by Tobias Wolff
reviewed by Olivia Roginson
Old School, by Tobias Wolff, follows the life of a young boy growing up in an all boy’s elite private school in 1960. The school is filled with only the most financially gifted, with the exception of the few boys lucky enough to receive scholarships. The narrator happens to be one of these scholarship students, bringing forth a sense of misfit, and a longing to belong in the other boys’ world. One thing to bring every student together is the common love for writing, and the thirst to become a noteworthy author. Willing to do anything to become a known writer and break from the reputation given to him by his family’s lack of wealth, the narrator pushes limits for success, while seeking the acceptance of his peers.
Although many things set apart the boys attending the prestigious prep school, one they can all agree on is that “A true piece of writing… can change your life.” They are all mesmerized by the notion that writing can affect how they perceive the world. The school’s noteworthy visits from well known authors, among whom are Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway, are events anticipated for by a majority of the student body. Along with meeting incredible authors, the boys compete in a writing competition for the chance to have a meeting with them. This highly coveted honor is one every student interested in writing strives for. The young boy followed by in Old School appears to want it just as much, if not more, than his fellow peers. “....I not only read writers, I read about writers.” (7) When his roommate wins the reading by Frost, the boy can’t help but feel envious.
The boy’s troubles are brought to their climax when it is revealed that his submission for the writing contest for Mr. Hemingway is proven to be plagiarized. The dishonesty in the boy’s paper, however, is the least of the school’s worries. Their reputation as an elite writer’s school is put in jeopardy, which stirs more trouble for the boy. “Schools like us are vulnerable to criticism… You have no idea of the damage you have done.” (144) This sense of needing approval of the outside world coincides with the internal struggles the boy faces, while interacting with his wealthy peers. The school sets the example that things you do can not only define you, but they can impact your reputation as well.
Old School provides the perspective of an outsider looking in, and describes the emotions brought forth when peers are forced to compete against each other for life changing opportunities. Though the power of writing is expressed throughout the novel, following the life of the boy outside of school proves to be more impactful. The boy’s realization that he needs to accept himself comes to light when he embraces his family’s heritage.