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What really matters in life

By Carol Devine-Molin
web posted January 6, 2003

Once again, the New Year is upon us. Not only is it a time of regeneration and renewal, but an opportunity to examine and glean insights from past and present circumstances. Two articles particularly, Michael Wolff's "Preschool Confidential" and Beth Landman Keil's "The Man Who Had Everything", both found in the December 2, 2002 edition of New York magazine, magnificently complement one another and act as a springboard to focus in on the genuine virtues that we must hold sacred and pass on to our children — not the ersatz values of an elitist class.

Wolff's trenchant piece explores the surreal passion exhibited by the New York City Brahmans in their quest to have their young children accepted into premier nursery schools. On the surface, this may seem silly. But why indeed is it considered a pivotal play on the part of savvy NYC parents? Simply because preschools, such as Brick Church, Madison Avenue Presbyterian Day School, Temple Emanu-El, All Souls, and the 92nd Street Y, are the gateway into the all-important private school system of Manhattan.

Once children gain entry and do well in one of these preschools, they continue in this rarefied education milieu that keeps on giving throughout their lives, and will not only help them land in the right universities, but in the right business and social environments thereafter. Being a product of this venerated private school system imparts a type of invaluable cache that holds sway with the wealthy aristocracy, and which opens doors into adulthood, facilitating the right marriages and the right business relationships.

I can well see how these cultivated contacts would be helpful in life. However, I doubt that Bill Gates was concerned with any of this as he orchestrated his rise to the top. And I still believe that if you're sufficiently bright and persevering, some degree of success will follow. Most Americans are egalitarian enough to find this emphasis on class and upward mobility a bit abhorrent. But the truth is, most family-oriented Americans who accrued wealth and reside in Manhattan quickly succumb to the process.

Well, how would you get your children into one of these elite schools? Moneyed parents willing to make hefty donations are key, which certainly comes as no surprise. However, personal connections, especially those fostered by legacies who previously attended one of these prestigious NYC schools, is viewed as social currency as well. Does meritocracy play any part in the equation? Only peripherally, and it's only of consequence if the child is a real misfit that can't be reasonably shaped-up by the school. Wolff only half-facetiously refers to these students as "perfect" kids, "straight from a high-end catalog" who thoroughly look and act the part of the privileged. These students are not only extremely well-educated and polite, they carry and comport themselves profoundly well in a tradition befitting young members of the wealthy aristocracy.

But are these children truly content with few emotional problems? It's very difficult to know. Interestingly, thirty and forty years ago, the Manhattan private school system was a bastion for the children of upper-middle class professionals rather than the very rich. These were the offspring of doctors, lawyers, writers, college professors, etc. Today, the Manhattan private schools educate children from considerably wealthier families, according to Wolff – and these parents tend to earn their beaucoup bucks in the financial field. Frankly, it's widely known that successful individuals in the "financial industry" inevitably work extremely long hours, more so than most, and are not sufficiently attentive to their families. Although a first class education and connections will eventually provide children with a leg up in the world, they certainly cannot be shielded from the effects of an absentee parent or dysfunction in the household.

Wolff himself is somewhat ambivalent about the nature and extent of demands placed upon children, and parents for that matter, by these Manhattan private schools. He indicates: "The interesting and ironic result is that at the end, after the entire struggle to be a part of this, nobody is too happy with the outcome…The price is too high, the pretense too demanding, the negotiating too exhausting, the pressure too great. Was it worth it? And yet, possibly because the alternative would be to admit that we have not only wasted millions of dollars and vast reserves of psychic energy, but maybe even screwed up our kids, we do believe we have paid the going price for more-perfect children".

And this brings me to the second relevant article. A background of outstanding business successes, two adorable toddlers, and even the love of a beautiful young wife was not enough to sustain a high powered man such as Jeffrey Silverman through tough times, according to the New York magazine piece "The Man Who Had Everything". Financier Jeffrey Silverman was born with tremendous advantages and grew up in wealthy home where "nothing was denied him. Even in nursery school, Jeffrey traveled in a limousine". He was once worth over a hundred million, but he hit hard times in recent years, and even depended upon his wealthy father-in-law for financial assistance. It appears that Silverman was especially given to angst and humiliation since his latest business adventure, Brand Partners, lost money for investors, many of whom were his friends, and he owed monies to the IRS. Unfortunately, Silverman then did the unthinkable. He committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, which apparently resulted in a drawn-out, painful death. Silverman was 56.

Interestingly, this was a smart, talented man who had everything to live for, especially a loving family. Even if he spent the remainder of his life paying back investors and the IRS, those certainly would have been honorable and worthwhile endeavors. But he just couldn't hack it. For a man who lived lavishly, and always expected financial success to ensue, his current circumstances were unbearable.

I truly wonder if these upper echelon private schools are helping to imbue children of privilege with sufficient coping skills. Of course, the primary duty of inculcating virtue and values rest with the family, but surely schools have some responsibility here. It goes without saying that there is much more to life than pursuing upward mobility and materialism. When the going gets tough, which will invariably occur, will these products of elite private schools have the wherewithal to confront adversity, tenaciously fight the good fight, maintain dignity and optimism, and cling to truth and other moral values while facing the maelstroms of existence? Sure, when crisis hits, I expect that many will be able to conduct themselves magnificently – but not all, especially those with a sense of entitlement. Quite frankly, I don't see any rich young men enlisting in the armed forces, even though our nation and military are in dire need. And that really should change.

Carol Devine-Molin is a regular contributor to several online magazines.

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