“You Asked for Perfect,” by Laura Silverman
High school for today’s teenagers presents many challenges beyond getting passing grades. In some ways the high achievers have the hardest time, loading up on AP classes with hours of homework while also facing the universal issues of upcoming adulthood such as sexuality, popularity, and the expectations of parents. “You Asked for Perfect” looks at these issues through the eyes of a small group of friends.
Ariel Stone is a senior at a college prep high school. On the surface it seems like he would enjoy his life, playing first chair violin in the school orchestra, volunteering at an animal shelter, and taking several AP classes.
But all is not well in Ariel’s emotional life, as he plans every class and activity with the one goal of getting accepted into Harvard. Even his friendships at school are affected as he sees friends only as competition for the coveted valedictorian spot, or waiting in the wings to bump him down a few seats in the violin section.
Ariel, his younger sister Rachel, and his parents are all active in a modern Conservative synagogue, attending services together every Saturday and having a traditional Shabbat dinner at home every Friday night. Only on rare occasions is something else so important that someone is excused from these family times.
At Shabbat dinner, each person briefly talks about their “blooper and highlight” of the week – something disappointing or embarrassing that happened, and something good or exciting. Ariel enjoys this opportunity to share with his family until his “bloopers” are things he feels he needs to hide.
The Naeems, a Muslim family, are close friends of the Stones, often invited to Shabbat dinner, and the Stones join in for traditional Indian meals at the Naeems’ house. Ariel is good friends with their son Amir, The pressure on Amir is different than Ariel’s. Amir is a gifted photographer and his parents want him to pursue visual arts as a career, but he has his heart set on medical school.
When Ariel fails a calculus quiz, he approaches Amir for tutoring help, making him promise he won’t tell any of their friends about it. Keeping up the appearance of having no problems with the academic pressure is important to Ariel because he is afraid that if anyone sees a weakness in him, they may realize that he could be displaced as valedictorian. All the time studying together leads to a romantic relationship between the boys. The teens had already come out to their families, and the relationship is not seen as any problem, but Ariel’s increasing bad moods and constant fatigue begin to worry his parents.
Ariel’s other best friend is Sook, who picks him up every day to go to school. Her parents assume that she will attend Dartmouth where she will be a legacy and most likely be accepted easily. But Sook has a rock band and wants to attend college in a town where music is more important than academics. Hoping to get the attention of an agent, Sook asks Ariel to add some violin at a band showcase. Ariel is already overwhelmed with learning a difficult solo for orchestra, but since he doesn’t want to admit his struggles, he agrees to play in the band. But on the day of the show, he is so pressured by other matters that he backs out via a text message, compromising an important friendship.
The Stones attend Yom Kippur services together, and while waiting for a friend who needs a ride home, Ariel falls asleep on a sofa in the hallway. The rabbi wakes him, and, concerned about his obvious fatigue and depression, asks him to promise to come back shortly after the holiday to talk about what is on his mind. Ariel does follow through on the meeting and shares how much daily pressure he feels to excel. Even though his parents seem easy-going, he has heard them brag to their friends about his expected acceptance and enrollment Harvard, and he assumes it will be a huge disappointment to his parents if there is any other outcome. The rabbi encourages him to be honest with his parents about how he feels.
It takes a medical scare with Ariel’s younger sister for the whole family to wake up about the detrimental effects of all the academic pressure. Though only 10, Rachel has sudden abdominal pain and the family rushes her to the ER. With all the family gathered at the hospital, Ariel finally admits that he doesn’t care that much about getting into Harvard and would just like to have some sort of normal life and get some sleep. Rachel’s pain has no physical cause and is most likely her reaction to stress, even at age ten.
Ariel finally realizes how he has skewed all of his priorities for a goal that he doesn’t even want. He makes amends with Amir and Sook by creating an event that highlights Amir’s photography and Sook’s music. He drops a demanding Spanish class and allows a better player to take the first chair position. When he leaves a Harvard interview early to run an emergency errand for a friend, his change in priorities is apparent. As the novel ends, Ariel, Amir, and their families realize that there is more to life than prestige and academic achievements.
This novel is aimed at the young adult market, but it would be a good book for parents and their teens to read and discuss, perhaps creating a path towards communication about expectations and priorities, and how much pressure is too much during high school.