Mom has the ball, son scores

A uniformed doorman guided me through the canopied entrance of a Manhattan apartment building at 92nd Street and Park Avenue. The lobby exuded the luxury and good taste one would expect in such a stately building.

Plush wingback chairs were covered in subtle floral prints, which were offset by ornate mahogany end tables. The elevator was in another section of the lobby and manually operated by a congenial attendant. It stopped on every floor allowing tenants to enter floor-wide apartments.

Some residents had lived in these rent-controlled apartments for decades. They raised children in a European-style luxury, who, then, often came back to raise their own families when parents moved or passed on. The atmosphere in these buildings was too tasteful to be considered pretentious. To me, they seemed womb-like and comforting in the pre-World War II elegance.

I was to spend several years working as a college advisor to families that lived in the building, often going from floor to floor, from one student to another. It was the summer of 1985, and I was there to meet the one of the students I had been hired to assist in the college admissions process. My clients that year were all young men who attended some of Manhattan's most prestigious high schools.

Why, you may wonder, did they need private consultation? The only answer to that is it was tradition. Families spared no expense to help their children get ahead. A virtual army of tutors was employed after school to assist with homework and to make sure the curriculum was understood.

I became accustomed to seeing an elderly math tutor who worked with my new client and his brother, leaving just as I arrived. He was a fixture on the Upper East Side; was booked solid for years in advance. My new student was an athlete and for his senior year had been chosen captain of his school's mediocre football team. A solid B+ student, the family had set their sights on his attending Harvard or Brown.

The college advisor at the school did not think he was Ivy material. Nevertheless, the family decided to give it their best efforts. It was my job to make their dreams a reality. I felt up to the challenge and thought if we could put together a really good application, he would have a shot at those dream schools. His mother and father had both attended state colleges in Pennsylvania. They believed Ivy connections would assemble the contacts necessary for success in business. Not that public schooling had done them any harm; they were extremely successful people.

My new client proved to be extraordinarily less ambitious than his parents. I most often found him fast asleep when I arrived. His mother explained he had been out the night before, and she had been unable to rouse him. She would offer me a cup of coffee and some cookies, and we talked about college admissions strategies until he was up and showered. This mother was the prototype of what today is referred to as a helicopter parent, though, with one exception. She did not hover over her son; that probably would have bored her.

No, this parent took it upon herself to do the work. I often felt as if she were applying to college. In fact, subconsciously, I assumed she was my client. Recall this was the 1980s. The democratization of the helicopter species did not begin until the Internet made applying to multiple colleges so much less difficult.

When I was working on Park Avenue, we typed each application individually, using onionskin paper and carbon sheets to make copies. The applications were much more detailed than the streamlined versions of today. Brown required the personal statement be handwritten, which often took many hours to complete. Students applied to fewer schools, an understandable move considering the work involved. Early decision and early action policies were rarely heard of outside of the campuses of elite private schools. My student was going to apply to Harvard early decision and Brown early action.

My actual sessions with the Ivy aspirant were quite eccentric. We often began while he was working out on his treadmill. He had not given much thought to his applications, but his mother had been working on some things. He hated to write, and so the essay was going to be a challenge. I suggested we look over some of the papers he had written for school, and he agreed. His lackadaisical attitude, although somewhat annoying, had the endearing quality of a stuffed Teddy bear. After each barely productive session, his mother would call me aside and show me what she was working on to include in his applications. She and a local artist had designed a cleverly constructed wall sculpture of shoes, each one identifying one of her son's accomplishments.

Other times, we discussed recommendations and whether a friend who donated buildings to Harvard would be a good person to write a letter. He was busy and asked her to draft a copy she had me read. Together, we worked on his resume, which was four pages long and included a reading list that would have overwhelmed most doctoral candidates. During the early fall before submission, mother and son visited his two top schools. He had applications for Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania completed just in case.

While her son met with the admissions representative, the mother with her considerable charm worked the crowd. Her vivacity and knowledge of the colleges' history and programs must have impressed everyone. At last the applications were complete, full of supporting documentation, pictures of my client in his football uniform, the shoes and remarkable letters of recommendation. His high school college advisor requested they send out all applications. My client's mother did not trust the college advisor and did not want anyone to see her son's additional submissions lest they copy ideas from his supplemental materials.

Between the times we sent out the applications, I received daily phone calls from my client's mother. She was still on the alert looking for contacts, board members and alumni that could put in a good word for her off spring. Come Dec. 15, the news arrived in two thick envelopes: acceptances from the Ivies. The following fall, it was off to Harvard and four years later to a brokerage house in New York. Yet I often wondered who really should have been accepted at the Ivy. Why, the mother and me of course! Needless to say, neither the mother nor I were headed off to the Ivy League that fall. My client began what were to be an undistinguished four years, graduating on time and heading back to the city.

His mother by this time had guided a more ambitious second son to early acceptance at another Ivy League school. Were all the machinations she employed to make her children stand out fair? Of course they were not, and such obvious intervention in the life of a child is ultimately stifling.

Although it was fun to work with this family, it was also my first experience with what we now call the helicopter species of parent. I would no longer be so compliant nor would most admissions offices let such a contrived application slip through to a big envelope.