Rejection: A Very Private (School) Matter

This is the week that parents, fingers fluttering, open the acceptance and rejection letters from nursery and private schools. It seems like a judgment not just of your child, but of your parenting, of all your hopes. No matter how many times you tell yourself that your child’s life is not on the line, you never really believe it. I know.

My daughter was turned down by Brearley some 30 years ago because she told the teacher at the interview that she was about to star in a new Hollywood version of Heidi . She was a legacy, but one who, at age 4, was unable to tell the difference between the desire to be a star and the desire to please. Actually, Brearley was right about that one, but I still remember how it hurt me, how inconsolable I was. I have since had books rejected, reviews that were close to stonings, club doors closed in my face, but nothing has quite collapsed my ego the way that Brearley rejection did.

We have subsequently had our share of Brearley girls and college, law and medical degrees from schools that send their radiant lights down all the halls of power. I know a good school’s real worth on the open market, and the way a child dwelling in an ivy-covered tower can give a parent the illusion of being secure, anchored, successful. I am not a scoffer or an anti-establishment rebel (in my youth, but not any longer). Irrational as it may be, there is something in a brand name that makes us grown-ups sleep well at night. I want my children at the top of the heap like any other good, competitive American, but the selection process is so screwy, the social and intellectual bona fides required so irrelevant to most of our real lives, that we really ought to laugh instead of weep.

Schools make mistakes. The children are too young to be distinguishable. The tests are too easily conquered by prompting. Family power, wealth and social prestige play entirely too large a role in the makeup of the classes. And as everybody knows, family riches (and uncles who play poker with the head of the board of trustees) do not guarantee happiness, brains or the ability to survive in the race to the finish we have constructed for our children.

We forget that our children have souls that sing in a variety of ways: One is great at puzzles, another has perfect pitch and a third bides her time to sally forth and become a microbiologist or a savior of souls. The wounds to our parental pride and our ambitions in this school chase will, despite the sting, respond to the balm of time.

I know the situation today verges on the ridiculous, as parents tutor their 3-year-olds in fractions and hired hands drill little ones in the art of drawing a face with complete nose, mouth and eyes. I know that the playing field is not even and that legacies, wealth and fame still tilt the game toward some undeserving child who is still clutching his favorite blanket and whose thumb may stray to his mouth.

That is the truth.

But it’s not the whole truth or the end of the story by any means. Even when resulting in victory, this vast maneuver-the E.R.B.’s, the interviews, the letters of recommendation, the leaning on people who know someone on the board-still does not protect your child, nor does it assure their academic success or sanity. In my daughters’ classes at Brearley, there were those who couldn’t learn to read. There were those who left by third grade for academic reasons. There were those who went all the way to high school, only to drop out after developing life-threatening eating disorders. There were those who graduated and went on to dazzling colleges, only to take permanent leave to follow the Grateful Dead or to become Moonies. There was a high achiever who heard voices from an alternate universe. And there were those who never loved anyone, and those who loved entirely too many. Of course, all this happened in other schools, too.

After Brearley, there was the Harvard classmate who took a drunken dive off a second-floor balcony and lost all his teeth and broke his nose. There were suicide attempts at Yale and Amherst and overdoses everywhere, as well as boys who couldn’t finish papers and girls who never slept, etc. The drug of choice at the elite colleges I visited was Ecstasy. Clearly, they needed something to be ecstatic about during their years there. Many more hoary tales I could tell, ancient mariner I, survivor of the ship of parenthood (more or less).

We are a city of people who are always ranking each other. We count a Dalton, a Fieldston or a Chapin child as an accomplishment, a statement about ourselves, like our address or our firm name or our country house. It’s only human to do so. So of course we are vulnerable to the vagaries of pride and are all too willing to commit embarrassing acts in the pursuit of a school with a name that pleases.

All we have is the icy comfort that, underneath the labels, real life runs on and on. This child is unpopular and hates to go to school-any school at all. This one is afraid he plays the piano badly. That one grieves over her miserable athletic ability. This other child is sickly and misses half his primary education. And then, of course, many children at the best schools (as well as the worst) could tell you tales about their parents that would curl the hairs on a rattlesnake.

For the sole advantage goes to the parent with the acceptance letter in hand. There is no spin that will change that fact. But class is still fluid in America and there is room at the top for all those unconnected 4-year-olds to one day elbow out their peers. Many a turtle will pass a panting hare resting by the roadside. Shy ones will dance onstage, all will have a chance to shine, and the New York private-school brand name will carry no weight at all in the majority of the real battles ahead.

Most of our egos reinflate like a cartoon character’s. They’d better. Stout hearts know that getting into a good nursery school is simply the first of the many mazes our little mice must run.