This is the first of an occasional series of posts on the search for a high school for my daughter in the New York City area. Unfortunately I haven’t chronicled this entire experience, but I will be including selected vignettes of adventures we’ve had over the last four months or so of the school search in order to capture reflections on this harrowing experience.
I want to document this because it has been by far the most intense and unpleasant ordeal I’ve undergone while living in New York City – which is not exactly an easy place to live at the best of times. In fact, according to a recent survey, NYC ranks last among the many states in the U.S. in terms of happiness. But then perhaps happiness is overrated. There are certainly a lot of bizarre and sometimes quite amusing elements mixed into the NYC school search ordeal. Moreover, although I’m sure that this experience is highly anomalous, as a limit case I suspect it has quite a lot to reveal about the extreme circumstances to which youths are increasingly subjected in the precarious world we currently inhabit.
At any rate, last night we attended a reception for a NJ-based boarding school at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel here in NYC. We’re looking at boarding schools as well as private and public schools in NYC. Since public high schools in the city are now so selective, I want to make sure that my daughter gets accepted somewhere and so I’m applying almost everywhere (at least that’s how it often feels). Apparently boarding schools have a lot more financial aid to give, and so we’ve been encouraged to apply there as well as to so-called day schools in the city.
There also seems to be a trend towards boarding schools among young people in the city. My daughter, like most of her friends, expressed interest in going away to one, the idea being that as an only child she pines for the company of an extended network of siblings, something she’s likely to find at a boarding school, in theory at least. I think it’s also part of the desire to grow up more quickly, to have the teen equivalent of a kind of glamorous Carrie Bradshaw cosmopolitan life.
The reception at the Waldorf Astoria certainly seemed to promise an experience along those lines. The hotel itself was straight out of an Edith Wharton novel. Most of the people there seemed like movie stars or prostitutes or both. I half expected to see Bono and Jeffrey Sachs smoozing with Angelina Jolie in an alcove of the lobby. I held onto my daughter’s arm very tightly.
The young people and parents who turned up for the reception also all seemed very urbane, and I was struck by the very high percentage of African-American families in attendance. The reception was held in “Peacock Alley,” which felt just about gilded enough. Rather ironic given the parlous state of the U.S. economy today.
Once school officials began making presentations, though, the hollowness of private school rhetoric began to show through this gilded facade. The head of the school talked a lot about “tangible signs of progress” at the school, by which he seemed to mean that they have a lot of money and have been throwing up a lot of buildings. As he ceded his place to a string of other school officials and teachers, I was struck by the fact that all the people tapped to speak were Anglo-American, a very unfortunately choice given the predominantly non-white composition of the potential applicant pool. Why would any of us want to entrust our children to people who seemed not to have thought about the need to integrate their institution and their public face?
The various administrators and teachers who spoke talked about how the school embodied strong values and community. As my daughter pointed out in a frustrated aside after the reception, this was ridiculous. All schools have values and community. What kind of values and community is, of course, the question.
After the administrators held forth, a series of students were invited to speak. One young couple perhaps gave an unwitting clue to the school’s values. They mentioned that they went from the school to an elite ivy league university, from whence they went on to work at Lehman Brothers, and now, after being fired when the firm collapsed, work at Goldman Sachs. The point, I suppose, was to underline the illustrious career trajectory of graduates from the school. It didn’t seem to have dawned on anyone that these blithe young spirits had come to rest in two of the most piratical institutions in the U.S. So much for instilling values!