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Failing at Four

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"She would say something like, 'Andrew, what's a knife?' And Andrew would sit there and say, 'I don't know.' And I'm thinking, Of course you know what a knife is. This is what Mommy uses to slit your throat. I'm dying out there. I wanted to lean out the window and scream at the traffic, 'Quiet!'

"She would say, 'I know you know. I bet you're a good guesser. If I came back to this word a little later, would you tell me the answer?' And he said, 'Yeah,' and he did."

The test continued. "She said, 'You go to lunch and you have $2, and lunch costs $1. How much money do you have left?' Andrew says, 'Zero.' And I'm thinking, Of course it's zero. He left a dollar as a tip."

When the ordeal ended approximately 80 minutes later, Blum sent Andrew outside with a lollipop and called Cynthia into her office. "The first thing she says to me is, 'You have a very smart little boy on your hands,' " Cynthia remembers. "I could have cried. It was as if she was saying what you thought all along was correct. It was the validation you're looking for. He scored in the 95th percentile.

"I felt like I'd suddenly been given a reprieve from a death sentence," she continues. "We're back in the game, back in the crapshoot, back to the top tier. Advance me some chips and give me those dice, because we're going to play."

Sarah, another mother whose child applied to schools last year, never for a moment thought she'd have a problem getting her daughter Claire into kindergarten. She already had a sibling in school. Besides, her mom was convinced of her brilliance. "I did zero to prepare Claire," she admits. "I thought she would score in a narrow band in the nineties. Claire's teacher at nursery school had wanted to see the scores. She wanted to see what really high scores would look like."

Unlike Andrew, Claire had gotten a good night's sleep before trotting down to ERB headquarters one Saturday morning. Her problem, according to her mother, was hunger. "We waited an hour," Sarah recalls. "One tester didn't show up that day." So the little girl's 10:30 test didn't start until 11:30. "Which was close to lunch. Now, knowing what I know, I'd have probably left after ten minutes."

Claire's scores were dismal. Her older sister's school offered to retest the child themselves, a courtesy they extend to sibling families. "That was another mistake on my part," Sarah says. "We should have had her privately retested."

The school was inundated with siblings last year, enough to fill most of the class. They decided they couldn't take all of them. Claire was one they turned down. "At worst, she would be in the middle of the pack," her mother argues.

"There's nothing even to talk about," she insists. "Can't smart people see it doesn't make sense? It's like talking about gun control. It's so obvious there shouldn't be handguns."

Despite Claire's scores, her mother continues to believe in her abilities. "That's why this whole thing stinks so much," she says. "I know her best. A tester who meets with her for 45 minutes does not know my child."

The family is happy at the school Claire now attends. But her resentment at her older daughter's school lingers. "I can't believe I can't let go of this anger," she confesses. "It makes me crazy."

Psychiatrist and sports-performance therapist Teresa DeLuca won't coach 4-year-olds. She wants to make that clear. "I was taken aback the first time I got a call," she says. "I said, I've worked with CEOs. I've never worked with pre-kindergartners."

However, she is willing to counsel parents -- about two dozen couples at last count -- about how to ace their own interviews at their first-choice schools. "Most of my clients are CEOs or vice-presidents of investment-banking houses or young kids who made a tremendous amount of money in the market with IPOs," DeLuca says, sitting in the Park Avenue office of her company, Couch Time. "My goal is to get them in a calm, relaxed state. If a person has a high position in their company and is used to being on the other side of the desk, we work on their ability to listen to criticism and respond to it in a positive way. That usually takes some practice."

"She would say something like 'Andrew, what's a knife?' And Andrew would sit there and say, 'I don't know.' And I'm thinking, 'Of course you know what a knife is. That's what Mommy uses to slit your throat.'"

DeLuca's $750 fee includes three sessions to help parents hone their people skills. She also assists families in assembling their kindergarten applications, her staff checking them for "continuity, grammar, and content."

"I've had clients who have said, 'My secretary filled it out, and I don't know what she meant by that,' " the psychiatrist confides. "And I say, 'Stop! This is your child. You need to write this.' "

To remind self-involved parents of the purpose of their visit, DeLuca asks them to bring along a snapshot of their child, which she places on her desk during the session. "Sometimes parents get sidetracked," she says gently. "One of them might say, 'I saw this magazine article about this weight-loss drug. Should I take it?' "

She may ask the family to bring their pre-kindergartner to the third and final session, but only if she senses the child's relationship with his or her parents is so problematic that an admissions director will have no trouble spotting it.


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