For anyone unfamiliar with the otherworldly child-rearing policies of Manhattan, “Nursery University” may seem like science-fiction: Strange, possessed beings stumble sleepless through a landscape of plenty, willing to sell their kidneys to get their kid into the proper pre-school. All this cutthroat competition is (sur)real life, though, and “Nursery University” plays it sympathetically, like a “Spellbound” in training pants. Pic has at least one market sewed up: Upper East Side parents who think it might give them an edge in the admissions process.
And, it might. Helmer Marc H Simon gets inside a self-sustaining system based on fear and prestige, where merely receiving an application for an acceptable nursery school is cause for major celebration.
What’s acceptable, of course, is another issue but everyone involved — from very sympathetic educator/administrators like the Mandell School’s Gabriella Rowe, to the parents themselves — recognize what they’re involved with is slightly insane.
The competition is rabid, the behavior unspeakable and the entire philosophy is ultimately depressing: The motivation is the theory that getting a child into the “right” preschool will give him an edge entering the right kindergarten, the right grade school, middle school, high school and Ivy League college. That the Ivy League is the objective is never even a question.
If a child gets a round peg in a round hole during a preschool “interview,” it’s the equivalent of a 1600 on the SATs. Insanity doesn’t begin to describe it.
Simon might have really skewered all his characters, but he doesn’t — they do enough of it themselves, especially the better-off couples who, as one wife admits, are used to getting what they want. They find it vaguely infuriating that they can’t quite finesse the “system.”
Simon might have asked a few more questions about what the New York pre-school rat race says about our culture as a whole: The idea that such a relatively infinitesimal flutter in the storyline of someone’s life is worth all this effort just shows how little faith these people have that what they live in is a meritocracy. It recognizes that, quite possibly, who you took nap-time with is going to be far more important than all the work you’ll ever do. That the quality of the schools is never mentioned is a very eloquent hole in the middle of Simon’s story.
The kids, blissfully ignorant of the furor they’ve created, are adorable, the parents less so — desperate, ambitious people are rarely all that charming, although these folks are rescued somewhat by the fact they’re doing it all for someone else. How can you live with yourself, more than one subjects asks, not having done everything you could do to make your child’s life better than your own?
Of course, the parents own self-image is involved, too, as is their station in life. For the less well off, a chi-chi preschool is seen to signify a step up in class; for the upper class, it means the status quo will be preserved.
It’s all very troubling. But it’s handled with such good humor and humanity by Simon that you start to forget that what you’re so involved with is the question of where some very short people, who can barely dress themselves, are going to be finger-painting for the next eight months.