There are those for whom being “in the zone” means diets or Britney Spears albums. For people like me, parents of soon-to-be-school-age children for whom the reality of $25,000 a year for private-school tuition hit like some kind of cosmic joke, “the zone” has come to represent an obsession. More well-heeled friends rend their garments because their toddlers cried at their Packer interviews. I mock their aristocratic dilemmas. And I and my ilk resent the implication that you have to be an investment banker with your offspring on the waiting list for St. Ann’s to be neurotic about your child’s education.
I started going on school tours when my elder daughter was still in diapers. It’s something of a recreational event in my Brooklyn neighborhood, along with community-center workshops with names like “Navigating District 15.” Here in our hotbed of fertility on the Gowanus, where Maclaren gridlock is a common post-playground hazard, we’re rich in high-performing schools. We have magnet schools and lottery schools. We have schools with gifted programs and inclusion programs. We have half-day programs and full-day programs and after-school programs and two kinds of math. But debate over the quality rages, and now, as my child finally approaches pre-kindergarten, I still don’t know if we’re blessed with a dazzling assortment of educational options or locked into a fate determined solely by where the Con Ed bill goes.
Among parents on the playground, “What’s your school?” is what passes for introduction, along with “Is that your child eating dirt over there?” Responses are met with enthusiastic smiles or sympathetic nods. Cobble Hill’s genteel P.S. 29 invokes hushed awe, while Boerum Hill’s grittier P.S. 32 invites a gentle “Oh. Well. That’s good, too.” And a rumor of cutbacks or staff changes can set off ripples of panic and a flurry of variance applications.
I have a particular eye for parents of older children, probing them about how they’re faring. A preschool teacher with a son at P.S. 261 enthuses about their after-school program. “They have everything!” she gushes. “Cooking! Chess! Gypsy dancing!” I’m still calculating how all this will look on my daughter’s Dartmouth application when she adds, “But I have to tutor him for math.” And suddenly I see my child as just another hoofer in a scarf skirt who can’t do long division.
A friend with a child at P.S. 38 admits it has a less-than-stellar reputation but encourages me to apply for its gifted program. Unfortunately, I’m the only mother in New York who doesn’t think her child is gifted. And it’s not just because her preschool teacher recently caught her stuffing Play-Doh in her underpants. Another colleague conspiratorially assures she can get me a variance for a hot school. I am horrified and intrigued. I want to believe the system is an incorruptible lottery, but I’m also flushed at the notion of pulling some strings to gain an admission, just like the big boys do at the 25-grand-a-year places.
I don’t limit my quest for the perfect school to interrogating fellow parents, though. I cruise birthday parties and Dan Zanes concerts, sizing up my daughter’s potential classmates. I ask well-scrubbed prodigies and hockey-stick-wielding little thugs alike where they go to school, in the hopes of determining some kind of demographic data I can later turn into a pie chart.
I do the same with real-estate listings-before checking out a potential new residence, I’m MapQuesting my ass off to determine the local school.
The mania I feel is acute, extreme and comfortingly common. Parents move in ever-narrowing circles of matricular desire. If you’re in District 15, you want to be zoned for P.S. 29, and if you’re zoned for P.S. 29, you want to be wait-listed for Tribeca. I know at least two families who have started having their utility bills sent to addresses where neither their heat nor electricity actually go, in the hope of establishing residence and getting their kids into more desirable schools. I know a mom who volunteers at another, on the chance it might somehow sway a variance. This is the same woman who, when I mentioned that I was applying there, informed me it was hopeless and I should give up. “They’re only issuing two for the fall,” she declared ominously, “and I really think Stewart is going to get one of them.” I smiled indulgently and thought, “Bring it on.” I find myself lately fully determined to get that variance, if only to stick it to Stewart and his folks. Great-my firstborn’s early education is now riding on her mother’s bottomless appetite for one-upmanship.
The thing about living here is that an inability to afford private school in no way diminishes anyone’s arrogance or sense of entitlement. At school open houses, prospective parents grill the staff relentlessly on their policies and philosophies. A dad at a P.S. 58 tour takes umbrage with the school’s tradition of saying the pledge of allegiance, questions how competitive the play in phys-ed class is, and nervously speculates that the students’ lunchtime mantra of ” Bon appetit , let’s eat!” sounds suspiciously like prayer. Another questions what the science curriculum is-for the pre-K. I look forward to his daughter splitting atoms at the sand table come fall.
In schools more generally accepted to be All That, the tables are turned. At the New School, a homeroom teacher firmly states that parents who have problems with their policies can go elsewhere. And at another open house, the principal asks the parents from outside the zone to identify themselves, provoking awkward hand-raising from the stigmatized hopeful and a pitying admonition that they probably won’t be accommodated.
My daughter remains blissfully unaware of my angst. In order to secure a variance for P.S. 261, the “Magnet School for Integrating the Arts,” we have a mandatory play visit scheduled. I have no idea what’s expected of us when we go. I only know that I’m gripped with a silent terror of screwing it up. When I took her to register at the school we are zoned for, my daughter was more interested in trying to visit her friend Leo’s classroom than inquiring about the new Spanish program.
But frankly, I found myself warming to the easy proximity to our apartment, especially as I maneuvered my squalling 3-month-old around the facilities. All my going on tours and indexing math and reading reports and, ultimately, the deciding factor may simply wind up being convenience. For years I’d dismissed the school, based largely on the example of a surly neighbor kid who goes there, whose creed in life is: “It don’t matter.” But as my daughter sat in the office, the secretary took an illustrated edition of The Wind in the Willows off her desk and handed it to her. “A little welcome present,” she said. My daughter beamed, and I felt something click into place. It occurred to me that even in Brooklyn, the path of least resistance may actually lead to the palace of wisdom. And even if you can’t buy your way into the system, all it takes is one small gesture and you can win me.