It's school admissions season in New York: Does your 18-month-old have what it takes?

Stories from the Financial Times. 
March 20 2011 6:49 AM

It's School Admissions Season in New York City

Does your 18-month-old have what it takes?

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Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

When T.S. Eliot wrote about the cruelest 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 gray 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.

Katie Roiphe Katie Roiphe
Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages.

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."

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.

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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?

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