Luckyish

I grew up hanging out behind a Burger King in New Jersey.
Then ended up in the world of the Manhattan Private School.
A serial by Lori Campbell


Approximately 500,000 families live on the island of Manhattan. Most children of these families attend one of New York City’s public schools. Schools that run from Battery Park and Tribeca to the Upper East and West Sides.

Of those 500,000 families, around 20,000 have children who are not enrolled in public school. Instead, they are members of a coterie comprised of forty independent schools that dot the island. In other words, 4% of these families have children who attend an A-list Manhattan private school.

Dalton, Trinity, Columbia Prep. Trevor Day, Spence, Horace Mann. Riverdale, Fieldston, Nightingale, Brearley. Just a few of the esteemed academic establishments where parents pony up about $40,000 a year for third grade tuition. Where there’s a 16-to-1 student-teacher ratio. Where kids are fast-tracked for a great college, maybe even Ivy League.

It’s a fast track that involves small classes and a superb curriculum, but also yoga, film critique, poetry, jazz, robotics, chess, dance. And dozens of other programs designed to enrich the lives of students. Most of whom start the day at 8:00 a.m., when their parents drop them in the school lobby, then stick around to tell stories of summers spent in East Hampton and the South of France.

What a life! So glamorous! So luxurious!

You cannot help but ask yourself, who are the members of this elite club? Who are those goddamn bastards?

I am here to tell you that I, Lori Campbell, am one of those bastards.

BASTARD!

My son and daughter leave their Greenwich Village apartment every morning to attend a Manhattan private school. One for which gaining acceptance is extraordinarily difficult: about one spot for every twenty students who apply.

They have daily access to paper, pencils, Ipads, Smartboards, and a school lunch of organic pasta, sun-dried tomatoes, and artichoke hearts.

Usually my children walk to and from school. But sometimes they’ll bum a ride.

“Hey mom, can Jonathan come over?” my son, Drew, will text me at 3:15.

“Sure. How are you going to get home?”

“Arnold.”

“Okay.”

Arnold drives a Cadillac Escalade for Jonathan’s family.

The school bus.

Excellent food, outstanding teachers, and stimulating activities fill the weekdays, but weekends aren’t bad either.

Over the years, Drew and his sister, Jessie
have attended birthday parties with:

An entire petting zoo.

A goody bag valued at over $85.00.

Professional-grade stylists.

We sure are lucky to live the good life, aren’t we! Boy, can I go to sleep at night feeling great. I’m giving my kids everything — the best education and opportunities life has to offer. A fantastic start that can only lead to a stellar finish.

This whole private school thing is a slam dunk!

Unless, uh, it’s not. Unless this gilt-edge, exclusive world comes with a caveat. Or two. Or three. Unless immersing myself in it has lead to misgivings, self-doubt, and unforeseen bumps and challenges.

Even if it has, surely the good outweighs the bad. Surely I have nothing to complain about — my family and I are among the most fortunate people in the world.

Yes we are!

Sort of. Kind of.

Maybe.

Maybe? What’s so maybe about organic tuna, robotics, and a driver named Arnold? What sort of ungrateful miscreant would lament these copious luxuries?

Excellent point and I would not deny the many advantages of being included in this select group. But the thing about being part of an elite group is that before you can become a member of the private school club, you must first figure out how to get into it.

It all begins the day you decide to apply. And start by praying no one in the admissions department knows about your past.

Since the vast majority of my childhood was spent by the railroad tracks behind the Burger King in Park Ridge, New Jersey, it’s pretty safe to say I had a lot to hide.

The Grand Opening of Burger King was the biggest thing
to happen to Park Ridge, New Jersey since Cheryl Farragut
stripped at a high school football game.

The railroad tracks were about fifty feet behind the Burger King parking lot, and they were surrounded by a patch of grass covered with cigarette butts and broken glass. But I knew why the other kids and I went there. It felt dangerous, and danger was good. Because in Park Ridge in the 1980’s, nothing was going on. Nobody went to ballet, or a pottery studio, or a Latin tutor after school. We had no horseback riding or French horn lessons. We hardly even had homework.

My father was teacher and we had a stay-at home mom, so my brother, sister, and I learned early that purchasing material items or any kind of “unique experience” was not going to happen in our house. If we wanted something, we had to get creative.

“Look what I found,” my sister said one day when she got home from kindergarten.

She pulled a week-old kitten out of her pocket.

“Where did you get that?” asked my mom.

“It was lost. I rescued it.”

After a little coaxing my sister admitted she pretty much “lifted the nursing kitten off the mother cat.” Even at five years old she recognized a prime opportunity. An animal would provide excellent entertainment, and since she basically tucked the cat in her pocket when no one was looking, the price was right.

Growing up in Park Ridge meant my world was small: family, neighbors, public school. I knew on some level that the railroad tracks behind the Burger King led to bigger, more interesting things, but I’d hardly heard of private school, and the closest thing I’d gotten to a nanny was Phoebe Figilily on Nanny and The Professer. A lot of kids from Park Ridge ended up working at the deli, the bank, or the nail salon. I figured I would too.

But I ended up working in advertising, and moving into the city, where I met my husband, Ian. After we had kids, like most people living in the city, we figured we’d give private school a try. It was a long shot, but we liked Friends Seminary because it was close to our apartment and seemed more down-to-earth than the uptown private schools. But the moment we walked into the small, brown-carpeted waiting room of the admissions office at Friends, my stomach dropped to my knees. Another couple was already waiting: a well-known news anchor and her husband.

It was deadly quiet in there, and with each second that went by, my heart beat faster, and my hands turned from sweaty to cold to clammy. After what felt like nine days, a door opened and a middle-aged woman with curly brown hair and wire-rimmed glasses walked out.

“Come in, Ms. Campbell, Mr. MacKenzie. I’m Helen Brimsly.” (School employees, as well as my kids’ names have been changed.)

“Thank you. Thank you so much. So much. Thank you,” I said.

By the time we took our seats across from Helen Brimsly’s desk, I had pretty much gotten us crossed off the list. “Thank you again,” I said, on the outside chance she hadn’t already checked the box next to NEVER IN A MILLION YEARS.

While Ms. Brimsly examined our file, I prayed my son’s kindergarten interview was going well and that the Double Espresso Power Bar I had crumbled into his cereal earlier that morning hadn’t worn off yet. But judging by the dozens of online advice columns on how to handle the private school interview, the decision hinged on us as much as it did on him.

As Helen Brimsly clicked open her pen and prepared to take notes, I thought of the advice past interviewees had given us. They said the most important thing was to be honest.

“Be honest,” I said to myself. “Be honest.”

But…what if she inquired about my past? Would I tell her about the railroad tracks? How my neighbor, a red-headed kid with puffy hands, used to tell me, “You’re so poor your shoes are made of banana peels.” Perhaps I could mention the one thing my family did for vacation: Went camping in a cornfield in Pennsylvania.

The view from the tent.

My husband and I muddled through the interview. Then the process of waiting for a letter from the school began — weeks of my heart pounding out of my chest every time I passed the mailboxes in the lobby of our building.

Maybe we had overreached for even applying, I thought, but our family had done the interviews, had put ourselves out there. We stepped up to the plate and I didn’t want to hear the umpire yell, “Steerike, you’re out.” I felt it would be pretty unbearable to see, in print, someone saying that Ian and I weren’t good enough, and neither was our son.

Finally one day in February, Eddie, our doorman handed me an envelope with a return address I recognized. Friends Seminary. Somehow we had squeaked by. Somehow we’d gotten in. The education. The attentive teachers. The organic cheese. They were ours to be had now, and now that we had them, I was sure we were making the right decision.

I’d like to say my problems were over once the admissions process was concluded and we gained coveted acceptance to a school with one teacher for every sixteen kids and a paved path to Swarthmore, Yale, Smith, NYU.

The most difficult phase had passed. I could breathe out. Relax.

I am here to attest to the fact that while there is a brief moment of relief involving the fresh knowledge that you do not have to move to the suburbs to find a good school, and that the heart attack-inducing interview process is over, another even more pronounced set of issues quickly presents itself.

Because even if you have sworn on a stack of Chemistry textbooks that you are not going to get caught up in your new and rarefied world — Dads who drop their kids off in Town cars, Fancy Ladies who outbid each other at the school auction, kids who pull out a hundred-dollar bill to buy gum at the deli — at the same time, you can’t deny that your family’s school and its teachers and parents and children are now your community. These are the people with whom your child will play, have sleepovers, celebrate birthdays, study, do theater and sports, argue, hug, and make up. This community could have as much influence on your child as parenting itself.

My kid will most likely be at Friends for thirteen years, I said to myself. Yes, I’m in. But now I have to find a way to FIT in.

Luckyish is a series about life in the world of the Manhattan Private School by Lori Campbell.

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