[2 August 2009]
If they ever have an “Only in New York City” type exhibit at the Smithsonian, Nursery University would make a worthy entry. A breezy, good humored look at the singular, cutthroat world of nursery school admissions, the film does a fairly good, if predictable, job of making a rather ridiculous milieu and process relatable, and at times even sympathetic.
It also inadvertently doubles as a “frozen in time” type portrait of a certain breed of (mostly) white, upper middle class, urban parents – their insecurities, their myopia, their insufferableness, but also, on the flipside, their deep love for their children, and reasonable anxieties about their future.
So those expecting a gawk-fest can tune out. Nary a hint is to be found of the cartoonish grotesquerie of “reality TV” parents, and there are no real villains here at all (well, except for one family, who seem right in line as heirs to Jon and Kate Plus Eight in terms of sheer obnoxiousness). The film offers us five (mostly) sympathetic families, from somewhat different backgrounds, all trying to navigate the byzantine exigencies of trying to find the best nursery school for their children.
Of course only in the amplified, overheated, overcrowded hothouse of New York City would getting in to the “right” nursery school (which can cost upwards of $20,000 a year!) even be seen as so integral to one’s child’s future prospects. It’s hard to figure out the origin of the thinking that traces a direct line from finger painting and learning the alphabet to graduation from an Ivy League university, but it’s the reality now, at least to Manhanttanites of a certain age cohort and socio-economic status. Nowhere else would nursery school admissions be so brutal and stressing a process, mostly because I can’t think of anywhere else it would be.
But since that’s the elephant in the room, it must be dealt with (simple avoidance is just not an option). The film follows a year in the process of the attempt to gain admission to the most “exclusive” of preschools. And yes, exclusive as in the “rich, WASPy, New England boarding school” sense of the word, as in “Ivy League” exclusive. And due to the high demand, combined with the low number of openings in these schools, the competition to get in is a contentious and exhausting, time- and money-consuming effort that is all out of proportion with the end result (which, honestly, is little more than glorified day care).
The schools, and their administrators, to their credit, don’t seem to really know just how this beast turned out the way that it did, and also do not seem all that enthusiastic about taking advantage of the situation (at least, on the surface). They combat favoritism, politics and bribery as best they can, with an admissions’ system that is pretty much the worst – except for all the others.
What happens is that, on the day after Labor Day, the nursery schools start taking calls for applications (and only calls – heaven forbid you actually knock at their door asking for one). They mail out applications (in the 250-500 range for each school) until they run out, which is usually about two hours after the phone lines open. From these piles of applications, they are looking to fill between eight to ten slots per year.
The ensuing vetting process involves essays, interviews, playdates, stuff of that nature, and during each round the list is whittled down more and more, until the winning applicants are picked. The criteria, when the nursery school directors make it explicit, seems almost wholly arbitrary and whimsical, with applications being tossed out for reasons as slight as a choice of clothes, or one parent missing an interview because she went in to labor. But while it’s not exactly equitable, it all does seem to be the best that they can do.
But again, what is the whole point, here? What is it they, the parents, are hoping to find in these exclusive school that isn’t available in a public school (oh, the horror!), or daycare? It’s tough to say. It seems to be some vague notion of assurance and security, and illusion of promised future success.
Actual education is the least of the concerns here – the “right” school is the one that positions one best for connections of future “right” schools, onwards up the chain. And as so often is the case with stories of this kind involving overbearing, overzealous parents, this is really about them and their concerns. The children seem just so many pawns in an elaborate chess match of social brinkmanship.
The children featured in the film– God love ‘em – are all blissfully unaware of all the turmoil and fuss going on around them. Then again, they are mostly all toddlers, so what could they know about what’s at stake (ha!). Though the preschools are mostly for three- to four-year-olds, since the actual application process begins sometimes two years in advance, most of the kids here are two.
And like most kids their age, they really just want to run around, crash in to things, sing, dance, and make a mess. And really, you can do that anywhere, right? In any old school, even (GASP!) public preschool (and one couple, sick of the rat race, does go that route in the end).
But pity these kids, because once they start to become more cognizant of just what’s going on, it’ll be time for subsequent rounds of applications and admissions. As one school director quips towards the end, if you think the nursery school admissions process is tough, just wait until kindergarten rolls around.
Nursery University comes bundled with a few extras. The bevy of deleted scenes are hogged by the aforementioned Jon and Kate-type parents, who are really really horrible people, really (I think at one point they reduce their poor son down to “keywords”, the better to sell him in applications and essays).
A few Q+A sessions from various film festivals fills in some of the motivations for making the film (for the directors) and participating in it (parents and administrators). A short “how to” guide for parents interested in diving into the nursery school battle royale, and a decent commentary track, round out the platter.