Monday, February 18, 2008

Gnaw. Pray. Beg: Memories of an Anxious Parent

February 2007: the waiting, the waiting lists, the waiting to make the final call. It was the worst month of my adult life. But when you're waiting to hear where your almost-five-year-old child will be going to kindergarten, everything goes through your head — including the nasty suspicion that the candidate who's about to be rejected is ... you.

Why did we apply our daughter to eight schools? Because we could — my wife and I operated on the “you have to be in it to win it” theory. And, in truth, because we needed to. In the old days, the birth of a second child was the signal for parents to trade Manhattan for Connecticut. Now the ultra-wealthy go right on to a third kid — what I call the "Rolex child" — and never think about bailing. Instead, they trade the seven room co-op for an eight or nine, add a second nanny, and their third kid, at most schools, becomes a legacy application, far more likely to be accepted than the spawn of a couple with one kid and no Manhattan school history.

How do you rate a school when all elite New York private schools are pretty terrific, and in much the same ways? Ultimately, the criteria are anecdotal, even trivial. At most schools and in almost every interaction, we felt we were in a real conversation about kids and what's best for them. But in the end, your information and intuition don't matter much — although you're told, everywhere you go, "when it's time for you to choose a school," you eventually grasp that it's the school that chooses you. I mean, chooses your kid.

Mid-February came, bearing letters. Waiting list. Waiting list. Waiting list. Rejection. (What??) Rejection. (What!!) And an acceptance from Trevor Day. (Whew!!) Later, we'd learn that 2007 was a terrible year — more applicants applying for fewer places than ever before, making ratios of applications to acceptances so crazy you couldn't take these decisions as deeply meaningful about anything. But at the time, these letters hit home, and hit hard.

The schools that send acceptances give you about ten days to accept them and send a deposit. That also gives you about ten days to see if you can wedge your kid off a waiting list. Those were the worst — people did seem to lose their minds. A friend who's well compensated for her rationality urged me to look at the boards of our wait-listed schools. "You must know some trustees," she said. "Call them." But what if we didn't know them well? The word came back: "This is your only child!"

I put a toe in that water, but it didn't feel good — Trevor Day got both our kid and our gratitude. And, this fall, I volunteered an hour a week to greet parents of 2008 kindergarten applicants. The Trevor Day admissions people can recite the catechism; I gave prospective parents a diary of our daughter's experience. The “pizza and movie” hour she spent at Trevor the night of the first parents' meeting, and how, instead of going on to the movie, she stayed with the boy eating pizza long after she had finished, “because that's what you do for a friend” — she didn't know the kid at all, but in the first weeks of school, she'd already internalized her teacher's message about the importance of considering the feelings of everyone around you.

The time the card for “Sunday” disappeared from the list of days taped on her classroom wall, and, a week later, a postcard from “Sunday” arrived from Peru, launching a teaching block on South America and the rainforest. And her weekly vocabulary words, most recently “procrastination” and “quandary.” But mostly, I told parents how our daughter's teachers are wide awake and in-the-moment, how much they care about teaching and kids, and how well they know ours. At other schools, I'm sure, parents shared stories that are just as heartfelt and compelling.

Walking to school with our daughter, I'm staggered not just by what we talk about — the size of infinity or the shape of a rhombus — but by the fact that this little student with the head full of facts and ideas is also, and equally, a little kid carrying a stuffed animal. There are things you learn on tours and from talking to parents, and there are things you learn by living them. I had a clue from the admissions process, I had a sense from quizzing parents, but it really took most of the fall for me to grasp what I was seeing: Our daughter's at a school that not only builds smart kids, it builds nice, decent ones.

So even though the process seemed worse this year — at Trevor Day, there were 600 applications for about 30 places in the kindergarten — I urge parents to hang in. The nightmare ends. And, later, if you're as lucky as we were, a process that seemed like torture and a lottery may come to feel very much like a destiny.

— Jesse Kornbluth is the editor of HeadButler.com  and the father of a daughter who can't wait to be six.

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