Book Review

How one guidance counselor made a difference

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / September 29, 2009

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A former high school teacher and journalist, David Marcus knows about the inner lives of teens and teachers, and knows how to write about them. In researching “Acceptance,’’ Marcus spent a year inside Long Island’s Oyster Bay High School, focusing on an extraordinary guidance counselor and the students he helps get into college.

Gwyeth Smith (nicknamed “Smitty’’) is a Maine native who spent almost four decades helping students find the best college match. In Marcus’s absorbing narrative, Smith moves through his final year as a guidance counselor, as the application deadlines loom, his students are unsure what colleges might best suit their needs, their parents hover with sometimes-overprotective closeness, and the acceptance and rejection letters finally arrive, ripped open by expectant hands.

The college admissions process, as described by Smith and Marcus, is complicated all around. Students don’t always know what they want, nor do parents, and crafting a terrific application package (including grades, student essays, and standardized test scores) is far from simple work, even with the help of a brilliant guidance counselor. Smith’s approach goes far beyond the numbers. He demands that his students examine themselves and their own lives to find out what makes them unique. In discovering and presenting themselves to colleges, Smith believes, they will find their best fit.

Smith “lived and breathed the application game,’’ writes Marcus (who once worked at the Globe); he “could find the perfect school for the most quirky kid, coax a sensitive essay from the toughest jock, and induce the nerdiest engineering student to exude poise in an interview.’’ The seven teenagers Marcus and Smith focus on are a good cross-section of high schools everywhere. There’s Chelsea, the artsy kid who wants to express her creativity; Jeff, the multisport athlete who underachieves academically; Lee, the Korean-American overachiever who yearns to become more independent; Allyson, the brilliant student who worries that being a Jewish woman from Long Island won’t distinguish her enough.

Smith gets to know his charges personally, becoming involved with their families, teachers, and even their bosses. After one student complains to Smith about being overstretched by a heavy academic workload, the demands of college admissions, and a part-time job, Smith visits her boss and negotiates some scheduling flexibility for the student. While Smith’s compassion and dedication are everywhere on display, he can also be blunt. He unabashedly tells students who shoot too high (e.g., a mediocre science student wanting to apply to Massachusetts Institute of Technology) to stop wasting time and be more realistic.

Smith spends a lot of time working with students on application essays. “Because most kids never have an admission interview,’’ writes Marcus, “Smitty saw the essay as the one chance for a student’s voice to be heard. Far more than a transcript, it conveyed who they were.’’ Smith probes his students with simple questions that help them discover themselves and what they want.

Marcus also follows students grappling with the stress of the admissions process, with deadlines and parents looming. Mostly, Smith’s students end up happy. Marcus shows us Allyson opening an acceptance e-mail from the University of Michigan, her top choice: thrilled, she “screamed the news to her parents downstairs. She grabbed her cellphone to call her boyfriend.’’

Smith’s lessons go beyond the classroom, and include time management and financial responsibility. Most importantly, Smith espouses the necessity of self-reflection as the core of the entire process. His success clearly comes from liking kids enough to want them to find out what’s best for them. Smith’s unconventional approach humanizes students, and Marcus’s exhaustive, accessible account shows exactly why it’s so effective.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer based in Dorchester.

ACCEPTANCE: A Legendary Guidance Counselor Helps Seven Kids Find the Right Colleges -- and Find Themselves By David L. Marcus, Penguin Press, 320 pp., $25.95

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