DEAR [insert first name of preschool admissions director here],
We wanted to thank you for considering our daughter Bethanie for your 2�s program. We�ve enjoyed every step of the admissions process over these last six months � from the speed-dial excitement of the post-Labor Day calls for an application to camping out on the sidewalk overnight for the open house. We see it as a real testament to the strength of your program that 98 percent of your spots for next year will be filled with siblings. And, since we�re a glass-half-full kind of family, [insert preschool name here] is absolutely our first and only choice for Bethanie.
Given that there are probably 20 other Bethanys applying for the 2�s program next year, we wanted to point out that our daughter�s name is spelled Bethanie, with an ie not a y, after her paternal grandmother, Bethanie Beezley, an unsung teacher�s aide under Maria Montessori, who was evidently quite instrumental in developing the theory of the moderately gifted child. We hope this little tidbit about our family�s abiding commitment to progressive education helps clarify things on your end administratively.
The open house was spectacular! We were so impressed to hear your current 3-year-olds articulating your mission and responding to all those complex questions about your lottery, endowment and zoning issues and how they had an impact on the inspired vertical layout of your playground. Please know that my husband was only kidding when he asked whether Deloitte & Touche oversaw the lottery drawing. Being selected to attend the parent tour was really meaningful for us. Not just because it was the first time in ages that we had done something together outside of couple�s counseling, but because we learned a lot about our values as parents.
The real aha! moment for us came during the playdate portion when we got to witness your school�s philosophy on conflict resolution. We so appreciated the teachers encouraging our Bethanie to use her �angry words� to describe having to put away her Polly Pocket and that other Bethany, with a y, to use her �hurt words� to voice how disappointed she was about the rip in her Dora sweatshirt. Needless to say, we�re grateful to have some new language to use at home.
You�ll notice that we included two birthdates on our application. Bethanie, who was born in April, will technically be 2.5 years old next September, but because she was eight weeks premature � I attribute this to trying to balance my job as a television producer with my volunteer work in Bosnia � she should really have been born in June, which would qualify her for your younger 2�s class. Whichever date you�re comfortable considering is fine with us. We�re flexible.
We are also wondering if it�s too late to be considered under your diversity category as a nontraditional family. Bill has just been cleared for his gender reassignment surgery � that�s right, Bethanie will soon have two moms � so we felt it important to bring this change in family constellation to your attention. And, since we�re putting all our cards on the table, please know that while we originally left the sibling question blank, we do have a dozen embryos on ice at our fertility clinic. Given the current political climate, we hope you interpret this information however best works in our favor.We�d also like to request your scholarship form due to changes in our economic circumstances. We hadn�t anticipated needing to take a leave of absence from our jobs to attend the required open houses, parental tours and interviews.
We want to reiterate how strongly we hope Bethanie will attend [insert preschool name here]. In fact, we plan to home school Bethanie should she not be accepted. We�ll apply again the next year and the year after that, and perhaps even hold Bethanie back from kindergarten in hopes of having another opportunity to join your wonderful community.
Jane and Bill (a k a Maria) Smith
P.S. We hope your staff enjoys the enclosed monogrammed Tiffany key rings. (We�re just sorry we couldn�t find everyone�s middle initials on Google.)
The anxiety in Manhattan was palpable last week as parents made last-ditch efforts to get their children into the city’s top private schools before acceptance letters are sent out in the next few days: strategizing over recommendations, pressuring influential friends to put in a good word, stalking the sidelines as nursery school directors traded their children’s future like stock on the Nasdaq.
Of course, it’s all worth it in the end, right? Everyone knows that private schools outperform public.
Not so fast. A recent study by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana has concluded that when you control for demographic differences, fourth graders attending public schools do better in math than those in private school. At eighth grade, the two groups performed comparably.
For middle-class parents like myself who struggle with tuition payments, this is important news. In 1996, when our daughter was ready for kindergarten, my husband and I thought we had two choices — private school or a move to the suburbs. Based on park-bench talk about public schools — lead paint, children spilling out of the classrooms, out-of-control students — we didn’t even consider the possibility.
So, with “The Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools” as our bible, we toured, we applied, we waited and we were rewarded with acceptance to a fine independent school for my first child and later for my second.
Back then, we had friends who sent their children to P.S. 6 and P.S. 41, schools that I now know are excellent. But secretly, I pitied those children. They weren’t getting the low student-teacher ratio, the amazing facilities and daily doses of art, music and physical education that my little darlings enjoyed.
Five years later, and with some personal experience under my belt, I became an adviser for parents seeking places at top schools. When I started out, I toured almost every school in the city. To my surprise, I discovered wonderful public schools. These schools — some of which required that you live in the zone to attend, others that your child test, interview or win a lottery for a place — were run by committed principals and experienced teachers (who are paid more than private school teachers, by the way). The families were involved, and many of the schools offered unique enrichment programs.
By the time our children were ready for middle school, the burden of private school tuition had hit us hard. We earned too much to qualify for scholarships and not enough to write checks for $60,000 a year without taking on a second mortgage. With my newfound knowledge of public schools, I moved my daughter to a highly praised one on the Lower East Side. Although we didn’t live in the neighborhood, my daughter was interviewed (as were my husband and I), tested and accepted into the school. The teachers were as committed as any we had known, calling me at home to discuss strategies to deal with academic issues when they arose, working with my daughter after school when necessary. Because of a learning disability, we moved her to a private program for high school, but our experience with public school was stellar.
When I had my business, clients hesitating between public and private would ask my opinion. I would always say if money is no object, choose private — the facilities are better, the classes are smaller, more subjects are offered and the “extras” are unequaled. If money is an object, go public. If you can’t get your child into Lower Lab, the Anderson Program, Hunter College Elementary or a gifted and talented program, then move to a neighborhood with a highly rated school, like TriBeCa for P.S. 234 or P.S. 89, Greenwich Village for P.S. 41, the Upper West Side for P.S. 87 or the Upper East Side for P.S. 6, just to name some of the best. Take advantage of these great public schools through fifth grade. You can rethink the decision for middle and high school, but you’ll have already saved about $180,000 per child.
With the weight of tuition bearing down on us again, I wish we had taken advantage of the city’s best public schools in the early years. For middle-class parents waiting anxiously for this week’s admissions letters, it’s something to think about. Who knows, your publicly educated child may very well outperform his private-school counterparts.
—Karen Quinn, New York Times
Since I’m a journalist, I often get approached by PR firms or people who want me to write an article. From time to time, a story idea really catches my fancy. One recent pitch did just that.
If you’re a hectic, fast-paced and super-busy woman, you may enjoy entering an off-beat, fun Wife in the Fast Lane Contest.
This contest basically is a very clever marketing gimmick — I’m impressed! — to promote the upcoming novel, Wife in the Fast Lane, from bestselling author Karen Quinn.
Anyhow, if you’re a time-strapped, hurried wife, you’re invited to submit a sassy, clever one-liner, essay or video all about what your life in the fast lane is like. If you win, you could get one of dozens of prizes, including a $2,000 gift certificate to Canyon Ranch Spa and a 14K gold charm bracelet. (Nice!)
Enter the contest here. Your deadline is February 16, 2007.
Now here comes the fun part. You get to hear how some busy women have been describing their fast-lane lives. Here’s what they say:
I knew I was living in the fast lane when:
* “My husband asked me what my favorite sexual fantasy was and I told him, `You making love to me without waking me up.’”
* “My three-year-old daughter insisted on calling her playroom her `office.’”
* “I was talking on the phone and forgot whom I was talking to and why we were talking.”
* “I returned from one too many business trips and my three-year-old greeted me as `Aunt Mom.’”
* “I surprised my son by picking him up at school and his first question was, `Did my nanny die?’”
Read more funny quips and one-liners.
Karen Quinn’s new book, Wife in the Fast Lane, will be published on March 13, 2007 by Simon &
Schuster. This newest novel is the follow-up to her national bestseller, The Ivy Chronicles (soon to be released as a major motion picture).
In Wife in the Fast Lane, Karen revisits the harried and often unintentionally hilarious world of the working woman extraordinaire who struggles to manage a career, husband, kids, school, business and more, all while keeping her sanity in check.
Publisher’s Weekly called Wife in the Fast Lane “a delightful story” that’s “good fun up to its happy ending!”
OK, I’m getting really inspired. Check back here for the upcoming….. drum roll, please…. SUGAR SHOCK! One-Liner Contest! Thanks, Karen, for the fabulous idea!
Sugarshockblog.com, Feb. 4 2007
IN JULIAN FELLOWES’S URBANELY FUNNY NOVEL “SNOBS,” an accountant’s daughter named Edith buys a ticket to visit the ancestral home of Charles, the Earl Broughton. This is an inauspicious way for them to meet, but Charles winds up proposing marriage.
“Flower shows all summer, freezing pipes all winter” says Charles’s sister, describing what Edith’s new life will be like. “Does she hunt?” No, she doesn’t yet – not unless Charles counts as prey.
Edith’s parents chose her name “for the fragrant overtones of a slower, better England and perhaps, half-consciously, to suggest that it was a family name handed down from some Edwardian beauty. It was not.” But Edith fulfills those ambitions on the morning after the wedding, when a hotel waiter calls her “my lady” while delivering breakfast in bed.
“Oh well,” Edith thinks.
No one ever went broke overestimating snob appeal. It’s one of the most marketable vicarious pleasures. And it colors writing well beyond Cinderella fiction. Biographers are often drawn to elite subjects. Chick-lit heroines are perennially obsessed with status. The coming-of-age memoir gets more attention if its narrator learned about life at a socially prestigious school. And a diet book has more cachet if it cautions against too many tartes aux pommes rather than too many Twinkies.
“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Hershey, Pennsylvania anymore,” Mireille Giuliano writes in “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” using the superiority of French chocolate to weave a trans-Atlantic snob factor into weight-loss guidelines. Ms. Giuliano also notes that corn on the cob, while an American favorite, “is usually reserved for livestock” in France. She recommends Champagne as the just-right complement to pizza. She also works as a director of Champagne Veuve Clicquot.
Never mind the implicitly snobbish corollary to her book’s title. (If French women don’t get fat, who does?) Ms. Giuliano turns out to be eminently level headed. She combines reasonable thoughts about nutrition with a general endorsement of joie de vivre, and her tone is girl friendly enough to account for the book’s runaway popularity.
Ross Gregory Douthat’s memoir “Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class” isn’t as lofty as it sounds, either – even if the author fails to win membership in Harvard’s most rarefied club and pretends he isn’t disappointed. The closest Mr. Douthat comes to social demarcation is in the realm of politics. He claims to have heard “You’re not a bad guy for a Republican” at Harvard on a regular basis.
Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Prep” presents another occasion for campus condescension, since it unfolds at a top-tier boarding school near Boston. There are rich students, like the C.E.O.’s daughter who winds up with a very large dorm room. There are also students like the book’s heroine, Lee, who doesn’t understand why that room is so big. “Come on,” one classmate explains.
“Prep” is less satirical about campus snobbery than the jauntier “I Am Charlotte Simmons” – in which Tom Wolfe, having devoted his entire career to sniffing out signs of privilege, rises to such tasks as cataloging what a spoiled rich girl and a noble poor one would respectively bring to their shared dorm room. And “Prep” is serious enough to have spawned its own upper-crust souvenir: versions of the pink-and-green ribbon belt on the book’s cover are turning up at Ms. Sittenfeld’s readings. But little of this book’s appeal lies in the type of familiar snob dynamics that make Lee ashamed of her parents’ Datsun. What makes “Prep” work is the solidly adult, myopia-free voice behind its high-school status games.
School days can forge a lifetime’s worth of class distinctions. Consider the evidence in “The Perfect Hour,” James L. W. West III’s recapitulation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first love affair. This haunting book captures the voice of wealthy, beautiful Ginevra King, who was 16 when Fitzgerald, two years older, swooned over her. Yes, it was romantic – but monogrammed place cards and society-page clippings were among his souvenirs of Ginevra’s world.
Its echoes would last a lifetime and appear repeatedly in his fiction (most seductively in “The Great Gatsby”). And thanks to the entree that Ginevra provided, Fitzgerald would become the patron saint of status-conscious American fiction as he went on to immortalize “the youth and mystery that wealth imprisons and preserves, the freshness of many clothes, of cool rooms and gleaming things, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.”
Snobbery comes in many forms; it need not revolve solely around obvious forms of privilege. So Koren Zailckas, in “Smashed,” her memoir of boozy college years, shows how status can be linked to the ability to out-drink everyone else in one’s sorority. And in Jennifer Haigh’s novel “Baker Towers,” the story’s loving but impoverished coal miner’s family (replete with details like tin foil on the antenna of the old television set) is far superior to one son’s new bride, a department store heiress from Philadelphia’s Main Line. It is noted that her sole culinary skill involves opening wine bottles, and she can’t even cook an egg.
But in its purest current form, snobbery revolves around two things: schadenfreude and cold cash. So there are books that virtually attach price tags to their characters’ perks and possessions. Karen Quinn’s “The Ivy Chronicles” manages to fuse two snob-related genres – I-got-fired and Upper-East-Side-rat-race – with a woman named Ivy who loses her high-powered job. First she is reduced to riding in a bad-smelling Lincoln Town Car redolent of middle management. Soon she has no driver at all. Ivy must give up her life-energy coach ($18,000), analyst ($24,000), nannies and maid ($74,000) “and a slew of other expenses like food, insurance, electricity, telephone, cable, doctor bills” and turn a $399 outlay into $9.99 by coloring her own hair. Ivy gets even by starting a service that helps parents worm their children’s way into prestigious kindergarten classes. And Ms. Quinn’s sendup is amusing, except for those times when she tries to summon a voice of hauteur. “How are you, Ivy?” asks one awkwardly caricatured blueblood. “You look raaather well and blond hair becomes you, doesn’t it?” Clearly anyone hoping to convey true snob appeal had better learn how to talk the talk.
James Patterson doesn’t need accents; he has brand names instead. In his latest novel (and one of his friskiest), “Honeymoon,” a gold-digger named Nora becomes engaged to wealthy men and then kills them, for no better reason than that Mr. Patterson plans to publish at least four books this year. One victim has given Nora a diamond whose carats (four) and color (“at least D or E”) become part of the story. And when she kills him, she leaves him “lying on the floor of one of the bathrooms in his 11,000-square-foot Colonial.”
Mr. Patterson drops the names of a favorite ice cream, various hotels (“They had stayed at the Biltmore, one of her favorites, but only if they put you in the main building”) and various haunts around Westchester. And he notes the “regal burl walnut casket” in which one rich victim is buried, while also noticing the “slackers and moochers” loafing around Starbucks. But the brand name of most interest here is that of Howard Roughan, the book’s other author. He appears to be one of Mr. Patterson’s better collaborators.
At least the big-ticket elements of “Honeymoon” spring from the writers’ imagination. They haven’t cashed in on anybody else’s pretensions in the way celebrity biographers do. But “Front Row,” Jerry Oppenheimer’s tell-not-much about Vogue’s top editor, Anna Wintour, seeks out the snobbery to be found Ms. Wintour’s past. “She was patrician,” says one “friend” (the kind who would talk to Mr. Oppenheimer). “She was not a playful child.” And: “Anna hated badly dressed people.”
In some ways Mr. Oppenheimer’s efforts are exemplary. Aspiring mudslingers can marvel at the sheer creativity of the following sentence: “Anna didn’t do drugs, even though marijuana, cocaine, LSD, and everything else one could snort, inhale, or shoot to get recreationally high was all around her, everywhere she went.” Also impressive is his ability to string out the obvious, since this book’s focal point is snobbishly self-evident from the start. “A mixture of fashion, wealth and elitism” is both Ms. Wintour’s hallmark and Mr. Oppenheimer’s main selling asset.
As “Front Row” does its best to out-snoot its subject, someone remembers Ms. Wintour visiting an estate, complete with chauffeurs, butlers, helium balloons and breakfast on silver trays. “It sounds all very ‘Gosford Park,’ ” the speaker sniffs, “but ‘Gosford Park’ was about an industrialist, and Patrick was an aristocrat. It’s very different.”
That should give Mr. Fellowes – who wrote “Gosford Park” as well as “Snobs”-every reason to turn up his own nose. It violates “that most tedious of all English aristocratic affectations,” as “Snobs” describes it: “the need to create the illusion that you are completely unaware of your privileges.”
—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
A NEW YORK WORK OF FICTION, ‘The Ivy Chronicles’, traces the lengths that many Manhattan mothers will go to get their child into the right kindergarten. But, as Michael Shelden discovers, the reality is even more scary. For New York’s elite, it’s never too early for their children to start networking
“While Veronica takes many different classes, from language to music to public speaking, her favourite activity is dancing. Recently, a renowned talent scout tried to sign her, but we felt she was too young for Broadway. She loves choreographing her own shows and helping her seamstress sew sparkly costumes for all her performances. In short, Veronica has accomplished more in her four-and-a-half years on earth than many adults achieve in a lifetime.”
For the children of New York’s wealthiest families, the class war begins at the tender age of four. That’s when the little darlings must prove themselves worthy of acceptance at one of the city’s private kindergartens, where thousands compete for a relatively small number of openings at a dozen or so exclusive schools. The admissions process is so intense that many of the rejected families are devastated and slink away to the suburbs, convinced their child’s future is blighted.
Enter Karen Quinn, who started a company to coach parents and children through the gruelling ordeal of exams, interviews and background checks, and who has now written a fictional account of her work among Manhattan’s angst-ridden elite. Her tale is both harrowing and hilarious.
“One mother who came to me was in tears, absolutely distraught,” she tells me in a tone that sounds like a kindly doctor recalling the case of a dying patient.
“One of the schools had given her some negative feedback about her daughter. They hadn’t even said no yet, but just the possibility of being rejected was enough to make this woman ask me: ‘How have I failed my child? Where did I go wrong?’”
Although the mother in question was a powerful businesswoman who earned half a million pounds a year – and could easily afford the annual fees of £20,000 – she couldn’t figure out how to rescue her daughter before it was too late. Savvy Karen Quinn immediately understood the right solution, advising the woman to spend more money, albeit discreetly.
“The school wasn’t aware of how much she was worth,” says Quinn. “All she needed to do was hint to the right people that she was ‘generous’, which is a polite way of saying she could be a big donor to the endowment.”
“A million dollars will usually do it. But some people give a lot less or a lot more. I know one man who built an entire gymnasium for his daughter’s school and it was already finished when she began kindergarten. The school even named it after her, which made it awkward. Imagine how embarrassed she would have been around the other children.”
Why so much fuss over four- and five-year-olds? Supposedly, the parents worry that their children’s failure to get into the best kindergarten creates a domino effect that will eventually shut them out from the best universities. But the real reason seems to be mum and dad’s own vanity. They can’t hold their heads high in society if little Muffie or young master Shane aren’t classmates of the other children of New York’s rich and mighty.
“The whole thing is about making contacts that will last a lifetime,” says Quinn. “You become part of a vast network that offers a lot of rewards. So the schools are picky and they judge the parents as well as the child. I’ve had mothers tell me that their child `interviewed well’ and had high test scores, but that the school found the family less than impressive and rejected them.”
Such brazen displays of snobbery are rare elsewhere in America, but it’s a tight market where private education is concerned in New York and the best schools call the shots. The state schools are so appallingly bad that everyone avoids them if they can afford to.
“The situation is so difficult that it often drives very strong and accomplished people to break down and cry or rant,” says Quinn. “Women tend to handle it better than men. The men can’t understand why they have to win the approval of school officials who make far less money than they do. I once had a father visit me and he became so angry that I feared for my life. I went to the kitchen and hid my knives.”
The overwrought four-year-olds don’t fare much better. Their parents and tutors and therapists drill them night and day, making sure they don’t let the family down by failing to subtract the right number of objects in a game or not answering some vaguely philosophical question (“Why do we have windows?”), or simply by picking their noses at the wrong moment, as four-year-olds will do.
In the middle of tutoring a girl for the dreaded Kindergarten Admissions Test, Quinn became carried away and was firing questions one right after the other until the exhausted child flung up her hands and said stop. “I’m only four,” protested the girl.
“I knew that it was time to get out of the business,” says Quinn. “That sent me over the edge.”
She never meant to make a career of it. Originally a lawyer in Denver, she came to New York in the mid-1980s and worked at American Express for 15 years. When she was suddenly made redundant, she looked round for a business to start and seized on the unusual idea of advising parents of prospective kindergartners.
“I told myself to think of something people hate doing for themselves, but that I could do for them,” she says.
Married to a fellow lawyer, she is the mother of a young son and daughter and knows from her own experience the terrors that await novice parents seeking a good school for their children. But she was never wealthy enough to compete against the Manhattan super-rich and had only a vague idea of how they dominated the kindergarten competition. Her new business opened her eyes.
She found herself in a world of private jets and private islands and stretch limos. People were willing to pay her thousands of dollars to give their four-year-olds an advantage against other children applying to the same small group of schools.
Modest and unaffected, she lives in a fashionable, but not luxurious section of Lower Manhattan and – at 50 – resembles not at all the woman who has signed to play her in the film version of her story – Catherine Zeta-Jones. There was nothing very glamorous about her work.
On the contrary, she now seems to feel a little guilty about encouraging so many children to take life too seriously too soon.
“Most children at that age aren’t interested in doing the kinds of things demanded of them on the tests,” says Quinn. “They don’t want to identify various shapes and compare them, much less add or subtract.
“I know of one wealthy mother who boasted that she had spent a solid month training her daughter to draw shapes -even stars. She was worried about it because the nursery school had warned her that her daughter needed the extra work or wouldn’t pass the tests.”
On one occasion, a zealous mother watched as Quinn instructed the woman’s son on the best method of recognising colours. In the middle of the lesson, the boy put his head down and fell asleep.
“I wanted to get up and go home,” she says. But his mother said no, keep talking to him. When I pointed out that he was sleeping soundly, she says: `He will pick it up subliminally.’ So I sat there lecturing him and all for nothing.”
It was one of her low moments, but there were others she is proud of. She helped many parents of ordinary means to navigate the rough waters of the kindergarten system, which serves as a kind of doorway in American education to the more challenging levels available to older pupils.
“Unless they make a great deal of money, it’s very hard for families to afford private schools,” says Quinn. “But people want what they think is best for their children and will do whatever is necessary to get it. So I would help them by advising the mother to do volunteer work for the school or to use the family’s contacts to seek out the best deals.
“Of course, at least a few places at each school are reserved for diversity. The normal rules don’t apply in those cases. To avoid having schools made up mostly of whites, they sprinkle them with some colour.”
It is an odd fact that the private schools of Manhattan devote so much energy to keeping out people and then – perhaps out of guilt – throw open the doors at the last moment to allow a few “disadvantaged” children in. They claim to be doing all the children a favour by this action, but Quinn isn’t so sure.
“My partner in the business is black and her son found a place at one of the better schools,” she says. “But it’s not easy for these children to rub shoulders with those who live in big houses when they live in subsidised public housing. They can’t help feeling different and will hesitate to ask other children home after school.”
Quinn notes the irony that the most selective private school in New York is named after Horace Mann, who was America’s first great pioneer of state-sponsored education. If any children from the general public get into the Horace Mann School today, it is usually because they are enlisted as recruits in the “diversity” campaign.
The more you talk to Karen Quinn, the more you realise that her book has a very serious side to balance its host of comic adventures featuring the pampered rich behaving badly. She cares about education and sees it being served so poorly by a system that is riddled with snobbery and cronyism on the private side and poverty and mismanagement on the public side.
“It doesn’t have to be this way, but the system is now being squeezed so hard that the competition in the private field has shifted to the nursery schools,” she says.
“It used to be that everyone waited until the kindergarten year to push their children forward. Now, they fight over getting their two-year-old into the best nursery school.”
No wonder Quinn left her business to her partner and got out in 2003 and has never looked back, except to chronicle her experiences in her new novel.
“Writing the novel was cathartic,” she says. “I had a lot to get out of my system.”
Indeed, she wrote at white-hot speed, finishing her first draft in only three months. All the frustration of the previous three years came pouring out as she described the obsessive parents who are willing to do almost anything for a place at school for a child of four or five.
The writing itself was so enjoyable that she can’t wait to produce another book. “After all these years, I’ve finally found something I really enjoy doing. That’s a great relief.”
—The Sunday Telegraph