Surviving the NYC PreSchool Admissions Process

There are many reasons not to give birth to twins.  I adore my twin girls, they are the energy pack of my life, but given a choice, I think I would have preferred, and they would have preferred, their own time line.  Certainly, when it came time to negotiate entrance into the exclusive NYC private nursery school system that most young parents think is an inalienable right, I ran into major parental headwinds.

My babies could just barely hold their heads up when the questions began.

“Where will you send them to school?” Which was followed by the even more offensive question “Who is older?”  This question was asked so often by so many strangers that it was as if the Universe (if the Universe was involved in my very average, day to day life concerns) was sending me a message:

Shape up, stop whining and stop worshipping the children you created.  This is a competitive world and people will measure them against each other for ever.

Send them to school?  Who would take these two?

Baby A, as we called her, cried most of the first two years of her life.  Ear infections tormented her and antibiotics soothed her only sporadically. In hindsight, we should have put in ear tubes months earlier and not waited until she hit the 2 year milestone.  We often did not know how to help her.

In between crying, she liked to eat and she loved coffee Haagen Dazs ice cream.  Since she cried upon waking from every nap, coffee ice cream became my primary tool.   I would carry her into the kitchen, prop her on the counter and feed her two spoonfuls of strong coffee ice cream after nap-time.  When she gave up naps and eventually had to wake up early in time for school, she continued to eat two spoonfuls of coffee ice cream.  Naturally, she is currently a huge fan of Starbucks.

Food soothed.  In between eating bites of ice cream, we baked.  We baked cookies and brownies and cupcakes and muffins.  We baked banana bread with tiny chocolate chips and pancakes and waffles with tiny chocolate chips. I sat my two little girls at the kitchen table and laid out all the instruments we would need, in duplicate.  We had two flour sifters and two liquid measuring cups.  We had two sets of metal dry ingredient stackable measuring cups and two sets of measuring spoons, the kind that are attached by a small metal ring.  We would spread out the wax paper to hold the flour and all the ingredients would line up.  The girls would discuss which job they would share.  “You do the eggs,” Baby B would say to her sister, pushing her sunglasses up the bridge of her nose.

The kitchen had one east-facing window and the sun would stream into the 14th floor and blind my little bakers.  Baby B was always light sensitive and she learned early on to wear her sunglasses in the kitchen.  They say at the round kitchen table, wearing pajamas and sunglasses, surrounded by white cabinets and an industrial size oven and they learned the difference between baking powder and baking soda, thick crystals of kosher salt and small grains of table salt, all-purpose flour and cake flour which we used only rarely when we had the urge for a beautifully stacked layer cake.  For  icing those cakes, they learned to make ganache from semisweet chocolate chips half-melted gently in a double boiler with heavy cream and they learned to stir the chocolate carefully and never let water seep into the mixture.  I taught them how to incorporate eggs into hot ingredients and how the eggs would scramble and curdle if we weren’t careful.  I let them stand on stepstools by the stovetop and taught them to respect the heat of the flames.

Sometimes, we would get ambitious and make a cheesecake.  I adored cheesecake and it was my father’s favorite dessert.  When I was a little girl, occasionally my mother would serve cheesecake with strawberry topping for dessert.  I would come into the dining room with the grownups and sit next to my father, and he would sneak me the strawberries off the top of his slice of cake.  I was too young to appreciate the taste of cheesecake.  I was not a “good eater” in those days.  I refused to taste anything new, but I loved desserts and I loved strawberries. The sugary, red, sticky coating that coated the top of the cheesecake was magical.  As I got older, I taught myself to eat those magical foods that occasionally appeared in my house.

I was determined that my children would be good eaters and that they would be able to make whatever it was they liked to eat.  My girls could crack eggs before they could write their names and Baby A mastered separating the yoke from the white before she could read.  “It’s easy,” A said to B, as she gently tapped the egg on the table and let the white pour out while cradling the yolk in half of an egg shell.  Baby B watched.

Don’t pack the flour, I admonished them so often, that even now, many years later, they live in fear that I will yell at them when they measure flour into a measuring cup with a heavy hand. Maybe Baby A’s ears still hurt while we scraped the batter from bowl to tin, and rolled challah dough into strips for braiding, but the kitchen was her happy place and eating the food she made, made sense to her.

But crowded places, filled with chattering and movement never made sense to this child and leaving the home was a loaded experience.  Her occupational therapist said she they both had sensory integration trouble.  I think everyone in New York City has sensory overload and we could probably all use an occupational therapist, or some kind of therapist.  When involved in an activity, she found her center, and engaged fully.  My girls tapped and sang their way through classes and performances, music to a mother’s ears, despite their sometimes wobbly efforts.

But in a strange environment with new people, Baby A was non-compliant, and she could scream like her life depended on being heard.  I did the best I could with the limited knowledge of a newly born mother. But parenting is always better done in hindsight which is why everyone with older kids offers endless unsolicited advice.

Baby B was my calm one in those first two years.  As long as milk products never touched her lips, she played, smiled and most importantly, shared anything and everything.  We didn’t know then that Baby B was severely allergic to many foods.  She had skin reactions and stomach upset, but we didn’t know about food allergies at the time, so we continued to bake with dairy and eggs, wheat flour and nuts.  Both babies ate what we baked.  If Baby B was really suffering, we didn’t recognize the signs.  Allergies notwithstanding, Baby B was calm. She was probably also stunned by the strength of her sister’s outburts. She would always offer a cracker or cookie to her sister and she deferred to her during their games, relieved that playing was a respite from crying.

If only Baby B could go on Nursery School interviews alone, and represent the two of them, they might both be accepted.  Somehow, both babies were going to have to leave the safety of our home and kitchen and convince a school to accept them.

On our first foray into the Nursery School interview process, my husband and I found ourselves at a morning information session for parents set in a classroom of a rundown local church.  This Church served as the host site of a very popular and very exclusive early childhood pre-school.  Seventh grade mean girls have nothing over the directors of popular pre-schools in Manhattan.

On this particular day, the pre-school directors, two women of indiscriminate age, body, type and dress style, described their program of “supportive, kind and experienced-based learning” with big smiles.  I wanted to believe those words.  I wanted to believe that these two women would love and care for my two little girls with the same devotion to their development and emotional well-being as we did at home.  I edited out the disconnect I felt between their words and the hostility that I felt pervaded the room.

“Yes, it was true,” they said, “there are very few spots this year for non-siblings,” and “yes, it was true,” they said, “the twos class is small,” but “please bring your two year-olds to the play session this afternoon at 2pm because there are always a few spots available.  The half hour introductory meeting ended with an admonition to “bring only one adult per child.”  I was feeling brave.  I would show them.  I could handle two children.  I had something to prove to myself.  Sure I had a nanny at home and sure I could insist my husband miss a few more hours of work, but on this day, I drew a line in the sand.  I would take care of my children myself.  I was also a little delusional.  I convinced myself that these directors were sure to accept the girls based on my competency alone.

“Go to work,” I said to my husband as we stood on the sidewalk surveying the competition.  “The girls probably won’t get into this school but I will bring them this afternoon just in case.”  I assured us both that we had no chance, but inside I wanted these two women directors to choose my children; to anoint them as among the best little girls in the city and to accept them into this exclusive pre-school.   I was also breaking my own rules of never taking both girls into crowded situations without having an exit strategy for Baby A.  My husband seeing his chance, dove into a taxi and left the corner of the Upper East Side where this pre-school rules.

At 2pm, my arms loaded with a double stroller and two two-year olds, I began to reconsider the wisdom of my decision.  I had decided to walk instead of taking a taxi.  We employed a McLaren double stroller that folded easily and was the narrowest of the strollers available at the time.  I should know, I had tried them all.  In the beginning, I bought a front-to-back model.  It seemed like a good idea, until I discovered that steering this carriage was like working a double-length Manhattan bus during a snow storm.  In other words, totally unwieldy.  Within weeks, I acquired a very large side-by-side model that I nicknamed the Cadillac.  My girls slept well as infants ensconced in the comfort and protection of this stroller.  But it was heavy and hard to manage in stores.  In fact, I often didn’t fit through the door of some elevators and some front doors.  Finally, in pre-Amazon days, I discovered the lightweight narrow model that would become our mainstay.  This was my sportscar.  I could maneuver those two girls anywhere in the City and in and out of taxis with this stroller.  It really worked.  So that day, I loaded the girls into their sides of the stroller and we headed south down Park Avenue to arrive at the 2pm interview with time to spare.  I felt confident, maybe even sassy.  The girls were happily staring at the people walking by and the weather was fine.  Until we entered the classroom.  I parked the stroller at the stroller area in front of the Church doors, and they walked holding my hands inside happily.

As if on a timer, Baby A began to fuss and complain loudly the minute we entered the classroom.  She clearly thought we were just heading for a walk and maybe even a playrgound.  A classroom filled with strangers held no appeal.  I should have brought my children’s babysitter.  What was I thinking going all heroic for this interview?  My anxiety started to rise as I reconsidered the wisdom of riding solo on this interview.  The deck was already stacked against us as we had no connections with this particular program.  I held her in my arms as Baby B behaved perfectly.  She walked around the room, sitting quietly and playing with the toys and drawing materials, and rotating through the musical instruments and the dress up clothes, which were all set up for an orderly progression of ‘play-based learning’ or more accurately ‘learning-based play.’  Baby A would have none of it.  It’s as if she had radar for stress and inauthenticity.  Or maybe I am matching my thoughts to her behavior.

As Baby A cried in my arms, the two directors who were cooing over one particular child, shot warning glances in my harried direction.  “Keep her quiet,” their eyes menaced.  I studied the little boy (I will refer to him as Baby D) who was clearly the focal point of the room.  Baby D was surrounded by his father, his nanny, his mother, and both school directors. The one adult per child did not seem to apply to Baby D.  His every move was applauded and received with the warmth clearly only available to the babies of famous rock stars.

Torn between running out crying and heading home to soothe myself with a baking project, or sucking it up and smiling through my rage and humiliation, I continued to hold my crying, unhappy Baby A while Baby B blissfully ignorant, wandered the room happily playing.  None of the four pre-school adults in the room, not the directors, nor the two young teachers, paid her any attention.  It was as if Baby B, the quiet child, and Baby A, the screaming child, and me, the mom, were completely invisible.  Except for the glares sent my way, we were a hindrance in the goal of making Baby D happy.

Baby D’s father even came over towards the end of the endless 20 minute session and asked me if there was anything he could do to help me.  His unsolicited kindness in the midst of the cruelty of rejection by the directors nearly reduced me to the tears I was fighting.  His kindness also fueled my rage at the school.

“Snack time,” the directors trilled and the children all gathered around a low rectangular table, each finding a tiny chair.  Each adult, or three in the case of the baby rock star, stood or sat behind the child as a director passed around a graham cracker and a cup. Baby B sitting alone in the middle of the table, happily nibbled on her cookie.

Baby A, ensconced in my arms, no longer crying, became interested in the food.  We watched as the basked circulated and passed us by. She was clearly not being offered a cracker.  I had had it.  She liked graham crackers.  We baked with them. Years later, in preparation for a building Halloween party, I would make 100 “gingerbread houses” made with graham crackers glued together with royal icing.  All of us would be so sick of eating graham crackers, that we would stop eating them for years.  But that occurred years later, and this day, in that school, in that moment, in that shabby, tired pre-school classroom filled with little girls in party dresses and little boys in khaki slacks, polo shirts and blazers, Baby A wanted a graham cracker just like every other child.

Diss me is one thing but hurt my kid and that’s another.  My mother lion instincts surfaced hard.  No longer embarrassed by Baby A’s crying, I was furious.

“Can my child have a graham cracker also?” I challenged loudly.  One brief moment of eye contact convinced the directors and me that this was our first and only communication.  I won this joust, but the battle was over long before we arrived.  There was only room in this school for Baby D.  The basket of cookies was passed to me.  I gave one to Baby A, who happily chewed on the cookie and then began to look around the room noticing all of the interesting toys and objects available for play.  I was tempted to put her down on the ground and let her play despite the fact that playtime was clearly over. Instead I gathered Baby B from her tiny chair and we left the room without saying goodbye. Silent curses and wishes for divine retribution against the director haunting my thoughts for days.

“Who do we know who can help us?” I asked my husband that night. This would be the last time I left school acceptances to chance.  We needed connections to get twins into nursery school that much was a certainty.  The scaffolding I would now employ to support my children’s development had begun.

MORAL OF THE STORY – I found myself forced to make a choice between using connections typically reserved only for the wealthy and connected or risk my children’s future.  At least that is how it felt at that time as a young mother of two young children and a third baby boy at home who would also need to attend pre-school.

A recipe for self-soothing 

Cheesecake with Graham Cracker Crust

This recipe is best cooked in a spring form pan to guarantee that the cake can be easily removed. But a 9 inch cake pan or two pie pans will also work.

For the crumbs:

  • 12 full rectangular sheets of store-bought graham crackers (Have extra for munching on while baking)
  • 1/4 cup white granulated sugar
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) melted salted butter (I always bake with salted butter)

 

Blend in a Cuisinart or put graham crackers in a plastic bag and roll over them with a rolling pin (or sealed bottle of wine if you don’t have a rolling pin).  Add sugar and mix. Blend in the melted butter until the crumbs stick together really well.  Best way to melt butter is to microwave it briefly – always in a glass bowl or even a drinking glass.

Pack these yummy crumbs into the bottom and halfway up the sides as evenly as possible of whichever pan you choose to use.  If using a spring form pan, WRAP THE OUTSIDE BOTTOM AND SIDES OF THE PAN WITH HEAVY DUTY FOIL.  This becomes important later.  Bake at 325 degree oven for 10 minutes, just to set the crumb shell.

While the pan is cooling make the cream cheese filling

CREAM CHEESE FILLING

  • 2 pounds cream cheese softened at room temperature ( to allow the ingredients to blend thoroughly
  • 1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon table salt
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 4 large eggs, ideally at room temperature (Which helps the cake achieve maximum lightness and airiness)
  • 2/3 cup sour cream
  • 2/3 cup heavy whipping cream

Make the filling

With a mixer, Beat the softened cream cheese for two minutes until smooth, then add the sugar and beat two more minutes. Add the salt and vanilla, beating after each addition. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for one minute after each addition. Add the sour cream, beat until incorporated.

Add the heavy cream, beat until incorporated.  Make sure to scrape the bowl and beaters so there are no unblended lumps.  Pour the creamy batter into the graham cracker crusted pan (or pans if using two pie shells).

Cook the cheesecake

This part is a bit tricky.  Find a pan in your kitchen that will hold the cheesecake pan (or pie shells) and allow you to put an inch of hot tap water into the outside pan.  This is called a water bath or Bain Marie and it helps to make the cheesecake creamy and pudding-like and also helps prevent the top of the cake from cracking.

Put the pan in the 325 degree oven and place the cheesecakes into the center of the larger pan.  The sides of your cheese cake pan cannot touch the sides of the bigger pan so it really has to be big enough.  Many of us have roasting pans for a pot roast or turkey.  This is a good use of that pan.  This is also why the spring form pan has to be wrapped well in heavy duty foil.  Otherwise, the water you are about to pour into the outer pan will seep into your cheesecake and ruin it.  Pour enough very hot tap water into the outer pan so that it comes up about an inch.

Cook on the lower rack of your oven at 325°F for 1 1/2 hours.

Take cake out and cool on your counter for an hour.  Then refrigerate for minimum 4 hours or overnight.  The longer this cake sits in the refrigerator, the better it will taste and it lasts for up to a week.  Or can be frozen once cooled.

Eat for breakfast!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s