Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Nursery University: Planning Your Child's Educational Road Map Before They're Born

Last night, as I was switching back and forth between the Cubs (dare I say miraculous) comeback against the Astros, the Sox thumping of the Mariners, and the Rangers demolition of the Tigers I inadvertently (let me repeat, inadvertently) happened across Showtime's channel dedicated to women's issues (you know, menstruation, cooking, vagina size, things that women talk about) and a little documentary entitled Nursery University.

From director and writer Marc Simon and co-director and producer Matthew Maker, Nursery University delves into the highly competitive, breakneck culture of the pre-school selection process for affluent families on the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan. From the very moment these children are born, favors are being called in, stock prices are being manipulated (yes, that actually happened), and the child is being groomed so that they can attend the "right" (meaning prestigious and expensive) pre-school.

The documentary follows 5 families, all from (relatively) different socio-economic backgrounds, as they embark on the uphill journey that is the pre-school application process. The process begins the day after Labor Day when thousands of parents speed dial pre-schools just to request an application. Those who aren't fortunate enough to get past the school's busy signals are automatically excluded from the process. Those lucky few that get through to a live voice and have the chance to obtain an application face long odds at their kid(s) actually being accepted due to the limited number of applications distributed for each classroom slot. Like many other prestigious schools for the filthy rich, children of legacies and those with siblings already enrolled in the school have priority over other applicants. That means that for every single slot in a pre-school classroom there will be between 15-20 applicants.

If you have the luck of the Irish (or any other lucky group of your choosing) on your side then go buy a lottery ticket because you'll need the extra scratch. The post 9/11 baby boom (I guess people like to fuck when they're scared shitless) has made the pre-school application process more competitive than that of most Ivy League universities. This demand has driven the price of tuition for the most prestigious pre-schools to upwards of $20,000 annually. No price is too high to pay for these parents. The rationale behind their irrationally manic frenzy is that if they can get their little bundle of poop and vomit into the best pre-school, then those "feeder" schools send their "graduates" to the best kindergartens, and then the best elementary schools, high schools and, finally, colleges and universities.

I found this film to be extremely amusing in a disturbing, "this actually goes on", kind of way. The melodramatic humdrum of the parents, many of whom curled up into the fetal position and cried more than their children, was classic. One of the parents talks about how, on the day his daughter was born, one of his close friends asked him if he had begun the pre-school application process yet. At first he thought the guy had lost his mind but then he thought about the competitive nature of the application process and panic ensues.

There is also the business of consultants who specialize in "guiding" the parents through the rigorous application process. One consultant has a informational session where she lays out the steps parents should take to ensure their success at gaining one of the coveted classroom slots. One of the parents, after listening to the consultant's spiel, astutely asks if this was something that she wouldn't be better off doing herself. As the consultant skims her mind for readily available excuses, the woman grabs her coat and, with a botox-infused smile, excuses herself from the class. After the parent leaves the consultant explains to the remaining applicants that her services will last 10 weeks (1 session per week) and cost $2,000 per session. Even the women with paralyzed facial muscles managed to raise their eyebrows.

One of the many interesting statements about the psychology of these parents came from another prominent Manhattan pre-school application process consultant. She spoke about how it's not the end of the world if the parents don't get their toddlers into the "right" pre-schools but that, if they don't, the parents will be riddled with guilt for the rest of their lives because they didn't give their children the best education possible and the best circumstances possible on which to build success. I guess if you can't sell 'em, guilt 'em.

The consultant makes a good point (although it's riddled with little guilt land mines for customers to step on). For some of these parents making sure that their kids have the best possible education and the best possible shot at success in life is their number 1 concern. However, I get the feeling that for the vast majority of these parents, many of whom are alumni of prestigious pre-schools, kindergartens, high schools and colleges themselves, enrolling their children in a top-tier finger painting and nap time factory is a way of expanding upon their own social prestige and personal self-worth. They are in a consistent rat race to keep up with the Joneses (pun intended) where the name on your child's kindergarten diploma is more feces to fling at other Upper East Side parents at wine and cheese parties and rubber chicken galas. The admissions process for the various schools, where legacies and siblings are given priority (they have every right to establish the terms of admission for their schools so I'm not flogging them for that) also helps to maintain the status quo in our country, establishing a permanent aristocracy in the halls of our nation's most distinguished educational institutions and upwards into politics and business.

The good news is that the Upper East Side of Manhattan school admission process has migrated from its nest at the upper echelon of society and has been disseminated to charter schools in urban and rural areas that serve a population devoid of the wealth and social standing of those who were documented in Nursery University. These schools, which serve a predominantly black and Latino population, operated with a combination of generous private donations and public funding, have a competitive admissions process (usually a lottery), rigorous admissions testing, and an educational curriculum that challenges the students and provides them with the skills they need to apply and gain entry to our nation's best institutions of higher learning. In addition, these charter schools provide much needed development in social skills and acculturation as the students prepare for, what is to many, their first taste of life outside of the bubble that is their neighborhood. Good examples of urban charter schools that are doing amazing work are The Harlem Children's Zone and The SEED School.

The drive to succeed and the ability to plan for that success is what separates human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom. The greatest desire for any parent is to set their kids up for a life devoid of all the bumps and barriers that they had to overcome themselves to get to where they are. For the affluent parents on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, that drive towards success starts when their children are barely out of the womb, placenta and mucus still in their eyes and nostrils. The competitive application process for New York's most prestigious pre-schools would appear to outsiders to be straight out of a fiction novel but it is real and it is happening. Parents spend 10's of thousands of dollars each year to send their children to the "right" schools and, according to their rationale, guarantee a smooth ride to the upper levels of America's elite circles. The nerve racking nature of the admissions process along with the industries that have popped up around this annual event is but one example of the "succeed at all costs" culture that permeates Western society.

While a stable family, good education, and plenty of money is no guarantee that the beneficiary will be successful (I've done okay without 2 of the 3), it can't hurt. As an aspiring psychologist, watching Nursery University did assure me that there will be no shortage of tightly wound kids that have been given everything since birth and their clinically depressed parents with frayed nerves to fill the leather sofa in my office. I just hope that after all of this elite schooling they have enough money left over to pay my consultation fee.

1 comment:

  1. This is another perfect example of schaudenfraude. Parents throw all their time and resources at their children's "education," so they can spend the rest of their lives ignoring and undermining them while they tend to their own careers and social obligations. When the children grow up to hate them, they can easily refute by stating, "Didn't I break my back to give you every opportunity?" Neuroticism is not love. Man I love New York but am so glad I am not part of this scene.