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The Price of Perfection

Why would Citigroup's Jack Grubman, and so many other Manhattan parents, work so hard and spend so much and pull so many strings to get their children into what are, after all, nursery schools? Hint: It's not about the kids. A frank exploration of the values and mores and rituals that drive Manhattan's private-school world.

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I'd been saving up to write about New York private schools -- possibly the subject I have dwelled on most obsessively for the past fifteen years -- until my children got out of them.

But it's likely that Jack Grubman and Sandy Weill and an injudicious use of e-mail will have an effect on independent schools -- a rarefied circle of these schools, at least -- similar to the effect pedophilic priests in Boston have had on the Catholic Church. There's no hiding anymore. It's all going to come out.

This is what money buys.

Let me first come clean as to what bank or institution or sugar daddy or influence peddler has secured my children's ascension, as Citigroup underwrote Jack Grubman's kids' entrance to the 92nd Street Y preschool.

That would be my wife, Alison: Brearley class of 1970. Her legacy is a kind of pass, or lifetime membership, or punched ticket, evidently as valuable as a "strong buy" recommendation for AT&T and a million-dollar gift from Citigroup.

She provides our children entrée not just to schools that are, in Mr. Grubman's description, "harder than Harvard" to get into, but to the entire Upper East Side culture -- which is surely what this is about. The faded world of Holden Caulfield and Henry Orient and Butterfield 8 and the Knickerbocker Grays (if you have to ask, you're going to have to donate more) as well as the shinier new world of the investment-banking community.

I was, when I first met my wife, an ambitious know-nothing from New Jersey (I went to an upwardly mobile private day school, but its celebrity children were the children of mobsters and golf-course developers), alternately mystified and amused by the folk customs and secret rituals she had to impart about this weird archipelago of privilege and status. Among the islands in her tales were Dalton, Trinity, Spence, Chapin (the day before our wedding, my wife's distraught mother told my wife that she would have had much better marital prospects if only she'd gone to Chapin), Collegiate, Nightingale, Horace Mann, Brearley. (Here's a secret-ritual detail: the nude posture pictures taken of generations of Brearley girls well into the modern age. What are the chances they still exist somewhere in some school closet or fetishist's file?) Then there's the uniformed-nanny world of feeder preschools, and, for really doctrinaire East Siders, the boys K-to-9's (Buckley, St. Bernard's, Allen-Stevenson), which lead to boarding schools.

Still, in my twenties, I thought this world, this Wasp culture, was not just ridiculous and long-in-the-tooth but dying too. I thought I was rescuing Alison.

Well, as it happened, neither of us paid any real attention when our daughter, Elizabeth, applied to preschool (there is something odd about adults' even saying the word preschool -- saying it as though preschool were a monumental life passage, a historic institution). We weren't ready for this -- we'd deal with such stuff later. Any nursery school would do . . . whatever. But then Elizabeth, age 3, didn't get in -- anywhere.

Now, I would not have thought that Jack Grubman and I have much in common. And yet I understand what he was willing to trade his honor for.

There were, suddenly, when Elizabeth was turned down, two stark paths: a hopeful one and a lesser one. And there were two kinds of parents: ones who made the effort and ones who did not. And two kinds of New Yorkers: the in and the out. Wounded in some deep place, I screamed at Alison to fix it. I became, I believe, seriously unhinged.

Alison, finally accepting or acquiescing to her place in the social order, got on the phone. I do not even think it took her that many calls. No bribes. No money. Just a little chatting. Just being an insider, and knowing what an insider knows. The next day, Elizabeth was accepted at the much-vaunted All Souls School on 80th and Lexington.


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