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The admissions whisperer

When it comes to applying for college, some well-connected Bay Area kids have a secret edge: a coach named Mary Clarke.

You follow a lot of rules if you’re one of Mary Clarke’s kids. You leave your shoes outside, you complete your work on time, and—no matter how many AP classes, student government meetings, varsity practices, riding lessons, and volunteer gigs you’ve crammed into your busier-than-a-hedge-fund-manager schedule—you’re never, ever late.

But Madison Rutkoff—16 years old, very pretty, like the nice deb, Serena, in Gossip Girl—cuts it close. She rushes into Clarke’s one-bedroom pied-à-terre high atop the Four Seasons Private Residences in San Francisco without bothering to knock, her long hair pulled into a messy ponytail, her Chanel sweater looking as if she grabbed it off the floor of her car seconds before handing her keys to the valet. Clarke, finishing up her one o’clock appointment, eyes her student with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. “How was the Caribbean? How was Jackson Hole?” she asks.

In Maddy’s moneyed family, vacations are usually pretty swell. But she lost her word-of-the-day flashcards in St. Barth’s. “It’s a good thing you called me about it, or I would have been a very unhappy camper,” Clarke admonishes, rearranging the scissors and glue sticks on her desk, clearly unhappy anyway.

Clarke, the most sought-after college coach in the Bay Area, is very particular about scissors and glue sticks—also calligraphy labels, accordion files, and color coding (yellow marker for anything positive, orange for negative, pink for not sure). She’s fanatical about her appearance, too: On this warm Sunday afternoon, she’s wearing a light green dress printed with watering cans, hoes, and pitchforks, topped by a second dress in droopy black fishnet; a red silk scarf; and orange, bamboo-shaped earrings. Think Beatrix Potter channeling Auntie Mame. Even at 65, resplendent in bright green eye shadow and glittery powder, she’s the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a walking MAC ad.

More than anything, though, Clarke is obsessive about words—prefixes, suffixes, diacritical markings, etymol­ogy, Latin and Greek roots. Her list of influential books includes Norman Lewis’s Word Power Made Easy and Jean Webster’s 1912 bildungsroman, Daddy-Long-Legs, about an orphan and the secret benefactor who offers to send her to college if she’ll write to him regularly. (Of course he falls in love with her words.) Building vocabulary is the foundation of Clarke’s program; her students—more than 500 over 35 years, including Gettys, Trainas, and Fishers, but also legions of (relatively) middle-class students from San Jose to the East Coast—make their own vocabulary cards from things like old word-of-the-day calendars. Maddy explains how hers disappeared: “They were by the phone, and the help thought they were garbage.” A look of pain flashes across Clarke’s face.

Clarke and her quirks go back to at least the early 1970s, when she practically invented the Bay Area college-coaching industry. At the time, she was a read­­ing consultant at some of the region’s top prep schools, working with children like Maddy (whose name and identifying details have been changed to protect her from the wrath of college admissions officers). For these kids, automatic entry to the Ivy League or the Seven Sisters used to be a birthright. But higher education was undergoing a profound transformation, and the most coveted schools were becoming ever more democratic, meritocratic, diverse, and elusive. Wealth and alumni connections were less and less a guarantee of admission to the top schools (and the competitive frenzy has only gotten worse, with applications to the Ivies up 34 percent in the last five years). Students needed someone to hold their hand through the admissions process; ambitious parents were even more anxious than their kids. Clarke saw an opening and created not just an entirely new niche—as test tutor/English teacher/college counselor/life coach—but something close to a secret society, bordering on a cult.

Her critics—and over the years, Clarke has accumulated many of them, especially in the prestigious private schools that nearly two-thirds of her students attend—complain that she’s just adding to the insanity of an out-of-control process that values brand names over a quality education or the good of a child. But among grateful parents who’ve had the luck and connections to find her, she’s the Bay Area’s admissions whisperer, the eccentric lady in outlandish hats who can help a spacey and procrastinating, if privileged, adolescent to buckle down and become the kind of thoughtful, supermotiv­ated young person prized by Harvard and Yale.

Under Clarke’s tutelage, the average student sees a 160-point increase in his SATs (at a big coaching firm like Kaplan, the typical gain is closer to 40 points). Her kids’ acceptance rate to Stanford—about 29 percent of those who’ve applied during the last decade or so—is triple the university’s rate for 2008. Clarke, who doesn’t advertise, takes 30 or so new kids annually and is nearly booked for the upcoming school year. To secure a place, a student needs a minimum 3.2 GPA and a score of 50 on each part of the PSATs (Clarke will administer and grade the test on the spot if necessary), plus a referral. Her program—60 to 80 or more sessions over two to three years, as well as hundreds of hours of homework—“is not for the weak of heart,” she says unapologetically. “I’m very anal. There’s not one warm-and-fuzzy hair on my head.”

That’s putting it mildly. Clarke believes students should begin thinking about college on the first day of high school (most counselors recommend waiting until junior year). That way, there’s never an “Oh my god, how am I ever going to get all of this done?” moment. She starts with vocabulary drills and pronunciation (“If you cannot pronounce a word, you cannot understand it!”) and moves on to practice tests and essays. Concentrating on language skills doesn’t just improve scores on two of the three parts of the SAT, she believes; it also strengthens grades, admissions applications, and per­formance in college and in life. “I’m using the test as a gimmick,” she declares, “to teach them to learn.”

Three-quarters of the way through the program, Clarke and her kids begin mercilessly narrowing wish lists of colleges. She oversees everything from report cards to recommendation requests. Her early focus leaves time to augment a résumé. Maddy, for instance, volunteers for a researcher in San Francisco and hopes to help him start a nonprofit arm of his lab. It’s the kind of thing that used to qualify you for a Nobel Prize, not a spot at Wesleyan, but that’s how much expectations have changed.

And now Maddy has to start the vocabulary part of the program practically from scratch. After she and Clarke remake the lost cards, they play a word game called “Beat Mary.” Clarke records the score in Maddy’s manila folder, an astonishing amalgam of charts and grids. Maddy is still a sophomore, so her file consists mostly of notes on thick cardstock in her mother’s fine penmanship, inquiring about her daughter’s progress. Clarke reads such notes closely, but also keeps her distance. One of her more surprising roles is as a buffer between high-achieving parents and their emotionally vulnerable child. Mommy and Daddy pay the bills, but Clarke works for Maddy.

“When are you going to be in Paris?” Clarke says as they wrap up the session. “You know, you have to be here—you’re falling behind.”

Clarke spends most of her week in Menlo Park, in a little house where she sees her many Silicon Valley students. There, surrounded by ancient computers, candles, and flowers—gardening is her second love, after words—she works at least eight hours a day (more in the summer), Monday through Friday, and part of most weekends. Saturday evenings, she drives up to San Francisco in her gray Jaguar XK8 convertible to do her one day in the city. She loves the Four Seasons and is thinking about retiring there in a few years. Meanwhile, the chefs know her by name, and the concierges don’t complain about the kids who traipse through with their backpacks all day Sunday. Monday morning, she has a 5:30 session with her personal trainer in the adjoining Sports Club/LA, maybe gets her nails done, then heads back to the Peninsula.

At $90 an hour—more than some college consultants charge, far less than others—Clarke’s program costs about $6,500 per kid. “I keep telling her to raise her fees,” says Ken Paige, former president of the Four Seasons Homeowners Association, San Francisco businessman and philanthropist, and satisfied Clarke client (she helped his daughter, Christine, get into Stanford, Princeton, and Yale). “I mean, a plumber is at least $130 per hour. Frankly, I would have paid anything. She doesn’t want to be elitist, yet she’s trying to get kids into elite institutions—I tease her about that."

Ken Paige used to be “King Ken” to Clarke, but she recently elevated him to “Emperor Ken” status as a sign of her esteem. Despite their politics—Clarke is a die-hard Democrat, Paige a liberal Republican—they’re good friends, talking often (he owns a penthouse in the building) and leaving each other news clippings and notes on their cars in the Four Seasons garage. Paige first heard Clarke’s name at a cocktail party he attended with his wife, Dorothy. Christine was a high school sophomore, and they were debating whether she should take another year of French. Paige was frustrated: “What does it take to get a kid into college? We didn’t have the answer.” A woman tapped him on the shoulder and handed him Clarke’s number, saying, “Call this gal—she makes it easy.”

Paige thought his first meeting with Clarke went terribly. “She came out in this wild outfit, with gold, sparkly makeup, in the middle of the day. I wanted to talk to someone who is a college professor—someone with her hair pulled back, wearing tweed. Someone with an Ivy League look.” But his real beef was that Clarke only wanted to talk to Christine. Even after hiring Clarke, it took six months before Paige—driving his daughter to every session from their home in the East Bay, trying his best to make conversation with Clarke—could get her to give him the time of day.

Most parents are not even that successful. After the initial interview, Clarke usually meets with them just once. She does all of her scheduling directly with kids, whose mothers, she insists, may not “play secretary.” She aims to instill in them a sense of self-sufficiency—the ultimate purpose of her color-coded file folders and markers as well. “I can’t teach unless I’m organized, and I don’t think they can learn unless they have a system,” Clarke says. For the first few months, many of her students don’t know what hit them, but then her system becomes second nature. San Francisco socialite and ser­ial entrepreneur Trevor Traina recalls his time as a Mary kid: “I’d never been so organized before, and I never have been since.”

It’s been more than 20 years since Traina attended University High School, but the memories still make him shudder. “I’m on four corporate boards and six nonprofit boards and I’m running a startup full-time, and I’m still not as stressed out as I was when I was a junior,” he says. “You’re constantly taking tests, doing homework and sports; plus, you have your own life—your girlfriend and friends. And then suddenly, in the middle of all that, your parents announce, ‘OK, now you’re going to study for the SATs and write applications on your free nights and weekends and visit schools.…’ It starts to feel like the entire rest of your life depends on this eight-month period.”

He’s not sure how his parents—shipping magnate John Traina and fundraiser extraordinaire Dede Wilsey—found Clarke, but he does recall his sense of relief. “The first time you meet her, she says, ‘Hi, I’m Mary, and I’ll take care of you.’ You step on the Mary Clarke conveyor belt, and the next thing you know, you’re in college”—in Traina’s case, Princeton.

“Mary is one of the great characters of San Francisco,” he adds, “like a den mother meets Phyllis Diller.” Her distinctive appearance (“Every time I think of her, I picture her in a colored feather boa”) is disarming; because she doesn’t fit into any category familiar to teenagers, they let down their defenses. She assigns nicknames (Traina says his brother Todd’s was Mr. Procrastinator) and dishes gossip, albeit with tact. “It was a weird time for me, because my parents had gone through a very high-profile divorce, and both had very high-profile new marriages”—his father with Danielle Steel, his mother with Al Wilsey. “My family was always in the paper. She obviously knew everything about me, but she never rubbed it in.”

Clarke talks to students “as a peer, not an adult. I’m not so sure she even thinks she’s an adult,” Traina laughs. They tell her about their heartbreaks, their friend problems, everything under the sun, and she puts their woes in perspective. Says Clarke, “I tell them, ‘Life is tough, so you must bear with it and push forward. And aren’t you lucky!’”

Deva Gopalan (name has been changed), the daughter of an East Bay doctor, is another extraordinarily fortunate girl. She’s a talented, hardworking 17-year-old in her senior year at a top New England boarding school—one so renowned and expensive that it’s hard to believe she needs a coach back home. Still, Clarke notes, she has no clear passion: “She’s not a published poet, not an athlete, not a legacy”—her father went to school in India—“she hasn’t played in Davies Symphony Hall, and, you know, those extra little bonuses are needed when you are playing in that extremely competitive field.”

How competitive? Applications to the Ivy League rose almost 9 percent in 2008, while the number of slots remained more or less flat; since the early 1970s, the number of kids vying for admission has more than tripled. According to the New York Times, more than 2,500 of the 27,500 students who applied to Harvard this year had a perfect 800 on the SAT critical reading test, while 3,300 had 800 on the math portion of the test. Deva’s school is one of the old-line feeders to the Ivies (more of her classmates attend Harvard than anyplace else), which only adds to the pressure. “Thinking about how I can stand out and capture a college’s attention, at the same time everyone else is trying to do exactly the same thing, is much more stressful to me than all the deadlines and hard work,” she says.

The pressure doesn’t let up during vacations. Over her summer break, Deva interned at a hospital six hours a day, then spent two to three hours a week on homework for Clarke. Yet she says Clarke’s highly regimented program makes her feel calmer, giving her “a sense of reassurance that I’ve done all I can.”

Deva has been poring over The Princeton Review’s The Best 361 Colleges, highlighting sections in yellow (“like”) or orange (“dislike”), looking up colleges with similar descriptions, and comparing her own stats with their average SAT scores. Clarke urges her kids to apply to 10 colleges—at least two “reaches,” five “mids,” and two “safeties.” (A dozen or more applications is typical of seniors these days, versus six or eight a few years ago.) Deva likes Amherst, Brown, and Yale, but Clarke warns that they are “pie in the sky”—Washington University and George­town seem more realistic. She calls out Deva for disliking Middlebury because it’s isolated, yet claiming to love equally isolated Dartmouth. This forces Deva to articulate her priorities: If a school is prestigious enough, location is less important. They pretty much write off Harvard: “There are so many legacies at your school,” Clarke says, meaning classmates who will compete with Deva for slots and whose alumni connections have run crimson for generations. “When someone is a mega­legacy and a big donor, sweetie, it’s just a roulette wheel you’re playing there.”

They come to Stanford, and Deva shakes her head no. “You’ve seen it, you’ve taken a tour, and you still feel eh?” Clarke asks. She makes all her Bay Area kids tour local schools, so they can experience them from the point of view of prospective students, not just as fans at their parents’ alumni football games. “It’s such a long shot—I don’t know if it’s worth applying to,” says Deva, insecurity all over her face. Later, Clarke tells me, “I understand why she doesn’t want to apply. She has to pick wisely what her long shots will be. She likes Stanford, but she doesn’t have a real gut desire to go there, and it is such an effort to do a good job on that application. You can tell the ones that have the fire in their belly.” Clarke believes admissions officers can tell, too. (A few months later, Deva applies to Stanford anyway, at her parents’ urging.)

Clearly, one key to Clarke’s system is managing expectations. She doesn’t let her students get their hearts set on just one school. She’s blunt if their prospects are nil: “It’s easier to give it to them now. I don’t want any bad flack afterwards.” Nor does she worry about their self-esteem: “These kids have seen the numbers. They’ve known how they stack up since early on. If anything, the parents are the ones who don’t know.”

For this reason, Clarke makes sure her students come up with a realistic list of colleges well in advance of the parent-child meeting that takes place the summer before senior year. The main purpose of this session is for Clarke and the student to explain what they’ve already decided. “We are not going to have tears at this meeting,” she says. “I will not have the kid fall apart. When the parents come in, all we have to make sure of is that we’re all on the same page, and then they don’t have to worry about a thing—it’s all signed, sealed, and delivered.” Some parents may feel shut out, but for most, Clarke’s firm control over the process is a godsend. “The severing of the umbilical cord is very difficult,” she says. “It’s such a fragile time. They’re placing a lot of their own dreams on their kid. I ease the tension, pick up the slack. I think I salvage the parent-child relationship.”

Her students’ acceptance rates are impressive—over the last decade, 12 percent to Harvard and 20 percent to Princeton (for 2008, the schools took 7 percent and 9 percent of all applicants, respectively). But the figures she’s most proud of relate to retention. She can count on one hand the kids who have switched to another college—in every case, she insists, because the first school didn’t offer their preferred major. The number of kids who fail to graduate is minuscule. “They rarely transfer,” she says, “and they do not drop out.”

Clarke’s protectiveness toward her students seems at least partly rooted in her own frustrated ambitions. She was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, the eldest of three daughters of a civil engineer and a millinery buyer for a New York department store. (“We wore a lot of hats growing up, so people started giving them to me, and they became my signature—they’re good for a bad hair day.”) At her all-girls Catholic school, she dreamed of becoming a nun, but John F. Kennedy inspired her to think bigger: “I wanted to save the world.” When her Depression-era parents discovered her plans to join the Peace Corps in Africa, they demanded, “How will you support yourself?” and forbade her to go. Deeply disappointed, Clarke found a job teaching first grade in an impoverished, mostly African American school in her hometown, making $4,700 a year.

After earning her master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College, Clarke joined an educational consulting company that worked with tony private schools around the country to boost the literacy skills of students who performed poorly on the Iowa Reading Test. The job opened her eyes to the notion that every child—even extremely privileged ones—“has a different struggle or problem.” It also gave her a glimpse of the effects of outsize parental expectations on kids too young to understand or stand up for themselves. After moving to the Bay Area in 1970, she served as a consultant to Crystal Springs in Hillsborough, Head-Royce in Oakland, and Castilleja in Palo Alto, until her employer left the tutoring business. Unsure what to do next, she applied for an investment banking program, only to be rejected, at age 27, for the first time in her life. It was obvious that her heart wasn’t in it. “They said they didn’t think I wanted to leave teaching. I was so depressed. After about 10 martinis at L’Étoile in the Huntington Hotel, I decided that I was going into business for myself.” And her company, Reading Resources, was born.

“The trick in life,” Clarke says, “is to find what you like and do it better than anyone else.” Her knowledge of the top 200 U.S. colleges—she led tours for her students for years—borders on encyclopedic. She knows, for example, that Stanford looks for a strong commitment to public service, while Dartmouth likes outdoorsy types. She’s learned that colleges are more likely to accept students they think will actually come (translation: You don’t tell Hamilton that you’re also applying to Harvard, or conservative Clemson that you’re con­sidering ultraliberal Drew). She leans toward smaller schools, because she believes they provide a better education; and the East Coast because she grew up there and believes sheltered Bay Area students benefit from a cultural change. But she also thinks the UC system is excellent.

As for what matters most to colleges, “it’s grades, grades, grades,” Clarke declares, pounding the table. “Performance, performance, performance over a long period of time. I don’t think test scores are worth a hoot next to grades and recommendations.” Admissions officers also want kids who know who they are, and Clarke helps them figure it out. “If you get nothing else from my program,” she says, “you will have soul-searched. Really soul-searched.”

The essay-crafting part of Clarke’s program is where much of this hard thinking happens. She steers her students away from Big Important Themes and toward the personal and heartfelt. She does not want them writing about working in an AIDS orphanage in Calcutta or trekking in the Amazon rainforest. “Do not write about your trip—it just means you have money.” (“The typical admissions officer went to a public high school, and they’re rooting for the democratic,” University High School’s director of college counseling, Jon Reider, points out.) “Last night, a student from Boston told me she was going to write about Bora Bora as the place she most likes to visit, and I said, ‘Forget that. What’s your favorite place back home?’ She said Legal Seafood. ‘Then write about Legal Seafood,’ I said. I tell kids, ‘You don’t need to study sharks. Just write about Thanksgiving dinner, about walking down the street, about the way you put your socks in the drawer and what that says about you.’”

But how does anyone make sock sorting fodder for a compelling essay? “By writing and writing, and me saying, ‘It’s shit’ and ‘Go back and do it again’ and ‘Go back and do it again.’ And that takes forever,” says Clarke. Kids read their essays aloud while she listens from across the room—this way, they’re more apt to hear for themselves when something’s not working. For reinforcement, she keeps a copy of every application her students have written over the last decade or more. If a kid wants to know just how clear, honest, and compelling his writing is expected to be—and how could he not?—Clarke opens her archives and reads one to him.

Of course, these days colleges know to look for signs of coaching and pay careful attention to an essay’s voice. “The only adult who can sound like a teenager is J.D. Salinger,” Reider says. Admissions officers often double-check essays against grades and scores on the verbal and written portions of the SATs: “If the writing looks a lot better than the test score, or they got a B-minus in English, well, hmm,” says Stanford’s admissions director, Richard Shaw. But Clarke says the whole point of her program is to give students such a solid grounding in grammar and vocabulary that “they can do it themselves. I will point out a lack of parallelism or a dangling participle, but I don’t do one bit of writing.” She adds, “If I were a college, I would feel very positive about what I do."

Tim Kirby, 26, is a member in good standing of the Mary Clarke Alumni Club. The afternoon we meet, he has a bottle of champagne in hand—he’s just been accepted to Stanford and Harvard’s business schools. Clarke, not surprisingly, has been rooting for Harvard, but Kirby chose Stanford and has stopped by to simultaneously break the news and celebrate. Clarke tells him she just got her place painted, to which he replies, “Mary, I could have done that for you!” Clarke says, “I know, Tim, I read your essay.” The topic that helped him get into B-school: painting his parents’ house. The subject of his undergrad essay to Princeton: studying at the kitchen table.

Kirby tells me how, in college, his classmates from East Coast prep schools knocked his socks off, which made him appreciate Clarke’s tutoring even more. “It was a no-brainer to use her again for B-school,” he says. He and Clarke talked by phone every Friday at 11 p.m.—he was working at Morgan Stanley in New York—once while he was in a cab, en route to a bar. He also emailed her his applications for feedback and proofreading. “There’s a psychotherapist side to Mary. She asks probing questions about what matters most and why,” Kirby explains. Plus, many of Clarke’s former students are active alumni of their colleges, and they are more than happy to go to bat and make a call for a Mary kid. “She can call on people to talk to you,” Kirby says, “and they actually like it.”

Is that fair? Kirby’s the wrong person to ask—so many business-school applicants hire coaches or consultants that he would have been at a disadvantage if he hadn’t, too. But paid coaches do bother many undergraduate admissions directors and prep school counselors. Some students, especially those with learning issues, can benefit greatly, Stanford’s Shaw acknowledges. “There’s nothing wrong with finding a structural way to encourage kids to be better at what they do. But coaching serves the privileged. I draw the line if you tell kids how to write the essay, or if you advise them on what they should do to be more competitive, or when you say, ‘I’ll get you in.’” Reider is concerned that coaches are more likely to cross that line than high school counselors, who have reputations and other students’ interests to protect. “There is a temptation to do too much editing, especi­ally when your income depends on winning,” he says.

Reider seriously doubts that most outside counselors give students much of an edge, anyway—especially if they work only with smart, well-educated, highly motivated teenagers: “Those kids are going to get into Stan­ford regardless.” Coaches may help parents feel reassured, he adds, but parents need to let kids succeed or fail on their own terms—an important part of growing up. “The acquisition of a highly visible college education has become the mark of being a successful parent,” he says. “I want to empower the kid.”

Though Clarke knows that some high school counselors get upset when their students hire her, she says that she does not make promises, overedit applications, or overpackage kids. “I look at them as diamonds in the rough. I’m maximizing their abilities so they can be self-fulfilled.” That she insists on doing so when children have barely started high school is one of the things that make her program a lightning rod.

She notes that when she first went into business, she held off on working with kids until junior year, like everyone else. But early admissions and changes to the SAT forced her to push up her schedule (her cutoff for a new student is now the middle of sophomore year). “I am reflecting what the colleges have done.” At the same time, she thinks getting an early start is a good life lesson. “You know, if you don’t plan for old age, then old age will be gruesome. You should think in decades about your life, and I teach kids that.”

But the prep schools’ biggest objection may be that Clarke is a free agent who operates under the radar. She’s not a member of any professional organizations, she rarely visits colleges anymore, and—contrary to the practice of many other coaches and consultants—she does not notify a school’s counselors that she is working with one of their students. (Kids and parents often keep it a secret, too.) She says, “I’m sure the schools feel like they are already providing the same service”—as a parent paying upwards of $30,000 in tuition per year would expect. What’s more, Clarke lets her students decide what colleges to apply to without wor­rying about where other kids are applying. In contrast, at many high schools, teachers and counselors look at an entire class of students in context and shoot to maximize the number of students who get into top colleges. By going around the prep schools, Clarke makes this balancing act more difficult.

Clarke says students could achieve a 160-point increase in their SAT scores on their own, using programs readily available online. “If they put in their heart and soul, they could do that. It’s just that I force them,” she says. She compares herself to a fitness coach: “Do I get up every day and walk and lift? No. I am accountable to my trainer, so I get up at 4:50 on Monday morning to get down to that gym. If I’m not accountable to someone, I am a human being and I am l-a-z-y and I will sit. These kids are not going to have the discipline either. They need a mentor. They need someone to walk them through the jungle.”

Ken Paige has a different bone to pick with Clarke. Instead of burnishing the résumés of privileged students like Maddy or Deva, he wishes she would use her skills to help kids who really need it. In addition to putting his own daughter and son through her program, Paige has sent—and paid for—the children of several employees of his family business, Paige Glass. Some of these working-class and immigrant youngsters “don’t even know if they want to go to college,” he says. Yet for someone with Clarke’s intensity and high expectations, such ambivalence is problematic: “Mary is reluctant to work with kids who aren’t motivated,” Paige complains.

Clarke doesn’t deny it. “Ken says to me, ‘You’re one of those flaming liberals: Get off your high horse and start saving the world.’ ” But Clarke finds some char­ity kids—for example, those hindered by undemanding parents—frustrating. In Daddy-Long-Legs, the support of just one person was enough to help the plucky heroine pull herself out of poverty and become a professional writer, but real life doesn’t work that way. “It makes a big difference if there’s a support system of people behind you, trying to get you to better yourself,” Clarke says. In one scholarship case sent by a Clarke alum, “the parents had no interest in the boy going ahead academically, and the boy had no interest,” she recalls. “It was a waste of my time. I wanted him to pay even two dollars for his lesson, because you always appreciate something more if you have to pay for it.”

To be fair, Clarke also hates dealing with spoiled, unmotivated rich kids. Paige recounted the story of one child he recently persuaded Clarke to take on. “He had a high IQ, but low grades. He was from a wealthy family and a little lazy. She tried, but he just quit.” Clarke never hesitates to call Paige to bitch about his referrals: “So-and-so didn’t do their Mary words,” she grumbles.

Mostly, though, Clarke admires her students. “I am so pleased with the gen­eration I see today! They care about the environment and social justice. Kids used to be more fun-loving—the ones I’m seeing now are more directed.” It’s easy to imagine that nudging these privileged yet often insecure young people to realize their potential, whatever that may be, is Clarke’s way of trying to save the world.

They certainly are her world. Clarke has never married and has no children of her own; her current and former students are like family. As soon as their applications are postmarked, she morphs from disciplinarian into surrogate aunt. She’s in touch with about a hundred of her graduates and regularly has dinner with them. She’s spent part of Christmas Eve with the same ex-student and his family for 20 years, and traveled to Africa to visit two others who ended up realizing her dream of teaching in the Peace Corps. When Clarke turned 65 last July, an Atherton family whose kids she has tutored—three children a generation ago, one grandchild today—threw a surprise party for her at the Menlo Circus Club. Paige’s kids, now 40 and 38, take her out for her birthdays, too.

Her notebook bulges with updates to her students’ addresses and phone numbers, and she is always at the top of their list of wedding invitations. Repeatedly, she’s tried to fix her students up with each other—and one of her couples has married. “She loves the kids and loves being with them,” says Trevor Traina. “This isn’t her job—this is who she is.”

Clarke says her greatest joy is work­ing with youngsters on the cusp of who they will become. When she retires—if she retires—she’d like to write a book about how her students’ lives at 35 measured up to what they imagined at 17.

Meanwhile, though, she’s got a new crop of kids to help mold into good writers and, she hopes, happy, confident people. “Do I get bored? I never get bored with any child! Every one is excellent to me. Next question!”

Acting managing editor Natasha Sarkisian’s last major piece for San Francisco was “Who Says Being a Lawyer Has to Suck?” (January 2007).