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The Price of Perfection

There's your recalibrated social station -- you enter a truly exclusive club, and a wildly charming novel of manners. (There is, too, for many, a more subtle sense of diminished social station, which grows over time when you realize that everyone is richer than you -- you're the person lingering uncomfortably at the fringe of parent cocktail parties.) Very public people become part of your private life. It's surreal. There was the time Itzhak Perlman called me up to ask if it was okay if he took his daughter and mine to see Wayne's World. While it is important to be cool, everybody is also giddy with in-ness and proximity (to be fair, the giddiness is much greater in Los Angeles private schools; the L.A. people, interestingly, seem less cool about this than New Yorkers).

There's peace in your household -- rejection can be a marital disaster, a grievance carried for years. Who did not make the calls? Who failed to write the letters -- or write good enough letters? Who did not know when and how to offer the money?

There's a (temporary) quieting of your own unquiet ambitions -- it is, of course, about you. There is the earning of position as a certain kind of New Yorker -- an official New Yorker, a sophisticated New Yorker. It's a tribal thing.

Nursery school is where it begins -- it's a portal, or, perhaps more accurately, a test. The first test. (The fact is, many of these schools get easier to get into rather than harder; but there is something about being at the starting line, about being the first out of the box, about being the early bird.) Are you up to it?

Of course, there is the issue of whether Jack Grubman really, in the end, wants to be a member of a club that would have him.

My wife's Brearley class differs substantially from my daughters' classes. My wife's classmates were children of writers (predominantly, it seems, New Yorker writers), Columbia academics, publishers, doctors, and lawyers as well as socialites and product brand names -- most of whom have largely been replaced in my daughters' classes by the children of people in the financial industry. This clearly mirrors what has happened in the city itself -- banking, providing never-before-imagined levels of cash flow and vastly scaled-up net worths, has changed these schools as it has changed (sleeked up, amped up, intensified, competified) Manhattan life.

Money, in other words, really, really big money, is everywhere. Money is the mother's milk of private education -- as distorting and corrupting as it is to politics and to executives and accountants whose compensation depends on a market uptick.

Money, of course, understands and accepts the ways of money.

It's widely assumed, for instance, that the 92nd Street Y is pretty much off limits for anyone without a major donation or major connection. All Souls, where Alison so easily opened the door, is, after a preference for church members (joining a church is a back door to various preschools), siblings, and people who know people, mostly a closed world.

Spence seems like a kind of banana republic for people with boatloads of dough; its billionaires are would-be Noriegas.

Dalton, with large aspirations but a shallow endowment, will do anything to attract more billionaires.

Collegiate, with some West Side consciousness, often seems in a moral dilemma about its billionaires (although it certainly has as many as any other school -- and has a special penchant for media moguls); its former headmaster was strongly criticized for being too cozy with investment bankers.

Brearley, playing it ever-so-close to the vest, acts as though it were unaware of its billionaires: Aren't we all just folks? Can't we all just get along?

Now, the issue, in a further complication, is not just that money is a weighted factor in every admissions decision. It is not just that every year the number of truly open positions is winnowed down by the pressure of money (every new centa-millionaire who comes into the system comes with a set of people he's going to be pushing strongly for each year), and that nice kids are left outside and awful kids with punch let in. Nor that money infuses every aspect of the life of each of these schools. But that this is all deeply denied.

The system of denial is exactly why Jack Grubman couldn't just whip out his checkbook and instead had to do it under the cover of a donation from Citigroup (schools, of course, understand that there is a big value distinction between someone who can write a check and someone who can cause Citigroup to write one).

Denial and artifice are everywhere. It's a laundering enterprise of the greatest ritual and propriety. (Never ask, "How much?" Or ever demand clear value for what you have given. There is no greater vulgarism than quid pro quo.) Even in Spence's Panama, you must know how to do the deal.