I still have nightmares about kindergarten. I spent the last year there, navigating how my daughter could get into one. I’ve entertained friends with stories of being on the toilet when Trinity first phoned, having no sex for months and becoming addicted to herbal sleep aids. But there is one dirty secret I’ve left out: I offered graft to the admissions officer of Dalton.
I was ashamed when I got caught, but I am contrite no longer. Private schools aren’t meritocracies, they’re- duh -private. Before being stood up by nannies for play dates and staring at e-mail for signs of life, I was a senior vice president in advertising. I’m a landlord, an alternate-side-of-the-street parker. I know what it takes to survive in this town. If it means a little bribe, a little baksheesh, it’s a small price to pay for the Ivy League and potential Pulitzer Prizes-forget that my 5-year-old, Kay, wants to be a chef.
I confess: I sent a heart-shaped box of Godiva chocolates-$12.50-to Dalton. Along with the requisite “first-choice letter” that jettisoned our applications at five other schools and stated, in effect, “You’re our one and only.” (A rip-off part of the process that should get the kibosh.) Too many years in Darrin Stephens’ business told me Godiva was a good stunt; our letter would stand out in the admissions office and even get a chocaholic smile at the 3 p.m. coffee break.
Two days later-Friday evening-our doorbell rang. I was playing with Kay and cooking spaghetti with nothing, my specialty. A voice on the intercom said, “This is Ms. X from the Dalton School.” “Uh … I’ll be right out.”
Ms. X is at my door! I let down my greasy hair and checked the mirror (too late). I padded out in bare feet, Kay twisting around me. Ms. X, the admissions officer who interviewed my husband and me (and didn’t inquire how we spend weekends, thanks to “the new Dalton”), was standing shyly in my lobby. Did we wow her? Does this mean we’re friends? Uh oh, Dalton knows we don’t have a doorman.
“Hiiiiii,” I said.
“Sorry to disturb you,” she said. “I was driving by and … we’re not allowed to accept any gifts during admissions season.”
“Oh. Sorry. Here you go, Kay. Happy Valentine’s Day.”
“I don’t want to embarrass you. I have my daughter in the car …. “
“Do you live nearby?”
“Yes, I thought I’d drop it off. I had a hard time finding the bell …. “
“Um … this is a converted doctor’s office.”
“Well, it was a pleasure meeting your family. Good luck.”
To come clean, it’s been nine months of cajoling, baiting, wheedling and coaxing. It started with lollipops last June, when Kay was tested at Educational Records Bureau (E.R.B.), a child-scary office in midtown. Her preschool, Third Street Music School, is ethically opposed to testing 4-year-olds and doesn’t offer the E.R.B. test on site (they specialize in happy kids covered with paint). Most other preschools pay E.R.B. a fee to entice their little ones into familiar classrooms with familiar testers and bowls of M&M’s. So I bought my own junk food and promised my daughter a Barbie from F.A.O. Schwarz.
“Is it going to be a girl, mama?” Kay had asked about the test-giver. Dutifully, I phoned E.R.B. and, doing my toughest Ally McBeal, said, “My husband refuses to leave Kay alone in the room with a strange man.” E.R.B. would not promise a thing, but we got lucky: It was the perfect grandmother from central casting, and Kay aced her puzzles and blocks.
Now I began the serious wheeling and dealing. At Trinity, her first interview, Kay wouldn’t separate, crying, “No! I don’t want to!” My husband threw up his hands: “That’s the ball game.” But I hunkered down. “Kay, do you remember when I went for that job interview? I was scared, like you. But afterward, when I did it, I felt so happy.” I puffed out my chest and did a yellow-brick-road skip, praying admissions personnel weren’t watching.
It worked. My husband stared in awe.
“Can we celebrate because I tried?” Kay caught on quickly. And Serendipity became de rigueur after Trinity, Brearley, Columbia Grammar. I was putting on weight and couldn’t fit into my Gap interview wardrobe. Would Ethical notice my pants unbuttoned during our “parent conversation?” It was moot.
The interviewer and I got into a wrangle when I used the wrong jargon-”child-centered”-to describe their educational approach. She herself used the word “cult” to describe the community. We wouldn’t be going there.
Kay’s last interview, at the Town School, was on a Saturday. “Noooo,” she moaned, lounging in bed. “I’ll take you to Central Park to play croquet first.” An hour later in the cab, I was wiping dog shit off her shoes and getting it on my hands.
My husband, initially concentrating on work and so blasé, suddenly lost his job. Now he had days to read the brochures I left on the kitchen table-and to get his ass on tours. (Husbands often wing interviews, but certain schools keep tabs on who has skipped tours-even who is naughty or nice on the tours.)
My hubby was tuned in: “Is your approach to reading whole-language or phonics?” Way to go, honey. Are we going to be able to pay for this?
I had put more energy into private-school applications than my freshman year at Brown, forgone all professional writing to pen cockamamie essays. (Ethical Culture: “Write a letter to your child.”) “The process” seemed a rite of passage of Manhattan life. I’d moved here at 28, bought my studio, fallen asleep staring at the red lights of the World Trade Center antennae, thinking, “This is an adventure.”
“The Trade Center’s not there anymore,” my husband intoned. I didn’t want to be here, either. Kay and I hightailed it to Florida to visit cousins who have never set foot in a private school, whose kids play soccer and watch television.
On Feb. 16, the envelopes arrived. My husband gave me the news over the phone: one acceptance, the rest wait lists.
Wait lists? Nine months, thousands of dollars in time and money, and limbo ? Admissions directors had warned about the possibility of such a thing due to the number of kindergarten hopefuls. Do us a favor? Establish a cut-off once you reach the 1,000th application for 22 spots.
It’s your fault for not marrying a legacy, I chided myself, for not knowing a board member. For sending Godiva instead of being a Godiva.
Ten days later, Brearley’s admissions director phoned. We had neither met nor spoken to her the entire process, but suddenly she was leaving urgent messages on our cell and home phones.
She offered Kay a spot. She apologized for the wait list-siblings and all that, you understand.
She needed a check in less than 24 hours.
I was numb, but Kay was in.
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