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The Price of Perfection


I wonder how that would make Jack Grubman feel (as "someone," he confided to Sandy Weill, "who grew up in a household with a father making $8,000 a year"). I wonder if influence like my wife's (Alison, in the face of my great trepidation, applied for our daughters after preschool only to Brearley; and for our son, only to Collegiate -- where the director of admissions is a Brearley girl) is exactly the reason he felt justified leveling the playing field with his own kind of influence. And why not? Isn't it good that anyone can acquire influence to balance the influence of people who were born with it?

Why they would want to is another question.

It's confounding, but true, that most people in New York are not dying of regret that their children are not in these schools. Even among the seriously upwardly mobile, most do not have these deep pangs. I know people downtown who -- hard to believe -- could not readily tell you the difference between Episcopal and Brick, between Spence and Nightingale. This could mean they're not smart enough to appreciate value as Jack Grubman does (on the other hand, he thought WorldCom had value), or they're wise enough to suspect it's all a crock, or so selfish as to think they might have better uses for their dough -- of course, they could just be too poor to compete in this world.

Or it could be that Jack Grubman and I and a few thousand highly parochial others are part of a separate world, with specialized, even slightly perverse values and needs.

We, it seems, have a greater craving for validation, for competitive success, for status, for institutional acceptance, for class standing (we are the real soldiers of American ambition and everyone else is a civilian, I think we feel) -- for having something tangible, some identifiable brand, to show for our troubles. And possibly -- and this should not be underestimated -- for taking something that used to belong to somebody else. (I'll take that social milieu. Throw in some extra uptightness.) We're drawn to the exclusive thing, the formal thing, the Establishment thing -- like Ralph Lauren to the Rhinelander Mansion. Jack Grubman's nursery-school payoff, in other words, is just a logical extension of what makes Jack Grubman Jack Grubman.

We are not so exceptional or perverse, of course. As class barriers have fallen and private education has become a more meritocratic enterprise (well, meritocratic in the sense of your parents' having succeeded in the meritocracy), vastly more people everywhere in the country are applying and donating and tapping connections and getting their children tutored and arranging internships and hiring essay writers, all in an effort to get into some formerly off-limits heaven-on-earth school.

Still -- I don't think I have to argue this -- the connections are grander, the dollars greater, the life-and-death struggle more dramatic, here in Manhattan and most of all on the Upper East Side (there are important West Side schools, too, which does not so much change the demographic point as introduce the parallel and ever-converging competition of Wasps and Jews into the equation -- indeed, the Grubman brouhaha involves a Jewish school on the East Side).

So what are we getting? Or, what do we think we're getting?

True, as Jack says, "there are no bounds for what you do for your children." But I've never known a rich guy who at some point didn't want a return on his investment (the big donations together with the $300,000 in ordinary costs to get your kid from preschool through the twelfth grade). What's more, there are lots of normal upper-middle-class Manhattanites sucking up like crazy to get into these schools, and then straining mightily to pay these bills.

Certainly, we think we'll be absolved of future guilt -- going all-out now means we won't have to blame ourselves later. But surely it's something more (who hasn't rationalized guilt in cheaper ways?). Something much grander draws us.

It's a notion of perfection. And of order. A Platonic ideal.

When you show up at these schools, you can't not be bowled over by the scene. These kids look perfect! Straight from a high-end catalogue. The catalogues imitate these kids -- they are the archetype! This is no overnight tradition. They've been working on carriage and posture here for generations -- and truly, they don't slouch very much; there really isn't much visible attitude. From the groomed and tended preschool youngsters to the gamine girls and Harry Potter boys lounging in common rooms and on window seats -- there are no sore thumbs. This is incredible packaging. This is what the rich are supposed to look like. And the better the school, the better the packaging. The better the school, the stricter the homogeneity of style and tone and manners. (This is actually the result of a harsh Darwinian process: You have to look or fit the part to get in, and then, if you don't continue to stay in character, you're weeded out -- indeed, almost no amount of money can keep a misfit or underperformer in.)

Who isn't, even unreasonably, attracted to the idea that the right circumstance, milieu, window seats, might help make a perfect kid?

There is, of course, a stricter economic interpretation. Value is created by supply and demand. The greater the chance that you can't get it, the greater the desire to get in, the greater the willingness to pay the price -- and to believe it's really worth it. In other words, the admissions Sturm und Drang is self-perpetuating. The more they extort you, the more you want to be extorted.

There's more:

There's the pure joy of not being rejected (happiness being nothing but the remission of pain).

There's the perceived higher value of your children -- you no longer have just a kid, you have a 92nd Street Y kid, or a Spence daughter, or a Horace Mann son. It's something you can take to the bank. It's a social currency -- even a business currency. You'll drop the name of your kid's school -- you will.

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