“Reading, Writing, Social Climbing”
The New York Times, October 3, 1999
section 9, pp. 1, 3
Parents choose private schools in NYC not so much for what the school can do academically for their child, as for what it can do socially–and not so much for the child as for the parents. Headmasters and -mistresses of prominent schools, e.g. The Spence School, tell how parents lobby to have their child assigned to particular classes with particular students, sons and daughters of prominent New Yorkers, “in hopes that the students would become friends and so would the parents.” She saw the jockeying to volunteer on the ‘right’ parent committees. And she saw how back-to-school night, when parents flood the school to meet teachers and rub elbows with other parents often had the aura of a competitive Park Avenue cocktail party: “some adults network furiously to set up play dates with their daughters with the offspring of prominent parents including Sigourney Weaver, Michael Bloomberg, Katie Couric, and Ronald O. Perelman.” Parents chose schools on the basis of their own social aspirations. Parents want very much to be accepted in the social hierarchy and to advance on it. Their four-year-old might give them a leg up. Significantly, one veteran observer remarks that a lot of these parents have nowhere else to gain a network–no church, neighborhood, or other institution. Some schools cave in. They have “opaque processes” for deciding admission to kindergarten, including lots of meetings and observations of parents as well as the five-year-old, and at the end of the day a good deal has to do with who you know. The whole deal puts lots of pressure on children who are bearing their parents’ social aspirations with them. Children start to learn all about the ‘right’ vacation spots and the ‘right’ apartment buildings. By seventh grade they know which are the good buildings on the east side. For some, play dates and birthday invites go only to students with Park Avenue and Fifth Avenue addresses. They also know that those who have a Range Rover outdo those who have a Land Rover (cheaper by half) and feel condescending toward the poor occupants of the Land Rover.