I bribed an admissions officer to get into an elite Manhattan preschool. I didn’t go through a shady middle man and there wasn’t a scam. I was told that my kid wasn’t going to make the cut — for reasons related to timing, not personality or intelligence — and immediately initiated a game of “Let’s Make a Deal.” I’m not necessarily proud of it, but I’m not ashamed either. I’m not rich and I didn’t lie. I did what was necessary to ensure a good outcome for my kid.
Believe me, I wasn’t alone. And I would do it all over again.
Reading stories about the recent college admissions scandal and the rich parents busted for buying their way into top universities (and Wake Forest) has been a sort of odd experience for me. I find the scam ludicrous and don’t sympathize with the parents: Merit-based admission is inherently ridiculous for three-year-olds, but ought to be meritocratic for young adults. And none of these parents did their kids any favors by having someone else take tests for them, or have them pretend to be learning-disabled to snag extra testing time. Still, I can’t pretend to believe in the sanctity of the admissions process. It’s not based remotely on merit, and it doesn’t favor the smart or needy.
When the game is dumb, you play to win.
I live in Manhattan, where good daycares and pre-school centers are as rare and panted over as any Harvard acceptance letter. So when it came time to enroll my child, I did some research and found my target, the best facility in a city. I looked up the director of admissions online, emailed her to set up a meeting, and started the negotiation process.
The outlook was fairly bleak at first. The preschool had a two-year wait list. For various reasons I won’t disclose here, my child needed the spot in two weeks. I could have planned the whole thing much better. I do feel bad about that.
I asked what it would take to get the one lusted-after slot that was still open. Turns out — and this will shock absolutely no one who has survived the savage pre-school interview ordeal — bargaining was considered kosher.
So I bargained. Due to my job at the time, I had access to celebrities. The program needed big names to lend luster to its annual fundraising gala. And so a mutually beneficial partnership was born. My kid jumped the line by a full 24 months, skipping the soul-crushing, forced-march of interviews and stilted playdates engineered to determine his suitability. I provided introductions to a few A-listers, who dutifully sipped champagne at the glitzy event and as a result, earned it coverage in various solid media outlets.
Pictures were taken. Money was raised. Celebs were honored for their “charitable” contributions. Everyone got what they wanted.
And, I can’t repeat this enough: no one asked any questions about how or why someone (read: me), who had heretofore done zero work with the parents’ association and contributed exactly nothing to any of the committees presided over by Lululemon-flavored moms, suddenly had a child with a five days a week schedule at a facility where Wall Street execs, people with real wealth, were getting maybe two afternoons.
Should I feel guilty about using my connections to get the best education for my kid? I don’t know. I’m not a Kushner and I can’t throw $2.5 million at Harvard down the line. I’ve always understood that offering your kid advantages costs money and I don’t have a lot of that. So I gave him a leg up by sending some emails. I’ve spoken to folks who have done far worse.
I could flagellate myself and tell you how stricken I feel about the slot we supposedly, possibly swiped from a more deserving kid. But guess what? This is a private preschool program that feeds into one of Manhattan’s posh private schools, where kids whose parents you watch on TV and in movies get dropped off by nannies in SUVs with tinted windows. Annual tuition is more than most Americans earn in a year. This pre-school wasn’t offering scholarships. There wasn’t some disadvantaged youth left in the lurch. The kids my child shared crackers with were uniformly the progeny of corporate lawyers and bestselling authors. And I doubt those children were accepted because of their sparkling personalities or MENSA-level toddler IQs.
So, I did what I could for my kid and it worked out. But it would be disingenuous to say I just did it for my kid. Bullshit. Yes, it mattered to me that my kid was in a program where he went to petting zoos and playgrounds instead of being left to rot in a dirty highchair. But I also wanted bragging rights. I wanted people to know that I somehow — big mystery — got my kid into a pre-school most of my friends could only fantasize about. In New York, that’s a prestige thing. I suspect that’s true for a lot of other places as well.
I’m not saying that’s healthy from a cultural perspective, I’m just saying that no one is bigger than the game.
And here’s another thing: My kid bloomed in the program, which was every bit as nurturing, fun, and educational as billed. Friendships were created. Bonds with teachers were forged. Field trips were taken. There was a musical. There were cooking classes. The experience was remarkable.
Today, my kid is in a public school, a good one, but a public school nevertheless. The class is fairly packed. The teacher, overworked. There aren’t any more celebutots and the parents I spend time with aren’t as rich. And that’s fine as well. It’ll work out. After all, I’m here to help the kid.
I may be a single, middle-class parent without a car, but I know how the world works. And, within the bounds of reason and basic morality, I’ll make sure it works for my kid.