Eighteen months ago—just in time for the July bombings—my husband and I and our then-2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Violet, moved from Manhattan to London. We "relocated," as one says in global corporate speak—as if, setting up house the first time around, we had "located"—from Gramercy Park to Notting Hill and suddenly faced the prospect of finding a nursery-school spot across the pond. I wasn't, to be honest, particularly worried. We had just survived the notoriously grueling private-school application process in New York, which gave me a veteran's mentality: When friends would ask what I was going to do about the "whole school problem" over there, I would say confidently that it was impossible that the London application process could be any tougher than New York's. (I also had a theory—this was before we bought our £39 shower caddy—that the "whole cost of living thing" was probably exaggerated.)
As far as nursery school goes, however, it turns out I was right. There may be more children in London, but there are also many more schools; the ratio is simply not as cutthroat, no matter what Londoners would have you believe. (Talking to Londoners about preschools is a bit like talking to them about parking your car on the street. You explain what it's like in New York, and they say, "Oh, I know, it's getting very bad here, as well. The other day I had to drive around again.") The more troubling thing about the application process in London is that there is no application process.
Before we moved, I'd taken comfort in the notion that my child, being tolerably bright, would be fine no matter where we lived. Like all self-respecting New Yorkers, I woke up in the morning whistling, "If I can make it here …" and I'd even looked forward to testing our mettle against the Brits', our mettle in this case being our child. It came as a blow, therefore, to find that none of the schools on the shortlist I had drawn up had any interest in laying eyes on said child.
The way it works in London, explained Emily, the friend of a friend and a fellow expat, but a much more seasoned one, is that when your child is born, you phone up a few nursery schools—as well, incidentally, as primary schools and secondary/boarding schools—and you register him or her for a proposed year of entry two or five or 10 years hence. You "put them down" for the Acorn, for Pembridge Hall, for Notting Hill Prep. In London, the oft-repeated chestnut is not a Jack Grubman-esque, 92nd Street Y bribe story, but rather the running joke of the father who, when his son is born, calls Wetherby (one of the oversubscribed Notting Hill boys' schools) before the child's grandparents. There is no sanctioned application period; certainly nothing so transparent as an informational evening for prospective parents. For those of us who were too disorganized, clueless, or foreign to register our offspring at birth, there is instead a drawn-out period of flirtation and supplication which can go on for years.
When I reflect on my first few months in New York, a couple of memories epitomize for me the painful innocence of my Manhattan infancy. Most of them involve safety. My fear, for instance, that I was going to be mugged returning to my apartment—on 67th and 1st. My lingering dread of the "bad cabbie" scenario, in which a taxi driver would suddenly turn around and shoot me and take all of my money—at that time, usually about $5 to $7. When I look back on our first six months in London, I now understand, the memories of innocence will all have to do with my heretofore-unchallenged belief in a benevolent and pervasive meritocracy.
When the information—I cannot in good conscience call the flimsy one-pagers "packets"—I'd requested from various preschools began to be pushed through the mail slot of our midterrace Victorian house, I read and reread the registration forms to make sure I hadn't missed a question—any question at all—about my daughter other than her name and date of birth. Where, I wondered, were the blank lines on which my husband and I would be asked to summarize—not to say brag about—our educational backgrounds and professional achievements? What had become of the 10 to 12 essay questions in which we would limn our child's psychological makeup while detailing the subtleties of our parenting techniques and moral outlook? Was there no request for a photo in which we would show ourselves to be achievement-oriented yet laid-back, white but liberal, corduroy-wearing but capable, on occasion, of artistic flair? With no possible way to distinguish ourselves from the crowd, how were we ever going to get Violet into preschool?
What I began to refer to as "ability-blind" admissions is not only a nursery-school phenomenon but continues, in London, even into primary school. While some schools require an assessment—days of observation and testing not unlike the protocol of the New York schools—other schools and indeed some of the best schools pride themselves on being "nonselective"—the official way of putting it—calling attention to the fact in their prospectuses the way American schools forefront their policies of nondiscrimination.
I can only call the emotion I experienced, as it sank in that no nursery-school head was going to hold up any hoops for Violet and my husband and me to jump through, as bereavement. It came as a loss to me—little Miss Self-Made Striver who in 13 years in New York had struggled up from a sixth-floor-walk-up in a tenement building to something like bourgeois respectability—to understand that life lived in London would not come in the form of a series of tests. If not on the merits, how was one to proceed?
One day that fall, I found myself explaining the situation to the wife of one of my husband's colleagues. When I finished my despairing lament, the woman made a curious suggestion: not that I start delivering weekly Jo Malone goody bags to the head of Paint Pots or stage a full orchestration of "Strawberry Fields" outside the preschool of the same name, but that I call up a couple of the places where we had been wait-listed (not in any official way, of course) and … explain the situation. Explain the situation? "Tell them about the move," the woman nonchalantly advised, "and just say you really, really need to get a spot." Er—tell them I really need to get a spot? The idea that the exigencies of one's personal life would count for anything at all in the preschool feeding frenzy was so foreign to me that I hemmed and hawed for weeks about how one would phrase such a presumptive request. Every time I reached for the phone, I was stayed by the image of some clueless Londoner calling the 92nd Street Y midway through the fall term and saying to the admissions secretary, "Hello, I've just moved here, and the fact is, I could really use a spot in your nursery school."
My ultimate motivation—a classic one for expats, I'm sure—was that of having nothing to lose. I dialed a school at random and spoke at a rapid rate, expecting to be interrupted at any time in the manner of the secretary at All Souls' who, when I'd called the year before in sudden paranoia that we hadn't applied to enough New York schools, cut off my request with a chilling, "Oh, no, no, we're all through with that now." "What a terrible trial for you," said her English counterpart, sounding, unless it was just the inherent succor of English diction, genuinely sympathetic. She promised to put me on her "emergency list"—emergency list?—and suggested that we keep in touch to see if anything materialized for Violet, to whom she referred by name. She then gave me the names and numbers of several other local schools I might try and said, "Come back to me at any time." And so it went. After I spoke to the head of Minors, where Princes William and Harry were sent, I got a handwritten card in the mail saying, "Nothing yet but fingers crossed!" I think that was the moment when I understood what people mean when they talk about the civility of English life.
I did keep in touch—I was soon on a first-name basis with half a dozen of the nursery heads or their assistants, all of whom maintained that I ought not to worry. "Everyone gets a place eventually" was repeated to me so many times that I felt I ought to put it on a bumper sticker to spread the Good News. The persistence—or else the picture of pathos—finally paid off. In December I got the call. A Montessori school that was supposed to be good had a chance opening: Violet could start in January. My joy and relief were coupled with a feeling of suspicion: What the hell were they thinking letting us in without knowing the first thing about our child? What if she turned out to be some violent, pre-verbal playground bully? And by extension, what if that's what all of the other kids were like? (In fact, about halfway through the winter term, my daughter had her first experience with a classmate who had probably benefited greatly from no one's ever having met him until he showed up at school. The little boy in question was shoving children and knocking them over intentionally; my daughter had twice been the target of his rage and had been pushed off a climbing apparatus in the park one day. Even to look at the boy, whose face was angry and withdrawn, was to know, as I tearfully railed to my husband, "He would never have been let in to Beginnings!" The New Yorker in me bristled with the injustice of it. The second time it happened, I made an appointment to talk to the head, practically litigious in my outrage. I could feel myself starting to shift in my seat, though, when, after describing how the teachers were going to protect the other children—the boy was not going to go to the park any more, for instance—Sophia [pronounced Soph-EYE-a, with a long 'I'] told me, "This poor little boy has just had such an unhappy life so far." Was there anything else I wanted to discuss? Why, I wondered, slinking away red-faced to my car, did so many encounters in English living seem to go from "I oughta sue!" to "So sorry to bother you" in five minutes or less?)
But back to the sweet moment of triumph: The hard work over, I now awaited the mother lode of mail that would accompany our admission to Ladbroke Square Montessori School—the welcome letter from Sophia, the save-the-date for the charity auction, the invitation to the new parents' light-picnic-supper-cum-disco-rave blowout. Nothing came. I checked the mail every day with something like paranoia. Had I dreamed up the offer of a spot? Did I have the starting date correct? What were the rules concerning clothes, conduct, nut allergies? "I know what you mean," said Emily, when I called for an expat sanity check, baffled by the lack of communication. "In America they would have five picnics. But the English are a bit more relaxed about things."
The week before school was to start, I caved and called the office. I'd whittled my barrage of questions down to two. "What exactly is your policy on toilet training?" I inquired, somewhat confrontationally, of the unsuspecting teacher who happened to answer the phone. (Still fresh in my mind was the Manichean divide among the Manhattan schools, with some parents decrying Jack and Jill because of their dogmatic stance on bladder control and other parents putting it at the top of their list for the same reason.) At this point, Violet pretty much had it down, but I was a little worried about accidents in the new setting. The teacher thought for a minute and then said, as if she was just forming an opinion on the phone, "Well, I suppose it would be good if she could mostly manage by herself." It took me a moment to regroup. "And how," I went on, a little more quietly, but still determinedly, "do you handle the separation process?" "She's a bit cautious, is she?" the teacher inferred. I explained that the disruption of the move from the states had indeed left Violet on the clingy side. "Do you want to stick around for a day or two till she settles?" "Umm … OK," I mumbled, "Thanks."
It's a truism that when New Yorkers go to Los Angeles, they drive around confusedly looking for some recognizable heart of the city—a Midtown or Central Park—only to find that there is no there there. At the beginning, in sprawling, idiosyncratically laid-out London, I did miss the numbered streets of the Manhattan grid system. But what I foundered on was the lack of system itself—of readable rules and transparent protocol, of posted procedures that one could internalize and conquer. There is, you might say, no "how" here. No policy, no process—denied the comforting ease of functioning within either, I have often been left, as I was when my daughter started nursery school, with the curiously humbling experience of being treated as a person.
One morning, a few weeks in to the winter term, I was waiting outside the school with Violet. A woman came bicycling down the street and stopped outside the blue door. There was something about the awkward way she handled her bicycle, humping it over the sidewalk, not quite knowing how—or where—to park it, that gave her away as an American. (New Yorkers tend to arrive in London, see it as a more bikeable city, invest in a top-of-the-line hybrid, and, after almost killing themselves on the first miniroundabout, consign the thing to the coal cellar until their "Moving Back to the States" sale three years' hence.) The woman buzzed, and I overheard her unhappy request for a meeting to discuss her daughter's application. Gently rebuffed—told to call later in the day and speak to the secretary—she cast a baleful glance in our direction. "Good luck," I said, thinking maybe she'd take heart from my American accent. "But what exactly am I supposed to do?" the woman demanded. At this point, Violet began to tug at my hand because the door had been opened and we could go in. "Don't worry," I said to the woman, as I passed on the only truth I knew: "Everyone gets a spot eventually."