By Maral Kibarian Skelsey
Sunday, March 4, 2007
My Dear Brother:
Congratulations on the occasion of your beautiful boy's second birthday. As usual, I am ready to report on the perils of this milestone. Forget what you've read about the terrible twos. The real issue is that the party is over and you now have to think about nursery school admissions. As our family's official bearer of bad news, I'm here to tell you not to underestimate the process. Just because you matriculated at Sidwell, Brown and Dartmouth, don't expect this to be easy.
First off, you have to realize that the whole thing is about you, not your child. No matter what anyone says, you are the one being judged. And because there are more kids than open slots, the admissions directors are really hoping that you screw it up so they can take you off their lists.
The process usually begins with an open house/information session or a small group tour. Try to remember that you are being interviewed. You should wear a suit and an Hermes or other identifiably expensive tie; you should be affable, but mildly distracted by the pressing burden of making huge amounts of money. Mom should be smartly dressed but casual. She should not wear business attire nor appear in any way too busy for the exciting volunteer "opportunities" associated with the school. Think Tory Burch flats and a good but not over-the-top bag. Wear a wedding ring and do not wear black.
Appear engaged but do not ask any hard questions. I cannot emphasize enough that this is not the time to find out how much they pay teachers, what their qualifications are or how they do background checks. Resign yourself to the fact that you will not find out anything about the school until after you've written your first check and it's too late.
Do ask questions that will allow the school to shine: "I notice you have terrific playground facilities -- when do the children go outside?" Remark on how you wish you could come back as a 4-year-old and go to school there, heh, heh, heh.
Under no circumstances -- unless applying to a Montessori school -- should you ask about their approach to teaching reading. Most schools with play-based philosophies will blackball you for that one. I was at an open house for a school based on the Reggio Emilia approach and one untutored dad asked just that. The admissions director looked at him as though he'd just asked when the children would be taught to operate a forklift. "Our goal is the whole child, not training them for a single task," blah, blah, blah. That particular man's son, it goes without saying, was not accepted and I think his wife left him, too.
Montessori schools don't mind if you inquire about things like that, although some people call them communist workhouses because of their focus on tasks such as polishing and sweeping.
Of course it's a cliche, but you will want to ask how parents can be involved in the school. Mom will need to show that she used to be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company but is now ready to put all her management skills toward running the spring gala. You should exhibit mild enthusiasm, but no one expects or wants you to do anything more than write a large check to the annual fund and donate a weekend at the family beach house to the silent auction (please learn about silent auctions ahead of time). A really involved dad disrupts the clique of power moms like a fox in a henhouse.
The next step is the application in which you'll answer questions such as:
· How does your child respond to new situations and challenges?
· What are your child's interests and activities?
· What words would you use to describe your child's personality?
Try to avoid anything that resembles the truth. I learned the hard way that it's best to use this as an opportunity to describe your dream date, and not your actual child who usually responds to new situations by a) throwing a tantrum, b) throwing a block at his sister or c) throwing up.
You will then be invited to a "playdate" at the school. This benign-sounding activity usually is scheduled during your child's regular naptime or another inopportune moment. They'll see how he plays with other kids and if he knows what to do with crackers and juice. But mainly they want to know if he's a biter. If, God forbid, you suspect he may have bitten someone, immediately pull the fire alarm and then put your house on the market. Your child will never eat a snack in that town again.
After the visit, send a note to the admissions director about how much Junior enjoyed the school. Include something charming he may have said about what he did. Conclude that you and your spouse agree that this would be a "great fit" for him and your family.
Toward the end of the process, call the director. You can leave a message. Just ask if there is anything missing from your file and reiterate your strong interest, because St. Elsewhere is definitely your first choice.
In addition to being very rich, I would recommend that you work on becoming famous -- but try to do so without being indicted. You don't need rock star status -- just something like the cover of Forbes magazine.
Now just sit back and relax!
Maral Kibarian Skelsey, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Georgetown Medical Center, has been applying to preschools for her two children continuously since 2001.