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The Price of Perfection

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In part, this denial and artifice reflect the need to prop up the whole range of conceits about these schools (after all, no self-respecting rich person would want to send his children to a school that you could just buy your way into), but, perhaps more profoundly, they also reflect the deep ambivalence (and often real distaste) that these schools -- or the people who actually work in these schools -- have for the people who are buying their children in.

Consider the disparity between the nursery-school teacher making what a nanny makes and the billion-dollar 3-year-old (with a bodyguard or two) to whom she is teaching "community values"; or the dynamic in the meeting between the $65,000 upper-school administrator and the titan of industry.

The effect, though, is not so much that the schools and teachers bow and scrape (they have a finely honed understanding of when and to whom they must bow and scrape and whom they can high-hand) but rather that they come to understand the full extent of their power (as well as being convinced of their own superiority), and, accordingly, the battle lines are drawn.

These people really know how to manage powerful parents. (It may well be that the rich and powerful like to be slapped around.)

This is a class issue -- ALERT: VULGARIAN ON THE PREMISES -- but it is also, much more, a power issue. Who is in charge?

The job of the school administrator is to outwit the rich and powerful (while all rich people are valued and despised, the rich and malleable are especially valued and despised). It is to get as much as he can from the rich while giving in return as little control as possible. (Interestingly, a school that gets a reputation for being controlled by its wealthy parents is thought to be a lesser school.)

Almost all administrators have perfected a language of diffuseness and avoidance and euphemism (in the girls' schools, every issue is reduced to eating disorders). A good private-school administrator is a Clausewitz of passive aggression. The schools have the ultimate weapon, too, of possession of the children; everybody is fearful of how it will "affect my kid." Special tutoring? Ritalin? Lukewarm college recommendations? The boot? And so, in almost every negotiation -- and every discussion is a negotiation -- parents lose.

On some level, the issue is an irresolvable conflict and long-simmering war between Alison's school and Jack Grubman's school -- Jack is paying for the former while, of course, creating the latter.

So the artifice is breathtaking.

Against the background of vast corruption in any private school of any standing, there is an intense, near-religious focus on tradition, standards, values, and preparation, together with vast, almost theatrical, amounts of homework and a Stepford degree of conformity (helped by that constant weeding-out of the people who just don't fit in) and an ever-more-idealized notion of our community (this includes the diversity thing -- a weird, horrifying elephant in the middle of the table -- wherein perfectly innocent kids from more normal worlds are forced into this drama of artifice and denial). The more corrupt, the better the school -- or the better the pretense of a better school.

The interesting and ironic result is that at the end, after all the struggle to be a part of this, nobody is too happy with the outcome (it starts happy, with great cosseting and niceness, and then, slowly, the tensions build). The price is too high, the pretense too demanding, the negotiating too exhausting, the pressure too great. It is not too much of an overstatement to say that every parent, no matter how little or how much he or she has paid, graduates from the rich-school experience with a chip on his or her shoulder. Was it worth it? is the silent and traumatic question.

And yet, possibly because the alternative would be to admit that we have not only wasted millions of dollars and vast reserves of psychic energy but maybe even screwed up our kids, we do believe we have paid the going price for more-perfect children.

I'm not sure Jack Grubman, who has clearly messed up his chances for such perfect offspring, should be so unhappy to be out of this game.

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