"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Oh, God! The Angst Of Getting In To Nursery School

I am not sure when the angst about admissions to nursery school hit DC , but it came banging in with a vengeance. Although the Gucci moms at Cricket Park are too blasé to admit it, they would kill for a place at St. John’s, the tony, must-have pre-school that caters to Washington’s best and brightest.  Entrance to St. John’s is a ticket to St. Albans, and Yale, and worth every penny of its $15,000 tuition.

The Costco moms who cluster at Ledger Park affect indifference if not disdain for the conservative St. John’s crowd, swear their allegiance to the DC schools, and insist that the public education offered is the equal of any.  This is sheer nonsense, of course, because St. Albans, Sidwell, National Cathedral and a few others have few peers in the United States let alone Washington. The Costco moms know it, swallow it, get rancid stomachs over it, but keep a fixed smile and sneer at the word ‘private’. This band of ‘progressive’ sisters fall into two camps – one that truly believes that only a public school education can provide the multi-cultural, multi-racial, and diverse socio-economic environment that mirrors the real world; and the other which would send their kids to St. Albans or to la crème de la crème, St. Grottlesex, the most elite private boarding school in the country, if only they had the money.

The two camps – the socially committed and the penurious – talk to each other with one voice, but the divisions are clear.  ‘Got money’ trumps ‘No got money’ all the time, and the poor sisters are included but really left out of the discussion.

The political and social dynamics get complicated at the end of sixth grade.  The local elementary schools in the white, upper middle class neighborhoods of DC, are OK if parents are willing to put up with a few sketchy teachers along the way, an occasional teacher transfer from the lock-ups in Anacostia (even prison guards need a break), and the smash-mouth out-of-bounds kids who add and subtract in Special Ed and then bust heads on the playground at recess.  Most students in the schools are neighborhood kids, so there is never a nasty dysfunctional core; and except for recess, public elementary school is no problem.

It is in sixth grade when existential questions, put aside since kindergarten, come to the fore. Where to send little Johnny now? The public junior high school, or private?  This is the dreaded moment when social commitment is tested, when doing good for society is pitted against doing good for your own flesh and blood.  Here is where money kicks in.  All except the most ‘progressive’, liberal descendants of old, Socialist working class union families throw in the towel.  Get out while you can.

Most sixth grade families (the penurious Costco moms, above)  have to send their kids to public junior high, so the question of social conscience is never raised.

There is a peculiar twist to these school choices, however.  A parent who has decided for one reason or the other to pursue public education has two choices – either send the kid to a DC junior high, or bail out, move to the Maryland suburbs, and go to a good public school there.  For the more doctrinaire-minded, such a move can save political face while at the same time avoid the guilt of knowingly sending a child to a shitty school.

By the time a child has survived DC junior high, there is no choice but to continue on to a DC senior high. Places at private schools in higher grades are extremely limited, and no St. Albans or Sidwell admissions officer would ever take an under-educated student – unless he is part of an affirmative action program. 

Of course truly bright students can do well at the better DC post-elementary schools. Liberal parents are not stupid, just misplaced in their politics, and they provide the family encouragement, home-teaching, and intellectual support required for their children to succeed in a damaging environment.  It just takes a lot of effort. Also, while it is one thing to be a bright, motivated child in public school in the tony neighborhoods of Grosse Pointe or Sewickley; it is another thing altogether to be in down-and-dirty DC. You have to really want a public education here.

Which is why it is so important to get little Johnny into St. John’s Nursery School. He might turn out to be a dim light bulb – even the most sophisticated tests administered these days can’t catch every dummy at age 4 – but the chances are that the combination of motivated parents, money, a talented staff, and a congenial environment will assure his accession to Sidwell.

At the same time ‘competitive’ schools like Sidwell, St. Albans, and the Holy Grail of education, Harvard, are increasingly hard to get into. At Yale in the Sixties, one had to be smart to get in, but not so smart as today when the doors have been opened wide to super-smart and hungry Latinos, blacks, Asians, and every possible combination and permutation in between.  Gone are the legacy Yalies of modest abilities who sat on the Yale Fence, sang Whiffenpoof songs down at Mory’s, graduated with a Gentleman’s C, and went on to make millions in Daddy’s company.  Now your roommate is likely to be a first generation Chinese who never leaves the library, graduates summa cum laude, goes back to China to work for McKinsey, and makes his own million.

Getting into these elite schools is a dogfight, and ambitious parents leave any trace of dignity behind to pull strings, offer to endow academic chairs, get an endorsement from the Pope, trick out resumes to look like George H.W.Bush’s after retirement – internship at the CIA, summer aide to Speaker Boehner – and mention that, above all, they will keep on giving long after little Johnny graduates.

If attending Harvard takes this amount of effort, manipulation, and downright trickery to get in, can you imagine what it is like to get into St. John’s, the educational gateway? It is not pretty to watch.

I always went to Cricket Park after the acceptance letters were sent out from St. John’s.  So many smug smiles on the faces of the winners and hangdog expressions on the losers’.  There was plenty of deferential back-patting (“St. Andrews is such a great school”) and commiseration in the ranks of the rejected, but it still hurt.

The consolatory refrain I heard over and over again whether in reference to rejection by St. John’s, St. Albans, or Yale is “He’ll do well anywhere he goes”.  Some consolation to the parents who know that maybe he will do well at Trinity, but Trinity is no Harvard.

Before Thanksgiving, little Johnny is having a ball at Trinity, Duquesne, or Drexel.  He loves it, loves the kids, loves the teachers, and loves the city.  It’s his parents who suffer in quiet misery every time they have to answer the question, “So where does your son go to school?”.

1 comment:

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