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.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.
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