Confessions of a Prep School Mommy Handler
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Excerpt

Everyone in the (Car) Pool!

Deep cleansing breath iiiiinnnn . . .

Exhaling all the toxins . . .

Rrrriiiiiiiinnnnggg! Rrrriiiiiiiinnnnggg!

Deep cleansing breath iiiinnnn . . .

Exhaling all the toxins . . .

Rrrriiiiiiiinnnnggg! Rrrriiiiiiiinnnnggg!

Deep cleansing breath iiiinnnn . . .

I am wearing a Kenneth Cole suit, standing in the middle of my old, wide-windowed office at work, chanting and performing yoga breathing exercises. I am trying desperately to hear my inner voice, to hear only birds chirping and the sounds of ocean waves, but I can hear only the ringing of my phone. Blaring for the fourth time in less than two minutes.

I separate my hands, which are locked in prayer, and peer through them at the caller ID on my phone. Her again?

My knees creak as I sprint out the door, in a semipanic. I’m already running late for afternoon carpool, running late for my mommy.

It is the first day of school at Tate Academy, one of the nation’s most historic and revered private schools, where I serve as “the mommy handler,” and working the carpool lane is an essential, occasional, yet ongoing component of my job, kind of like working a streetcorner is to a hooker. In truth, there are real similarities: Each of us doggedly protects our assigned turf and, by end of the day, each of us knows we’re gonna end up screwed. In completely different ways, of course.

While my official and politically correct title at Tate Academy is Director of Public Relations, I was told that I was specifically hired to be “the mommy handler.” Those were the odd but “secret” words that were used in my original interview not so long ago by someone who, of course, has since left the school. I know they were used somewhat facetiously, but there is still a ring of truth. And it doesn’t take a linguist to dissect that phrase.

I . . .

handle . . .

mommies.

In essence, I am the bug guard on the institutional vehicle; I get whacked and splattered, take the hits, so everyone else riding in the car—the administration, the faculty, the staff, the students—stays clean and unharmed from annoying, stinging insects.

Working at a prep school, you see, is akin to being a beekeeper. You get stung enough times—like I have, like all faculty and staff do—and you always make sure to keep your protective gear on and zipped up tight. Frankly, you get a little paranoid. Because just when you are lulled by the sleepy hum of the buzzing or the richness of the honey—BAM!—the bees attack. It’s just the natural order of things here, the way of the colony: I am half worker bee, half eunuch-drone.

Today, this first day of school, I am on my way to get stung by the Queen Bee herself: Katherine Isabelle Ludington.

Mrs. Ludington is my new liaison to the parent group and alumni group, the two groups whose work I help oversee. She summoned me to meet with her for the first time just a few minutes earlier. The sound of her clipped, every-syllable-is-overenunciated voice this morning set off my yoga-induced chanting, my last-ditch effort to center my mind and body. It didn’t work, and I’m less than a day into the new school year.

I quickly snake my way along the worn brick path that runs alongside our cobblestone carpool lanes, sweating in the heat. It is 110 degrees in the shade. In the summer, the humidity of our city hangs in the air like fog—the result of being so close to a big body of water—and its heavy, hot wetness wilts you on first contact, making it difficult even to catch your breath in this American rain forest.

The reflection off the never-ending line of SUVs in carpool is blinding, and I did not bring my sunglasses—make that, would not bring my sunglasses—with me. Working at Tate Academy, I really need stylish new shades, hip shades, ones that make me look like I should be photographed on the town with my best pals Carson Daly and Christina Aguilera. The ones I own right now are from Target’s children’s section since my head is so small; they are the only ones I can find that fit. My sunglasses say “Sassy Girl” on the side. This just doesn’t cut it style- or genderwise at Tate, but it sums up the odd dichotomy that is my life here. In this river of money, I am the gay salmon swimming against the current. Except, I try every day not to make a splash, to fit in with the other, prettier fish—the ones going the right way in the current—even though instinct tells me to swim like hell in the other direction.

I approach the carpool lane and squint into the sunny, shimmery sea of idling, just-washed black Land Rovers, Escalades, Excursions and Navigators, searching for Mrs. Ludington. Tate’s carpool lane looks exactly like a new SUV lot, except for the fact that right here, right now every tinted window is cracked just enough to reveal a pink-clad Stepford army of tiny, tan blondes all riding high and gesturing wildly into Laffy Taffy–colored cell phones. Though this may sound like an overexaggeration, there is an eery sameness to this scene. And yet I can still easily pick out my speed-dialing mommy. Mrs. Ludington has the dog who is dressed just like her. I have seen the duo pictured together numerous times in the society pages of the newspaper at Humane Society fund-raisers and Animal Protection benefits. They come as a set—this blond heiress and her snow white sidekick.

The famed LulaBelle, Mrs. Ludington’s “showdog,” is a fluffy, white cock-a-poo-something-or-other for which I heard she paid ten thousand dollars. LulaBelle, who actually looks like a frayed athletic sock, is riding shotgun and yapping at anything that happens to move. Which is everything in carpool. LulaBelle is wearing pink doggles and a pink gingham bow on her collar, and a little pink tank top that says “My Dogs Are Barkin’.” Even her little nails are painted pink. If she had opposable thumbs, I am quite confident LulaBelle would be on a cell phone barking orders to her maid and sipping a no-fat Starbucks iced latte just like many of these mothers.

Pink is a primary color for many Tate Academy mothers and pets. Lilly Pulitzer pink, to be exact. Pink is not an accent color here. It is not simply a pop of pink, like a begonia in a window box. It is the color. Tate’s M2s (my secret acronym for the select few Mean Mommies with whom I am occasionally forced to work) will mix in a bright green with the pink—anything that looks like it might belong in a spring bouquet—but that is the extent of the fashion color wheel for the Mean Mommies here.

Oh, lipstick is pink, too. Specifically, bubblegum pink. The M2s still try to look exactly like they did in their high school senior class photos, the ones I make into blowups for their reunion parties. I am 6 Wa d e Ro u s e Rous_9780307382702_3p_01_r1.j.qxp 5/31/07 9:21 AM Page 6 knee-deep in these blowups right now. Tate masochistically schedules its Reunion Week just after the start of school, just after the end of a peaceful summer. For me, the start of school every year is like luging without a moment of training.

Mrs. Ludington has summoned me from my office to discuss “a matter of vital importance.” That’s all she said before hanging up on me the first time she called. The second and third times she called, she asked, “You’re still not on your way? This is vital!” I turned to yoga and ignored her fourth call.

I will soon learn a lot of things from Mrs. Ludington, first and foremost being that every matter is of “vital importance” to her: the temperature of her water (room temperature, so her body can absorb it more quickly), the texture of the paper on which our alumni magazine is printed (not “buttery” feeling enough), the lack of chickpeas on Tate’s salad bar (“Wade, I mean, please, how could you overlook something like that? It’s a perfect food, like the blueberry!”).

As I approach her Land Rover, I can see her daughter being escorted to the mammoth SUV by an assistant teacher who looks like a Price Is Right girl. Many of our teaching assistants at Tate—the teacher’s helpers—look like Uma Thurman. Being able to look hot in trendy outfits and shoes while finger painting and wiping up puke is as important, it seems to me, as a teaching degree from a private university.

The little girl disappears into the back, in the third-row seating, behind the tinted windows.

I walk cheerfully up to the Land Rover, waving like a hitchhiking Moonie, and peek in the tiny opening of the passenger window. The little girl smiles at me from the back. LulaBelle tries to remove my nose through the crack in the passenger side window. By quickly comparing resemblances, I think Mrs. Ludington actually gave birth to LulaBelle and adopted the little girl.

“You’re tardy,” is how she greets me, like I’m a third-grader who forgot to get a bathroom pass. Still, I smile at this friendly welcome, like Dolly Parton has just welcomed me to her mansion with a big ol’ hug and a cup of moonshine.

Though I have seen Mrs. Ludington numerous times—in meetings, on campus, in the newspaper, on TV—this is the first time I have actually looked this closely at her.

She is pretty-ugly. Not pretty ugly, in the adverb-adjective sort of a way, but a combination of the two opposing looks. Her face is delicate, her features attractive, but her proportions are not perfect, some elements a bit harsh. From a distance, she looks great. Up close, she looks like a Cubist painting, where everything’s just a bit off.

Her eyes, however, are unforgettable; they are the color of a Blue Raspberry Mr. Misty from Dairy Queen. Her eyes have the ability to freeze you, instantaneously, coldly, like you licked an ice cream cone too quickly.

Mrs. Ludington is ensconced in a shrunken pink Lilly Pulitzer polo and pink floral-and-heart capris. She looks like an animated begonia, a floral DreamWorks character who has plucked herself from one of our window boxes and taken to the streets to find her long lost mother, the petunia.

Her body is as fragile as a flower’s stem. Her hair is white blond, almost like snow, and sprayed into a helmeted bob. She is bronzy tan, vacation tan, not fake tan.

Despite her size, she exudes confidence. Whereas I am a leaky faucet drip of confidence, she is a virtual sprinkler of attitude. I can feel it emanate from the car. She carries herself as though she is sixfoot- four—a good foot taller than her actual height—her attitude arriving a split second before her perfume (Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue), which drifts from the car like gas.

Mrs. Ludington and her family are old city money, old city conservatism, old city power. Mrs. Ludington was everything in her career at Tate Academy: beauty queen and sports star. She went to an Ivy, married an Ivy, and made a lot of money. Her life, in short, has been perfect. Is perfect. Or a constant quest for perfection. That rather simple yet unattainable standard, in fact, sums up perfectly the private school where I work. We must always seek perfection.

Tate Academy is one of the oldest independent schools in the nation. Annual tuition today at Tate approaches the cost of one of these SUVs, not counting “extras,” like books, clothes, computers, athletic uniforms, field trips. So, if you can come up with the cash and are comfortable attending school nude and with no supplies, you can probably scrape by here. Admission to Tate Academy is a privileged honor in our city, the equivalent of being tapped for sainthood. Very few make it onto this holy, sacred ground. I consider myself lucky to be at such a prestigious school.

In fact, Tate Academy has graduated so many famous alumni, so many VIPs, so many celebrities, so many movers and shakers, so many big names that you would gasp and ask, “They all went there?”

And they did. Which is exactly why I wanted to work at Tate in the first place. To be a mover and a shaker for once in my life. To be liked by the most popular people for once in my life. Sad? Yes. Pathetic? Yes. True? Yes.

What’s truly pathetic is what I endure in this quest for acceptance. Occasionally working carpool, for starters. At Tate—at any private day school, for that matter—the carpool lane is often the center of M2 activity. It is like a live electric wire, really. The gossip that buzzes through this endless line of gigantic, jumbotronic SUVs has cost administrators and teachers sleep. I often work carpool to ground that electricity, to take a jolt and then report its shock level to higher-ups.

Carpool is where the gossip starts, the rumor mill churns, the lies fly. I can literally see it happening before I even approach the lane. One mommy hopping out of her SUV and then jumping up and onto the running board of the SUV behind her to whisper something to that M2. Or cell phones chirping all at once, Mozart or Britney Spears ring tones playing through cracked windows. That’s when I know there is trouble brewing.

I have already held lots of meetings standing outside an SUV— making deals, bartering, begging, schmoozing, pleading, finally, reluctantly agreeing to a situation that makes me wholly uncomfortable. I really am a hooker.

At least, I try and convince myself, I’m a high-class whore. I often work the street, no matter the weather—in rain, or snow, or 110-degree heat, like an indentured mailman—conducting a meeting through a crack in the passenger-side window, all the while trying to keep up with an M2’s SUV without getting thrown under a tire as she alternately punches her accelerator and then slams on her brakes.

This little maneuver is, in fact, what jolts me out my reverie this afternoon, makes me remember too late that I am still staring at Mrs. Ludington. I can see her mouth moving—Hello? Wade? Hello?—but my synapses are not connecting her words.

It is too hot. I can’t do this another year. Please, God, not another year.

To grab my attention, Mrs. Ludington proceeds to gun her Land Rover one more time with a pink espadrille, the SUV jolting forward, dragging my body alongside. I look at her, my eyes wild, my nails gripped to the top of the windowframe.

“I thought that might do the trick. My God, for a moment I thought you were in a coma.”

Her Mr. Misty eyes freeze me.

“Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Wade, your Reunion theme and decor are simply too boring, as you have them planned,” she says to me through the opening in the passenger window. No “I’m excited about working with you this year”; just a simple, direct “We need to ‘rethink’ it.”

Who the hell is “we”? I want to ask. Do you have a mouse in your pocket, sir? I hear my mother say in the back of my head.

Instead I say, “Everything’s ready to go, Mrs. Ludington. We’re only weeks out.”

That was too direct. Slow down.

I am panicking and talking too quickly. I don’t want to seem panicky. I must be peppy yet tough, direct yet respectful, flattering without being fawning. I have perfected this manner of speaking in my time at Tate; it works on rich mothers. So I add:

“Oh, and I just love your polo, Mrs. Ludington. Lilly Pulitzer, right?”

For some reason, this doesn’t work on her. She is simply staring at me.

“Call me Kitsy,” she says.

I am still leaning into the passenger-side window of her Land Rover, holding onto the top of the window like a dangling, suicidal window washer, my feet barely brushing the ground, too afraid to step foot on her shiny, polished running board. I say nothing, so she punches the gas once more, and her car jolts forward in the carpool line, me stumbling tippy-toed to keep up. She slides on a pair of pinky red Chanel sunglasses, which are only slightly smaller than her Land Rover, and turns to stare at me again. The air conditioner is on high and blowing LulaBelle’s ears around like she’s a high-priced model posing in front of a wind machine.

I can’t do it. I can’t make myself say it. It’s just too ridiculous to say out loud. So she says it for me.

“Call me Kitsy.”

No! I want to scream. That sounds like a nickname I would have been called by the mean boys in my country school.

I pray that she will suddenly say, “Call me Ishmael,” anything, any name, other than this. But I smile and nod, as though it’s the most charming nickname I’ve ever heard, like Lady Bird or RuPaul. That’s typical at Tate, however, typical of our city’s wealthy women. Bizarre childhood nicknames, fit for a cockatiel or Shih-Tzu, that stick for life, grown women forever calling each other Bitsie, or Foobie, or La-La, or Kazoo, as though it’s the most normal thing in the world.

“Call me Kitsy,” she says. Again.

“Will do!” I say enthusiastically.

“Kitsy,” she encourages, like she’s trying to teach a parakeet to ask for a cracker. “It’s short for Katherine Isabelle. My grandmother is Itsy, short for Isabelle, my mother is Bitsy, short for Elizabeth Isabelle, and my daughter is Mitsy, short for Madeleine Isabelle. Isn’t that just adorable?”

“So, is there a spider?” I ask, trying to make a little joke, add a little levity, act like I’m comfortable with this whole nickname thing. “You know . . . Itsy . . . Bitsy . . . Spider?”

How come when you’ve made a verbal gaffe, you don’t realize it until it actually comes out and sits in the air, like one of those cartoon balloons? Even LulaBelle seems to notice, barking, “You’re a moron” at me.

“Noooo,” she says slowly, icily, drawing the word out as though she’s getting paid royalties per second. She doesn’t laugh. The only sound is the air conditioner, followed by the lowering of the passenger side electric window, followed by LulaBelle’s barking.

“Say it,” she commands. “Say my name, just so we know that we’re off to a good start in our working relationship. It’s going to be a very busy year, and I want us to be fast friends. Oh, I didn’t see your shirt until now! Kenneth Cole, right? I absolutely adore it!” This makes me deliriously happy for some reason. So I smile at her like a lunatic and say her name.

“Kitsy.”

A trickle of sweat burns my eye and another runs into the corner of my mouth. I inhale the cold air coming from the SUV like it’s the last, precious few ounces of oxygen. I am melting. And then it hits me. Oh, my God! She pulled my flatter-don’t-fawn trick on me, and it worked.

“Good,” she says. “I feel so much better. Don’t you, Mitsy? Don’t you, LulaBelle?”

Mitsy claps and LulaBelle barks. I quickly know that everyone must respond to Kitsy on command.

Still, I’ve managed to say her name, to survive my first test with her. Not my second, however.

“Soooo . . . as I was saying originally, I just had a chance to review your Reunion plans. Wade, the decor is gold and blue. It looks like a fund-raiser for Notre Dame. We are not a Catholic school. Change the colors and the background. And falling leaves are too . . . fall. It’s still summer, am I right?”

Our school colors are gold and blue. They were chosen 150 years ago; I didn’t just make them up for the hell of it. And the theme for Reunion this year is “Fall in Love All Over Again with Tate.” Get it? Leaves . . . fall . . . reunion? Play on words? And, by the by, this was approved three months ago by a committee of fifty.

It is so hot that I have sweated through my shirt and suit jacket. It looks like I’m wearing extra-thick Lycra. Still, I say nothing. I just smile.

Kitsy begins dumping the contents of her Louis Vuitton Speedy 30 carryall into the passenger seat. LulaBelle dances excitedly over lipsticks and perfume bottles and credit cards and a thank-you note from the car dealership.

“Here,” she says, holding out her tote to me. In trying to lower the window a bit more for me to see her purse, Kitsy “accidentally” hits the passenger window control, causing the window to close and crush my head.

She probably opted not to have a sensor on her windows, just for an occasion like this.

“Oopsy,” she says, unlocking the doors first, before rolling the window back down.

LulaBelle barks her approval. I rub my head and look at the little girl. She is dressed exactly like her mother, too.

“Are you OK?” Mitsy asks me, rubbing her head in sympathy.

I smile at this gesture of kindness.

“So . . . Wade, what I want you to do is take my Louis bag and make the background for the brand new invite match their logo. Isn’t it just brilliant?”

Are you kidding me? I don’t even get it, except that she’s obsessed with Louis Vuitton and wants to show off her new purse.

“I just came up with it over lunch at the Club. It’s the best, right, Wade? It is speck-tack-u-larr, so let’s do it!”

Question. Command.

Kitsy, I will quickly discover, has a magical way of asking a question that is really a command. I will term it the question-command, a trick I will try to master, especially in everyday life. Instead of asking, “Does a house salad come with the entrée?” you say, “A house salad comes with the entrée, correct? I couldn’t imagine it being any other way!” Never give the listener a chance to respond. Never give them an option. Never give them an out. My next Kitsy question-command is this:

“I think addressing all of the Reunion invitations by hand is the only way to go, don’t you, Wade? Doing it any other way would be so déclassé.

“Show me the mock-up tomorrow. We’re weeks behind as it is now. Oh, and add pink in the motif. Pink, pink, pink! TTFN!”

(Tate’s M2s love to say “TTFN!” It’s an acronym meaning “Ta-Ta for Now,” for those of us who have moved beyond passing notes in junior high that say, “Do you like me? Circle one. Yes? No? Maybe?”)

And, with that, Kitsy screeches off, performing a U-turn in the midst of carpool—no small feat in a Land Rover and line of SUVs—like a rich, suburban Shirley Muldowney. LulaBelle is trained for this. Her pink nails grip the passenger door, her ears flapping in the SUV’s cross breeze, her doggles making her look like a furry version of Kristin Scott Thomas in The English Patient.

I stand in the middle of carpool, a man holding a handbag, SUVs now tooting at me to move. I think of all the new work that is to come: revamping an invitation that doesn’t need revamping, working for weeks on end hand-addressing and stamping invitations, and reorchestrating an entire Reunion that doesn’t need reorchestrating. But that’s jumping ahead. Right now, it’s only day one of the new school year.

I ignore the honks, clutch my new handbag tightly to my chest like a lost old lady in the middle of Times Square, and start chanting.

Deep cleansing breath iiiinnnn . . .

Exhaling all the toxins . . .