March 18, 2011 10:05 pm

School for parental delusion

When T.S. Eliot wrote about the cruellest month “mixing memory and desire”, he might also have had in mind that this is the season of school admissions in New York City. So as the sooty piles of snow melt into grey puddles, parents obsess over the letters they will and won’t receive from the school that will or won’t confer on their radiant progeny the blessing of its approval. It seems to be a challenge in this season for even the more sensible parents among us, even those who really have better things to do, not to fall prey to the prevailing fantasy that if your child is rejected from one of these desirable and enlightened places, he or she will be destined for a life of drug addiction, grand theft auto, or general exile.

My 18-month-old recently had his first school interview. Apparently he sailed through it, though how is somewhat mysterious to me. Especially since he calls all fruits “apples”, and sentences such as “Mommy. Moon. Get it” are not necessarily indicative of a huge understanding of the workings of the universe. However, no one is too young for the system, and a small obstacle like language cannot be permitted to get in the way of the judging and selecting and general Darwinian sorting to which it is never too soon to accustom yourself in this city. I have been asked to write recommendations for other one-and-a-half-year-olds for this same lovely school, and have thought of, but did not actually write, “He knows a lot about trucks.”

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You might think it would be enough to be unnaturally occupied with your own children’s admissions saga, but you would be wrong: it is also important, in certain circles, to be unnaturally occupied with other people’s admissions sagas. Recently at a dinner party a few blocks from my house, someone said that the wife of a well-known man was lying about where their twin boys got into school. The mother of these twins claimed that they had “chosen” a less prestigious school over another more prestigious school, but someone else “knew for a fact” from a connection in the admissions department of the more prestigious school that they had not got in. This mother, the story went, who had given up working to raise her twins, experienced the school rejection as such a crushing failure that she lied about it. And the person who did the energetic digging and unearthing? I am not sure what her motivation was. Does someone at this dinner party stop to think, “Who have we become?” I think in the corner was a disaffected father, muttering about the class system, but I wasn’t there.

And the admissions process is, for many, only the beginning. There is on the part of certain parents, in certain schools, a slightly unholy fascination with the school. They socialise constantly with the other parents, there are opportunities several times every week to have coffee or drinks with them, there are mixers and potluck dinners and listservs; there is perhaps the tiniest bit of cosmic confusion over who exactly is attending the school: the children who just go there, or the parents who revel and revere and bask in it.

It is interesting that the parents at these schools will be the first to tell you that other private schools are very materialistic, and that the culture of these other schools is truly offputting, that they would never dream of sending their Finn or Ava to the other schools because they would imbibe the wrong values, and they will very happily recount stories of moneyed excess about these other schools, but their school, and by implication, of course, they are not like that. (I won’t rehash these stories here, but I have recently heard about a fashionable, progressive Brooklyn private school, in which a birthday party of 11-year-old girls was taken to Victoria’s Secret to buy bras and underwear and then they went back to the Soho Grand Hotel to take pictures of themselves and sleep over. This is the kind of story that we are talking about, and they are too numerous and florid to fit here.) These parents decrying the materialistic culture of this other school, saying, “It’s disgusting, it really is,” might be sitting in their beach house, over a dinner of grilled shrimp and fresh corn, with the live-in, uniformed baby nurse upstairs with the colicky baby. If you, from the outside, are having trouble seeing how their life – with its long summers at the beach, winters in the Caribbean, the sprawling apartment on the Upper East Side, the helpful doorman, the ubiquitous housekeeper, the $1,000 boots from Barneys – is so different in its values and messages from these other, materialistic parents at the other school, we will assume that is a problem with your clarity and understanding.

These same parents will also very quickly point out that their school is “diverse”. The reality is that their school, like all the other schools, is a tiny bit diverse. There are a few kids who will come a very long way every morning, from another neighbourhood, on a scholarship, but the large bulk of the class very much resembles in background the other kids in the class. This is a puzzling word, “diverse”, thrown around all the school promotions, into pamphlets and brochures and websites, because if you were truly committed to sending your children somewhere “diverse”, would you not be selecting a different school, one that doesn’t require almost all of its students to pay tuition that could support several villages in Africa? Or do these parents, to be totally honest, just want a little bit of diversity? If the catalogues were being totally honest about what parents are looking for, would they advertise, say, a soupçon of diversity?

. . .

The interesting element of this obsession is that each of these unique and excellent schools seems to be conferring some ineffable quality, not just on its students, but on the parents of these students. In the 10 minutes they spend dropping their children off in its hallowed hallways, they are seeing some flattering image of themselves reflected back: progressive, enlightened, intellectually engaged.

The most sought-after school in my neighbourhood, a famously open-minded and progressive and arty yet very exclusive private school, is conferring a kind of creativity on the parents, so that even if they are bankers or hedge-fund guys, as many of them frankly are, they can tell themselves in the dark of night that they are creative people, because their children attend this impeccably creative school. And if they are creative people – that is, people who have somehow made enough money to send their children to this school, but work in film or music or advertising – they can congratulate themselves on their creativity, even if they are not, although in a creative profession, exactly creating anything themselves. The secret suspicion that you might be a hack, a glorified hack, making a rather nice living doing something fun (but not truly living out your fantasy of creating art the way you honestly thought you would be in college), well, the cheque you make out to that fancy, creative, open place you are sending your child to is proving otherwise. They are putting on operas when they are three years old, after all. They are illustrating Wallace Stevens poems by the time they are six. How could anyone accuse you of just being a banker, or a music executive, or an internet guy with good glasses? I have a friend whose five-year-old attends this school. She and her husband were pleased that when their daughter had an assignment to write down what she wanted to be when she grew up she wrote “artist”. But when they arrived at the class presentation the next day they saw that all 22 children had put down “artist”: there were no “veterinarians”, no “circus acrobats”, no “doctors”, no “hair cutters”. Twenty two artists, and one kindergarten class: the school, you see, does not play around.

Then there are the schools of more traditional erudition on, for instance, the Upper East Side. You can console yourself if you are a partner in a corporate law firm whose experience of reading, to be frank, is largely confined to your BlackBerry, that your daughter is sitting in the well-upholstered library, as the afternoon light flows in from the river, highlighting her Ovid. Or if you are a stay-at-home mother, who is whiling away many hours of the one life God gave you at the gym, and at Jimmy Choo, you can be reassured that your seven-year-old is learning “not just to answer but to question”.

Then there is the wise but beleaguered segment of the anxious parental population worrying about admission to the Gifted and Talented public schools, which are free but so rare as to be almost mythical. There is a mysterious, almost dauntingly incomprehensible system that you have to master before even testing your child. And it feels like you could study it full-time for years and not ever understand it, and to make it worse the city, in its wisdom, likes to change these Byzantine rules every year or so, so it’s that much more impossible to figure out. But if you somehow are yourself Gifted and Talented enough to figure it out, and your child has tested into the top 2 per cent of children in the city, if they are classified, officially, as “Gifted and Talented” then you still have to wait to see if they are assigned, or lotteried, into one of the tiny handful of excellent Gifted and Talented schools. This would still, even though they have tested into the top 2 per cent of children in the city, be less likely than the camel passing through the eye of the needle, or the people from the other more materialistic school getting into heaven, and this wait is more heartbreaking, since you are not sullied or implicated in the unsavoury system of private school admissions that is consuming other people around you.

Someone somewhere in this glittering, impossible city is developing the fantasy, right about now, of moving to a small town in Montana, with faded red barns, and open fields, and a heady stretch of watercolour blue sky, where your children chew on sticks of hay, and there is one shingled schoolhouse on the top of the hill, where everyone goes, and a battered old vintage bus to take them there … Unless of course the school in the next town over is a little bit better, a little less structured and a little more creative.

Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages’ (Dial Press)

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