lot of the men in Emir's old neighborhood and raping the women.

But when Emir tells this story, he stresses just how lucky they were to get out. For example, how lucky they were to hitch a ride from two women, complete strangers, and to join a convoy of 5,000 Bosnian refugees, all of them women and children fleeing for the Croatian coast. How lucky it was that they owned a camper near the beach where they spent the summers. How lucky it was that it was May, when the weather was warm. How lucky they were even after the weather turned cold and their camper became uninhabitable.

Emir Kamenica

Which was actually another pure, fortuitous coincidence. My mother happen to be in a market and ran across a woman who was my sister's homeroom teacher in Sarajevo.

Michael Lewis

This woman happened to be moving to London and needed someone to watch her apartment-- more good luck. Clearly, there was some bad luck too, but Emir doesn't mention it. I have to prod him to fill in the piece of the story he most obviously leaves out.

Michael Lewis

So let me stop you for a second.

Emir Kamenica

Yeah. Sorry, go on.

Michael Lewis

I was going to ask you, do you know exactly what happened to your father?

Emir Kamenica

I don't know exactly what happened. What I do know is that a neighbor of ours, a person who lived in our high rise, he found my father's body on the street. And he took him to the local cemetery and buried him. So we at least do know where he is.

Michael Lewis

Anyway, Emir and his mom and his sister moved into this apartment in a city crawling with hostile Croat nationalists. His mother wasn't allowed to work. And before long, Emir and his sister weren't allowed to go to school. When he went outside, Emir would be chased by these thugs who wanted to beat him up just because he was Muslim.

His family wasn't even faintly religious. They didn't believe in God. They actually defined themselves as atheists. So he thought this was especially bizarre. He was stuck inside this apartment. In his telling, he did almost nothing but read books.

Emir Kamenica

So I would get the books from the local library. I would sort of run there to make sure I don't encounter any of the nationalists that are trying to prove their patriotism by beating me up.

Michael Lewis

And I'm trying to picture this, actually. So you're actually kind of running through the streets with library books under your arms and running back with other library books under your arms?

Emir Kamenica

Yeah, it was library books. I also tried to teach myself a few things, because eventually you get bored of reading novels. So I tried to learn some more physics. I read a lot of Freud, which I then decided was not that good.

And one of the books I read was called The Fortress by an author called Mesa Selimovic. And I do not know why-- I guess 15-year-olds are impressionable-- I was very much moved by the novel.

Michael Lewis

I've never actually read The Fortress, but according to the description on the back of the book, it's about a young man who, quote, "overcomes the psychological anguish of war, only to find that he has emerged a reflective and contemplative man in a society that does not value the subversive implications of these qualities." Emir loved the book. He read it over and over.

One day his mother announces that they've had another lucky break. Out of a million Bosnian refugees, they are among the first few thousand being handed tickets to the United States. They packed to leave. But all Emir has is some t-shirts, blue jeans, and this library book.

Emir Kamenica

Which is still in my room. And so when we're packing to leave, I decide to bring it with me to the US as my most prized possession.

Michael Lewis

So when you take this book, are you sensitive to the fact that you're stealing a library book?

Emir Kamenica

I'm entirely aware of that, yeah. I didn't feel like the community or town had treated me very nicely. So I perhaps had less guilt than I might have in another circumstance.

Michael Lewis

The UN dropped Emir and his mom and his sister in Atlanta, which was as good as any other place since they didn't know a soul in the entire country. They're picked up at the Atlanta airport, along with an older Bosnian couple they don't know at all, and taken to their new home.

Emir Kamenica

And we pull into this apartment complex. And I remember very well when the van stopped. I just saw this look of terror on my mother and sister's faces. So I immediately turned to them, reassuring them, said oh no, no. They're not dropping us off here. This is just where this couple is going. We're going elsewhere.

So the guy opened the door. The other couple got out. And I just sort of with my hand signaled to my mother and sister to sit still. Because surely, surely this is not where we're going. But in fact that was where we were going. And it's just horrible. There's cockroaches running all over the place.

Michael Lewis

So far as he could tell, there weren't any other white people in the neighborhood. And to Emir, this whole black people white people thing was an entirely new experience. But the first thing that struck him was that the black people didn't really seem to like the white people very much.

Emir Kamenica

Which was particularly ironic, given that first, I don't know that I'm Muslim. All of a sudden, people try and kill me because they think I'm Muslim. I did not know I was white. Now all of a sudden these kids want to beat me up because I'm white.

Michael Lewis

Once again, he couldn't leave his home without feeling a little bit scared, even when he went to school, which was called Clarkston High. Sitting in his literature class one day, Emir heard a kid get shot right outside the classroom.

Emir Kamenica

The teacher was reading out loud from Romeo and Juliet at the time. I'm not sure if others noticed the kind of appropriateness. There was lots of racial tension. I was one of, I would guess, like, 12 or 20 white kids in a school of 900. There were lots fights, lots of fighting.

Probably the worst class of all, by far, was this biology class. And the teacher there, this was, I think, his first year teaching. And he did not have any method for controlling the students. So one day he brought a bunny to class.

But the other students decided that it would be much more entertaining to use the bunny as a soccer ball. So they would just kick the bunny around while the teacher sort of ran around the classroom trying to stop this. The bunny survived, but it looked like he had gone blind in one of his eyes. It was completely mangled.

Michael Lewis

In those first few months, Emir made just a single friend, another Bosnian refugee named Emil. Emir and Emil were inseparable, but they were joined mainly by their fear of everyone else.

Michael Lewis

And how is your English at this point?

Emir Kamenica

Terrible.

Michael Lewis

That was another problem. He says he couldn't really talk to the other kids or his teachers. And so he sort of walked around the school in silence, like a mute. To improve his English, he returned to The Fortress, the novel he'd stolen from the Croatian library. At night he'd sit down with a dictionary and translate The Fortress from Bosnian to English.

Emir Kamenica

It was useful, because it did improve my English. And it also gave me this sense of-- it made me feel literary. It made me feel like I was creating something beautiful.

Michael Lewis

So he was back to sitting alone in his room with his novel. But as Emir tells it, all this really just set the stage for his biggest stroke of luck, the one that would not only get him into college but would change his entire life.

It came in the form of a teacher who descended for maybe two weeks upon his English classroom. Emir remembers only her last name-- Ames. Ms. Ames, or maybe it was Mrs. Ames. He thinks she was an intern training to be a teacher. Anyway, she wasn't around for very long.

Unlike his regular teacher, she was full of energy. She tried all these new tricks to engage their interest. One day she handed out these photographs to the kids. The one she gave to Emir was of a boy with a haunted look on his face, looking over his shoulder. Then she told them all to write an essay about the pictures.

Emir Kamenica

Write an essay-- that's a pretty difficult thing for me, given my limited knowledge of English. So I first thought I'm going to dread this task. But then I realized there's this really beautiful passage, this beautiful chapter I had translated, I had worked on the previous night, from The Fortress. So I decide to pretty much word for word replicate this passage and use that as my essay for Ms. Ames.

I still remember a little bit about what the passage was about. The protagonist has witnessed an injustice. I remember I closed my essay with this bit of internal monologue, which roughly says, I'm slowly becoming a repository for decomposing sorrows, regrets, ignored injustice, and forgotten promises. I can still feel its stench. But when I get accustomed to it, I will call it experience. And I think Ms. Ames was impressed.

Michael Lewis

And since The Fortress had never been translated into English, there was exactly zero chance she would ever catch him.

Emir Kamenica

What happened is the next day Ms. Ames walks up to me and pretty much whispers into my ear, you have to get out of this school. Which is not what you typically expect teachers to tell you in school. But I'm like, yeah. Where? Where do I go? And she said, well there are private schools. I was like, well, don't those cost money?

She says, well, you know, some of them have financial aid. In fact, I have a job interview at a very nice private school on Monday. Why don't you just come with me and ask whether they have financial aid? And I was like, OK.

So the following Monday, instead of going to Clarkston High in morning, Ms. Ames comes to pick me up at our apartment complex. And she drives me to midtown Atlanta to this just beautiful, wonderful school with manicured lawns. It just looks lovely.

Michael Lewis

This new place is called the Paideia School. He's never heard of it.

Emir Kamenica

So she goes to have her job interview. And I go to the admissions office. And there's the admissions officer. So she's looking at me, sort of, so? And I remember pretty distinctly, I said, I'm a Bosnian refugee. My school is really bad. Can I please go here?

Michael Lewis

You'd memorized that sentence?

Emir Kamenica

I think I had practiced it ahead of time. So it's kind of stuck in my head because I'd planned this, this great pitch that I had, which is, I'm a Bosnian refugee. My school is really bad. Can I please go here?

She points out to me that applications were due three months ago. She asks whether I need financial aid. I ask how much it would be. She said something which to me was equivalent to a bazillion dollars. So I say, yes, I need financial aid. She points out those were given out six months ago. She then suggests maybe I should think about applying for the following year.

And to that I retort, I'm a Bosnian refugee. My school is really, really bad. Can I please, please go here? And I guess that was effective, particularly in conjunction with the essay, which Ms. Ames brought to her job interview. So that when she was asked why she wants to be a teacher, she pulls out this essay and says, because of children like these.

Michael Lewis

These children who plagiarize essays from stolen library books.

Emir Kamenica

But she didn't know that.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Paideia is the most PC, diversity-obsessed school south of the Mason-Dixon line. I mean, they really think diversity is important. And a Bosnian refugee at this time? That's a very rare commodity. So they basically managed to dig up some money.

So I was there sophomore, junior, and senior year of high school. And it was a lovely place. It was a heaven on earth, as far as I was concerned. All the teachers went by their first name. We had couches instead of desks in the classrooms.

I mean, not just was the school good, I also felt safe. And this feeling of safety had been lacking for the previous few years. And I think it does something to you. I think you have no new resources to pay attention to things about the world which are beautiful, things about the world which are interesting, things about the world which are intriguing.

I'm speculating here. But I think you're somewhere at a deep level distracted by the threat. I could instead focus on catching up on the things I hadn't learned.

Michael Lewis

Four years later, he was a student at Harvard on a scholarship that paid for tuition, room, and board. From there, he went and got his PhD in Economics, also from Harvard. At Harvard, he met his future wife. And from Harvard, he went to the University of Chicago, which gave him tenure at a young age. And he's now a rising star in the field of behavioral economics. All because Ms. Ames read his plagiarized essay and was fooled by it.

Emir Kamenica

I mean, it is by far the-- in everyone's life there are many forks. This is by far the biggest one. This is what made the most difference. There's no doubt that my life got onto a very different kind of a track. And I'm pretty sure that if it hadn't been for her, I would've stayed in Clarkston High School. I wouldn't have thought to apply to a private school. I most certainly wouldn't have gone to Harvard.

And if you gave me a piece of paper and a pen 10 years ago and said, OK, describe what you think of as the most wonderful life, I think I'd come up with something less good than what it actually is.

Michael Lewis

It's always hard to say how your life would have turned out differently if something hadn't happened to you. But in Emir's case, there's at least one useful reference point-- his Bosnian friend, Emil. Emil hadn't been airlifted out of Clarkston into some fancy private school. Instead, he dropped out of Clarkston, done some bad things, and actually spent some time in jail. Eventually he went back to Bosnia. No Ms. Ames. No rescue.

Over the years, Emir's told this story a lot. It might be his favorite story that he tells about himself. It rhymes with this view of the world, that there's just this huge, accidental component to life's outcomes, that everyone owes at least some of their success not just to chance but to other people being nice for no reason at all.

Michael Lewis

What became of Ms. Ames?

Emir Kamenica

I don't know. It turned out she didn't get the job at Paideia. So I never saw her again at Paideia. In fact, I never saw her again.

Michael Lewis

At some point, the fact that Emir had no idea what had happened to this woman who changed his entire life started to bother him. It's as if the more he told the story, the more grateful he became. And the more grateful he became, the more we wanted to find her, to thank her, but also just to show her the life he had because of her.

He Googled around for her, but then realized he didn't have any idea how to spell her name. He pestered both of his old schools, but neither of them had any record of her. No one even remembered her. His investigations, such as they were, were sort of half-assed. But what was he going to do? Hire a private eye?

Irving Botwinick

My name is Irving Botwinick. And my business is called Serving by Irving.

Michael Lewis

So you specialize in finding people.

Irving Botwinick

That's what we do. We dig them up. Actually, we have a motto. If they're alive, we serve them. If they're dead, we'll tell you where they're buried.

Michael Lewis

Irving is a private detective who serves lots of court papers. Since Emir wasn't going to hire one, This American Life did it for him.

Michael Lewis

All right. So we have somebody we need to find.

Irving Botwinick

OK.

Emir Kamenica

All right. So the person that we'd like to find is called Ms. Ames. Not sure how to spell that. I have reasons to think, I can mention later, that she was married at least the last time I saw her, which was in 1993 in Atlanta, Georgia.

Michael Lewis

Emir went on to explain in great detail that he knew basically nothing about her. Height, weight, eye color-- all a mystery. When Irving asked him what she looked like, he said, quote, "She was neither particularly skinny nor fat, not particularly short nor tall." She looked normal, he said.

About the only thing he remembers about her is what she had done for him. Irving thought the full-time English teacher would be a good place to start. But Emir didn't remember her name either.

Irving Botwinick

Do you have a class book for that year?

Emir Kamenica

Oh, no. No.

Michael Lewis

Somehow Irving seemed to find what Emir was saying useful. He wrote little notes to himself, about what I do not know. But at the top of the page, he wrote Ms. Ames. Then he wrote a big question mark. Then he asked Emir to go away and write down everything he could remember from that period of his life. But before he lifted a finger to find Ms. Ames, he said he needed to do a character check on Emir.

Irving Botwinick

Because a lot of times, investigators get cases where they're trying to track somebody down, then they go and they kill them. So we have to verify what you're telling us is the truth as well.

Michael Lewis

So Irving, let's just assume that the facts are as bare as they sound. Is it hopeless?

Irving Botwinick

No. There's nobody I can't find. I'll put it that way. I could have found Osama bin Laden if they paid me enough to do it.

Michael Lewis

So how long do you need to do your search? When can we expect to be sitting down in a room with Ms. Ames?

Irving Botwinick

Oh, probably before the end of the month, before the end of February.

Michael Lewis

The end of February came and went. March came and went too without the slightest trace of Ms. Ames. It wasn't for lack of trying. Irving had put his best agent on the case, a woman named Gabriella Galindo. The first thing Gabriella did was to try the public school, but only two teachers who had been there in 1993 were still around.

Gabriella Galindo

They had no recollection of not even the English teacher, not even the English teacher.

Michael Lewis

She hired a local detective to go to Clarkston to get the yearbook. But they wouldn't give him one. She learned that the Georgia Department of Education keeps a list of all the teachers ever certified in the state. But she couldn't get access to the list.

She called nearby colleges to search lists of graduates from the 1990s. Still no sign of Ms. Ames. Out of desperation, she hunted down all the old phone books from the region from the 1990s.

Gabriella Galindo

These are copies of the phone books that we received, going back from 1990 to 1993, of all the people in the greater Atlanta area with the last name Ames, which is a very, very common name, we found. Very common.

Michael Lewis

And roughly how many people were there?

Gabriella Galindo

Oh my god. I don't know. Hundreds.

Michael Lewis

And you weren't even sure her name was Ames.

Gabriella Galindo

Correct. That's the other thing. We weren't sure.

Michael Lewis

They called every Ames on the list, all these hundreds of names. Still didn't find her. And it was starting to feel just a little bit weird. A lot of the people Irving goes hunting for don't want to be found. But he finds them anyway. Here was someone with no obvious reason not to want to be found. And she vanished without a trace.

After a couple months of this, you couldn't help but wonder, why was this woman the most difficult person on Earth to find? Was it because she wasn't an earthly creature? Not once but twice, this boy had found himself in a world more intent on destroying him than in building him up. Maybe he needed evidence that people weren't all bad. Maybe that's where angels always come from.

Michael Lewis

Is this Ms. Ames?

Ms. Ames

Yes it is.

Michael Lewis

Oh my goodness. It's like finding a ghost, finding you. It's a pleasure to hear your voice.

Ms. Ames

Thank you.

Michael Lewis

It's just the two of us talking. Emir isn't in the conversation yet.

Michael Lewis

I'm going to call you Ms. Ames, because I don't want to think of you as anything but Ms. Ames.

Ms. Ames

I'd much rather be thought of as Lauren. It's a lot sexier.

Michael Lewis

Well, we didn't actually think of you as a sex object when we were thinking of Ms. Ames. We thought of you as an angel coming out of the sky.

Ms. Ames

Well, that's good too.

Michael Lewis

Here's how they found her. Gabriella finally got her hands on that list of all the teachers certified in the state of Georgia. She noticed one of the women named Ames had allowed her certification to lapse. This one Ames she tracked down in West Virginia and left messages for, saying only that she was looking for an English teacher on behalf of a former student.

Ms. Ames

And I immediately knew. She didn't mention Emir's name. I just knew. It never crossed my mind that it would be anybody but Emir, frankly. I knew one day he'd be a famous something.

Michael Lewis

The basic plan was to fly Ms. Ames to Chicago to meet Emir. But I wanted to ask her what she remembered, before Emir had a chance to tell her what she should remember. She told me that she was 36 years old when she arrived at Clarkston High as a student teacher. She'd recently married a man named Chris Ames, and they decided they wouldn't have children of their own.

She thinks that maybe the faint regrets of that decision made her want to go out of her way to help some kid. Anyway, she noticed this extremely talented boy in her class and watched him-- not for two weeks as an intern, as Emir had told me, for many months, an entire semester in which she was put in charge of his class, she says, as his full-time English teacher. And how was Emir's English at the time?

Ms. Ames

It was tremendous. It was absolutely tremendous. Really, really good.

Michael Lewis

There were other differences in their stories. For example, Emir said the public school was terrifying and useless. Ms. Ames didn't agree.

Ms. Ames

Well, certainly there were drugs. And I'm sure there was some violence. But it wasn't a ghetto school, no. It was a quirky, quasi-city, quasi-suburban school that had a great student body that was interesting because they were from so many different places.

Michael Lewis

By that she means from all over the world-- Kenya, Somalia, Bosnia, Vietnam, Korea. The place was like a teenage UN in her telling. But the most glaring gap between their two stories was a central plot point, the key moment-- the plagiarized essay.

In Emir's version it's what saves him. But Ms. Ames doesn't even remember it. She recalls the moment she decided to move him to private school this way.

Ms. Ames

Well, actually, I think it was the day that he diagrammed sentences for me on the blackboard for the rest of the students. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to make them learn it. And it was just mind-numbingly boring.

And Emir said to me, I really think I can explain this. And they'll understand it. So he took over, and it was a great class. And he did a wonderful job. And it just occurred to me, right there on the spot, this kid is just capable of so much more than this school can offer him.

Michael Lewis

Still, no essay. I give her a little nudge.

Michael Lewis

And do you remember any particular piece of work he did? Is anything come too--- when you think back of his work as a student, did anything in particular catch your attention?

Ms. Ames

He wrote an essay about losing his dad in Bosnia and his family coming to America that was incredibly moving and beautifully written.

Michael Lewis

Huh. It sounds like a different essay, but at least it's an essay. But as soon as she brings up the essay, she drops it.

Ms. Ames

We took a stab, I remember, at poetry in that class. And he was very good at that. He understood metre right away. But I did speak with his math and science teachers. And they said that he was working at a level that was beyond anything that was taught, even in the senior year at the AP level. And that they just said, we're trying to find things to give him to do, because he was just so advanced.

Michael Lewis

The essay on which Emir has based his entire life story had nothing to do with her decision to help him. That much was clear. It was also clear that Ms. Ames hadn't grabbed him on some mistaken whim, but only after observing his rare combination of genius and kindness for months. And then she'd gone and created a kind of battle plan to move him out of public school and into private.

She didn't ever have any job interview at the private school. She thinks maybe she told him that, just to avoid getting his hopes up.

Ms. Ames

I'd done a lot of investigation. I met with my colleagues over there and sent records over and made a lot of sales pitches and was told that there may not be enough scholarship money. It was kind of late, this and that. But I kept pushing and pushing, and finally we got him an appointment over there.

Michael Lewis

It isn't just the details that conflict here. It's the whole moral of the story. Ms. Ames doesn't believe for a minute that she made all that much of a difference to Emir. She thinks he was so ridiculously gifted that he'd have gone on to greater things, even if he'd stayed at Clarkston.

Ms. Ames

Well, you know, frankly, he didn't even need to go to high school. He could have gone straight to college. He just needed to grow up. Seriously. I'm not joking. I just don't think any teacher would get another student like Emir in a lifetime. I had my once-in-a-lifetime student right off the bat.

Michael Lewis

Did you feel any impulse to get back in touch with him?

Ms. Ames

No. Let the chicks fly. I'm not really a kid person. Sorry. No, we had our own lives. And I wanted him to have his life. And I didn't earn his way into Paideia or Harvard. He did it. That's his accomplishment.

Michael Lewis

What happens when the story a person is telling about his life gets fact-checked? I don't mean what happens when you say you graduated from college when you actually didn't, and your employer finds out and you get fired. I mean what happens when you really want to believe your life story was this, and then you get told by somebody who knows better, Nope. Actually, it wasn't this. It was that.

Michael Lewis

You swear you haven't called him.

Ms. Ames

No. I wouldn't do-- I'm honest.

Michael Lewis

I know you're honest.

A few weeks later, Ms. Ames and I meet up in Chicago. We're visiting Emir at his job at the University of Chicago Business School. Up until the time she got our call, the only way Ms. Ames has even tried to keep track of Emir is by checking the list of Nobel Prize winners each year to see if his name is on it.

And oddly enough, it's not a totally crazy way to try to keep track of him. He hasn't gotten the Nobel Prize yet, but he's the sort of person who might. His colleagues say he's brilliant, and half of them already have gotten the Nobel Prize.

Ms. Ames

Excuse me. Where can we get an elevator to the fifth floor?

Michael Lewis

The Chicago Business School feels less like a school than the headquarters of a highly successful corporation, or maybe a Swiss resort.

Michael Lewis

This way. There he is.

Emir Kamenica

Hi.

Ms. Ames

Hello--

Emir Kamenica

Hi.

Ms. Ames

--gorgeous.

Ira Glass

OK. And at that point, we have to take a break. What happens when Emir and Ms. Ames sit down and compare notes about his past? Michael Lewis will be back with that in just one minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- "How I Got Into College." Michael Lewis, if you heard before the break, he's telling the story of two people who are seeing each other again for the very first time in two decades. And let us just pick up right where we left off before the break.

Emir Kamenica

Hi.

Ms. Ames

Hello--

Emir Kamenica

Hi.

Ms. Ames

--gorgeous. It's wonderful to see you after all this time.

Emir Kamenica

Indeed. Indeed.

Ms. Ames

Thanks for having us.

Emir Kamenica

Well, thank you for coming in.

Michael Lewis

Emir and Ms. Ames make awkward chitchat for a few minutes. And then we all go into his office to talk. There's a giant, vaguely familiar painting on one of the walls. Emir explains that it's a forgery by some guy in China who specializes in them. Ms. Ames is more interested in his coffee table.

Ms. Ames

Do you know my parents had that exact same coffee table in our house growing up?

Emir Kamenica

You know this is a knockoff?

Michael Lewis

That's a knockoff?

Emir Kamenica

Yeah, it's a knockoff.

Michael Lewis

It's a plagiarized piece of furniture?

Emir Kamenica

Well, it's a very poorly done knockoff Noguchi.

Ms. Ames

Yes.

Emir Kamenica

You can tell it's not real. So I don't think it counts as plagiarism.

Michael Lewis

Anything else around here that's not what it purports to be?

Emir Kamenica

That's a fake skull of a giant rodent.

Michael Lewis

We eventually settle into Emir's office and turn our attention to Emir's memories, which thanks to Ms. Ames, are suddenly a little problematic themselves. He tells his story all over again, until he gets to what he sees as its biggest turning point.

Emir Kamenica

So I try to put down, to the extent which I could, word for word, this beautiful passage from this accomplished writer.

Michael Lewis

He doesn't change any of the facts, but his tone is just a tiny bit less certain, maybe because he sees Ms. Ames rising in her chair.

Ms. Ames

Yeah, I mouthed to you, he plagiarized it. I'm horrified. I'm truly horrified. No one wants to be duped, you know.

Michael Lewis

Here's the safest way to plagiarize-- do it in the distant past. The teacher is no longer capable of getting angry about it, and the plagiarist is no longer even faintly embarrassed. Emir finishes his story with the same punchline. In that brief moment, Ms. Ames mistakes him for a genius and gets him into a school that gets him into Harvard. But Ms. Ames is now shaking her head.

Ms. Ames

It didn't happen that fast, though. It was April when we went. I'd already worked with you for a couple of months when we went into see the people at Paideia.

Michael Lewis

Do you remember that?

Ms. Ames

I'd seen a lot more work than just on essay. And seeing what he could do in class on a daily basis was more impressive to me.

Michael Lewis

It's about now that Emir begins to see that Ms. Ames is screwing up his life story. The plagiarized essay is the key to the thing. Without it, his story-- and his life-- isn't about luck and chance and the guiding hand of a guardian angel he didn't deserve. It's about something else. And he doesn't want it to be about something else.

Emir Kamenica

I recognize that my memory of it is someone spotty. But I do have what seems like a pretty distinct memory of the essay sort of triggering the conversation. That you should get out of the school followed very closely on heel of the essay.

Ms. Ames

It may have. But I was already convinced, I promise you.

Emir Kamenica

So it still could have been like the proximate cause, even if not the deep cause.

Ms. Ames

[SIGHS] OK.

Michael Lewis

But not really. There's a bunch of stuff she says which he can't bring himself to accept. For instance, that the school she pulled them out of wasn't an educational dead end, but an interesting and diverse place in which he could have gotten a great education.

Emir Kamenica

I remember the racial mix as being very few-- I remember being like one of like 12 white kids in a school of 900. That's not right?

Ms. Ames

I think it was probably more 40% African American, 40% international and kids from all over the world. And so about 20% of the kids were white kids who were longtime Clarkston residents, family after family lived there.

Emir Kamenica

That's certainly not my recollection. But then again, this is a matter for research rather than debate. It's probably easy to check.

Michael Lewis

Here it is-- the single objective fact that they disagree about that can be checked, a fact that might shed light on whose version of this story is more strictly true. So later we checked it.

The school district couldn't give us statistics for the year Emir was there, but they have them for the following year. Emir's estimate that he was one of a dozen white kids in the school leaves out, oh, roughly 200 other white kids. They made up 17% percent of the school, pretty close to Ms. Ames' estimate.

Emir listens politely to Ms. Ames' account of how and why she helped him and how and why it didn't actually matter all that much, as he was clearly destined for great things.

Ms. Ames

You would have gotten into the honors program at UGA from Clarkston, or gone to George Tech. And from an undergraduate degree in the honors program at UGA or Georgia Tech, you could've gotten into Harvard for a PhD, or Chicago or Stanford. I mean, it's doable. It happens. I know people who have done it.

Michael Lewis

If Emir cares what Ms. Ames thinks, he's doing a pretty good job of hiding his interest. It isn't until she describes what happened after she helped him out that he becomes truly excited.

Ms. Ames

There were quite a few people at the school who weren't thrilled with the fact that I poached their best student. So they sent me to the absolute worst school in the county and put me under the new principal there, who had been the assistant principal at Clarkston. And he brought me in his office and said, you've got a lot of high-minded ideas. And you don't know what you're talking about. And it's going to be my job to break you in. And you're going to learn how to do this right. And so forth and so on.

And it was a really rough year. He did break me in. In fact, he broke me, because I quit. I couldn't take it anymore.

Michael Lewis

So this-- he did this because you had poached Emir from the school?

Ms. Ames

To be totally honest with you, yeah.

Michael Lewis

For helping Emir to move from the public school to the private school, Ms. Ames was more or less driven out of teaching. She quit, changed careers, and eventually moved with her husband to West Virginia, where she's now an interior designer.

Emir Kamenica

But this-- I mean, wait. To get this right, you are telling me only that did you go through all of this trouble--

Ms. Ames

I told you this wasn't fair.

Emir Kamenica

Why is it not fair? It's incredibly important. It transforms what-- this is just changing by the minute from my conceptualization of well, after two weeks, you said you should go to this place. It was fantastic and made all the difference. That's enough, because that changed my life.

What I'm learning only now is that you did all of these things, and then you were basically cast out of the apparent paradise, which is Clarkston, which I still find a little doubling, increasing by an order of magnitude what was already an enormous amount of gratitude.

Michael Lewis

That night Emir invited Ms. Ames to his house for dinner and to meet his wife and 18-month-old daughter. He wanted to show her the life that he never would have had if not for her.

[BABY CRYING]

Ms. Ames

Hi, sweetheart.

Michael Lewis

Much, much later, after dinner and drinks and more drinks and after he's passed out some stiff cocktail from the old country, I ask Emir how it will change his life story now that he's heard what actually happened. He said he'd incorporate the fact that Ms. Ames got punished for helping him, which of course only makes the story better. She's now not only and angel but a martyr. But what about the plagiarized essay from the stolen library book on which the whole story turns?

Emir Kamenica

I mean, suppose that the story was-- let's do a thought experiment-- there was no recollection of the essay, none whatsoever. I wouldn't enjoy telling the story about the essay at that point.

Michael Lewis

Wait. We don't have to do that thought experiment. That's what really happened. Ms. Ames actually didn't remember the essay. Emir's already forgotten that fact.

Emir Kamenica

I wasn't convinced by the alternative account, genuinely. Because it was so apparent that I was also diagramming sentences, which does make a far worse story, dramatically speaking. I diagrammed a sentence. And boy, you know how well I diagrammed it? It was just fantastic. I mean, the verbs and the nouns and the adjectives and the adverbs were all just separate.

Michael Lewis

I didn't really see the point of torturing Emir any further. He needed his story to be what it was, and so he was sticking to it. The question was why. What did it do for him? Why does a man who makes his career as a scientist cling to his story in spite of evidence that it isn't true?

And that's when it dawns on me. Emir Kamenica is just an unusually happy human being. He exudes the emotion from every pore.

Michael Lewis

Have you always been happy?

Emir Kamenica

I think I've been happy for a pretty long time now.

Michael Lewis

Now, there is no obvious connection between a person's happiness and the way he tells stories about himself. But I think there's a not-so-obvious one. When you insist, the way that Emir does, that you're both lucky and indebted to other people, well, you're sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren't you?

It's just very different than if you tell yourself that you simply deserve all the good stuff that happens to you. Because you happened to be born a genius or suffered so much or worked so hard-- that way of telling the story-- well, it's what you hear from every miserable bond trader at Goldman Sachs, or for that matter, every other a-hole who ever walked the earth.

It's at this exact moment, when the subject of happiness comes up, that Emir's wife Yelena, becomes very interested.

Yelena

Both I know it and all of my friends know that he's the happiest person that we've met. You can't fake it. You can't decide that I'm just going to be happy, right? Because it will unravel very quickly. And you will find reasons to be grumpy.

Michael Lewis

The reason her husband's so happy, she thinks, has to do with the way he filters the world around him-- the way he decides not just what to think about, but how to think about it. She says she sees him do this all the time.

Yelena

It's a micro decision. I've seen him get some news and decide how to feel about that. It's a practiced decision, but I still observe Emir making that decision. And I've tried to crack that code by living with him.

Michael Lewis

Crack what code?

Yelena

The code of happiness. Making that decision of how you're going to feel about something.

Michael Lewis

These stories we tell about ourselves-- they're almost like our infrastructure, like railroads or highways. We can build them almost any way we want to. But once they're in place, this whole inner landscape grows up around them. So maybe the point here is that you should be careful about how you tell your story, or at least conscious of it. Because once you've told it, once you've built the highway, it's just very hard to move it. Even if your story is about an angel who came out of nowhere and saved your life, even then, not even the angel herself can change it.

Ira Glass

Michael Lewis.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, and Alissa Shipp, our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from help from Dana Chivvis. [? Elliot Stapleton ?] is filling in as operations director. Emily Condon is our production manager. Elise Bergerson is our administrative assistant. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Research help from Michelle Harris. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

Thanks, as always, to our show's co-founder, Torey Malatia. You know, I beat him at backgammon last night. And I don't know, he took it kind of hard.

Emir Kamenica

I'm slowly becoming a repository for decomposing sorrows, regrets, ignored injustice, forgotten promises.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.