Man of the House
How Not to Get Into Private School
When his wife's career as a costume designer takes off, our favorite primary caregiver tries to manage the ultra-competitive admission process by himself.
On the morning that my daughter and I were scheduled for our interview at one of Los Angeles’ most elite private schools, my wife was AWOL. It was not a total surprise. Marie had been AWOL during the whole process leaving me, a feckless male primary caregiver, to run a gauntlet that even two parents find daunting. Her work as the costume designer on Transparent: Season 5 had consumed her completely just when it came time to get our daughter into middle school. Georgia and I would have to go it alone.
As we pull into the valet line – an endless stream of glistening Teslas – I see a studio exec walking with his daughter and wife. That’s right. There’s a valet line. And studio execs. This is a trigger for me, so I roll down my window and playfully bellow, “If I run you guys over, that’s one less family to compete against!” Our competition doesn’t think it’s funny.
No one in his right mind would willingly put his family through the private school admission process, but we live in the foothills of Los Angeles, in a neighborhood that does not have a decent public school. When my daughter turned 5, my wife and I engaged in a long, laborious search for a normal, decent elementary school. Back then, when I was still the primary breadwinner, my wife shuttled our daughter to various campuses and I’d sneak out of work to meet them there and dutifully play the role of nuclear American dad who brought home some well-marbled bacon, but still cared enough about his children to show up for school events.
An Emmy Award and 5 years later, I’m the one who now chimes in on the classroom email chain, “I’ll make the snickerdoodles!” I am the one who is attacking the middle school search process with all the ferocity of the proverbial Mama Bear knowing full well that it will also take some serious luck if not a full-blown con job to overcome the bias operating against a dad who on his handsomest days resembles a wild cur and a mom who can’t be bothered to show up.
The first step in this process is to take the ISEE – the Independent School Entrance Exam. Georgia quickly recognizes we are woefully outgunned and demands a private tutor. Private tutors in LA charge as much as criminal defense attorneys. Also, I’m a sheep so when the other parents sign up for a classroom course, I write a check for that, too. Considering Marie and I buy airplane tickets practically on our way to the airport, our kids have never seen this kind of build up to anything. The stress causes devastating bouts of paralysis in Georgia’s practice tests. I tell myself the test doesn’t matter – that it’s just one data point in a vast portfolio of metrics they’ll use to evaluate her candidacy. Still, Georgia’s determined, and I’ve never seen her focus on anything like this. For the first time in her tween years she’s actually learning something. And on the day of the test, she marches into the facility brandishing her sharpened No. 2 pencils like young Wonder Woman cuffing her wrists for the very first time. . . .And she slays it.
"No one is asking the questions I want to ask: Where do the stoners hang out?"
The next step is to go look at schools. Get to know them, decide which ones are right for you and then apply. Instead, I just apply to all of them. Georgia and I then spend the next couple months trying to fulfill obligations to seven different prospective schools while also trying to stay in the one school Georgia already attends. Los Angeles has a wide breadth of middle school opportunities. There are educational centers that cater to Hollywood progressives, single-sex parochial schools and esteemed institutions of academic rigor churning out suits and corporate shills. Georgia and I naturally want to be accepted everywhere, so we immerse ourselves in them all trying to become all things to all people.
Georgia complains riotously about this ordeal, but I sense she’s proud of me, too. Among the values we’ve inadvertently imparted is the misguided belief that attacking a problem with psychotic fervor is actually effective. She’s largely on board. At night, we practice interview questions, and she puts the firm kibosh on my suggestion that she puff herself up. “You can’t be too braggy, Dad” She explains. “It’s like you want them to know you are super nice without saying, ‘Yah, I’m, like—I’m soooo super nice. Everyone loves me.” She delivers that last bit with the cutting, post-valley-girl vocal fry ubiquitous on YouTube these days. Still, it’s not all smooth sailing, and at least once I have to dangle a late-night ice cream run to get an application typed up and turned in on time.
Then the interview process begins. We start with the all-girls schools. It’s obvious why I don’t belong here. I mean, sure — there are virtually no men’s rooms on campus, so I am ill at ease from the get-go from holding my pee. Also, I know I am smiling too much. I’m too solicitous. I am trying so hard to present myself as unthreatening that they must suspect I am hiding some profound deviance. The schools are so tidy and pristine, I feel like Pigpen wandering around in a cloud of my own man dust. It is one of the few times I have longed for my wife’s presence hovering over my shoulder and bossing me around.
I really want to like the progressive schools we visit next. I believe in the messages completely: learning for the sake of learning, creativity as a tool for problem solving, flexibility in the face of a daunting, unknowable future. But this is Hollywood, so the entire creative community feels basically as I do, and when the admissions team takes Georgia off for her interview, I find myself touring campus with the entire cast and creative team behind Parks and Rec. As a struggling Hollywood Nobody, I think this could finally be my entrée into the cool kid club. But as Adam Scott trades inside jokes with some dude whose pinched shoulders scream “comedy writer,” I realize I’m just condemning myself to life as a second-class citizen in a progressive society.
Which leads us to the rigorous, elite campus that takes me face-to-face with my own demons. It’s hard not to feel the full weight of of my childhood – namely, my parents’ expectations that led me from a New England boarding school to Georgetown – come crashing down as I get ready for this interview. Suddenly, all my clothes feel woefully adolescent, and I decide I need to “dress up.” I go through four wardrobe changes before trying to wedge my porcine frame into some way-too-small black slim fits. My newly acquired love handles ooze over the waistband like a ruptured tube of biscuits. This can’t be a good look. Where is my costume designer wife to dress me when I need her?
After we turn the car over to the valet, the kids engage in a group interview while the adults are corralled into a small listening session. There these Tiger Moms and Alpha dads practically devour each other in attempts to seem passionate and engaged. No one is asking the questions I want to ask: Where do the stoners hang out? How much pressure is there for kids to lose their virginity? Describe the most out-of-hand party thrown off campus in the past three years. Do kids still do bong hits or has Juuling killed all of that? What is the worst insult currently be hurled around campus? Tell me their slang!
Afterwards perfect couples sit in the reception room waiting for their family interviews. Amongst the doctors and lawyers in their grey business suits, I catch my reflection in the glass. I look woefully out of place. Our only hope here, I think, is that they take the measure of my bottom-of-the-line Jetta, my improv classes and podcast and just assume Georgia’s parents are so rich and powerful they didn’t even bother to come to this interview themselves. They sent their “manny” instead.
As we go into the admissions director’s office, I apologize profusely that my wife cannot make it. The admissions rep says it is fine, but I don’t believe him. After a few perfunctory questions and some chitchat, he suddenly turns serious and asks Georgia a doozy, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned … from your Dad?”
Georgia nervously smiles at me, looking for a lifeline, but I tell her reluctantly, “You’re on your own for this one, Kid.” I can hear Alex Trebek’s theme song playing in all of our heads. There is only one answer I care about; only one thing I hope she has learned. She smiles again nervously, jamming her hands beneath her thighs and then sticks it, “The most important thing he’s taught me, I guess, is to never forget to be kind.”
I’m practically skipping as we leave the interview. I can’t believe we pulled it off. I feel like Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon recognizing my partner in crime is perhaps even more gifted than I. Except in this case, it’s not a con. It’s the real deal. And suddenly I don’t care how these schools judge Georgia or me and Marie. I don’t need to pretend we are a model nuclear family or that we may someday donate their library. I am now convinced beyond doubt that what we have to offer is, in fact, way more valuable.
Nick Morton is a film and TV producer living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @mortonopoulis.