By the time I arrived at the line of parents waiting on West 120th Street to submit their children’s applications to science camp the following July, Michael Nelson had been there for over 13 hours. It was 1 a.m. in late November, and he was only number seven on the list.
A motley crew of parents, nannies and hired hands were camping for the highly desirable Hollingworth Science Camp: first come, first served. By daybreak there were more than 60 of us along the side of Teachers College reading iPads or books, huddling under blankets or sleeping bags, watching movies on laptops or talking to friends, strangers and new-found colleagues.
Run by Columbia University’s Teachers College, the five-week camp is for grades K-4. It has a great reputation, a reasonable (for Manhattan) price tag and, most importantly, priority registration for all future years AND for siblings. One successful application and your children are assured of priority applications until your youngest is out of 4th grade.
We clustered, sharing stories, comparing — with full knowledge of the irony — our own situation with those who had camped out at Zuccotti Park earlier in the month and chewing over the drama of the early evening.
Michael was only seventh on the list because he had arrived too early. The entryway guards had shown him upstairs to the hallway that we would, at 8 a.m. on Sunday, go to hand in our applications. The next 11 people who arrived had been ushered into a downstairs hallway where, eventually, they were joined by a young woman who had, apparently, been waiting outside.
A kerfuffle ensued as the woman’s brother-in-law — the applying child’s father — insisted that she be at the front. Of course, the first 20 to arrive would all be equally successful, but he continued to argue. In the end it made little difference apart from becoming our favorite sore-tooth topic of conversation while eating the cupcakes Michael’s wife and daughter had brought him for the long, cold night.
We parents feared for our sanity, hired hands and nannies feared for theirs — could we really be subjecting ourselves to this Saturday night hardship willingly? While most were too excited and cold to sleep, Leon, who had answered an ad on Craigslist to wait on a New York street from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., was chill. A friendly surfer from the Caribbean, he worried very little as he slept, surfaced to chat, and then slept again until he was paid and relieved.
At about 2:30 a.m., a couple in their mid-20s walked by, seemingly returning from a night out.
“What are you all doing?” asked the young woman.
“Waiting for summer science camp,” we replied, to her amazement. A few more questions just to check we weren’t making fun of her, and then she and her boyfriend headed off into the night.
“Good luck to you,” she said, “you’re great parents.” We hoped that she was right, and that we weren’t just doomed neurotics.
Fifteen minutes later we were amazed when the couple returned.
“We figured you didn’t want coffee to keep you up, but here’s some hot chocolate.” Thoughtfully they’d brought us an insulated beverage container full of hot water with all the cups, napkins, and sachets of hot chocolate mix we’d need. We didn’t have the heart to tell them that we had no access to a bathroom for another three hours.
At 6 a.m. the school doors opened and we packed up our makeshift shanty-snake to enter in batches of five. A mother, possibly with a Columbia ID to finesse the internal electronic locks, tried to join us upstairs. Maybe we looked clueless after our night on the sidewalk, but we were a crew who had bonded overnight. “I was lining up outside too,” she claimed, implausibly, as we pointed her out to the guard who took her downstairs.
Acceptable switches were made: parents for nannies, employers for Craigslisters and the sulky father re-took his disputed place at the front. A guard maintained a careful order during the lining up and consumption of a tasty breakfast provided by Hollingworth.
Still the parents rolled up. 50, 60, 70, 80. We heard about the return of the woman who had tried to sneak in but we couldn’t see as the line sneaked round and round hallways.
Hollingworth handed out checklists. The application forms were not online — you had to write or go to pick them up personally. They required two teacher recommendations and a deposit check of $1,000 — not things that could be conjured up at 7:30 a.m. on a tired November Sunday morning.
At 8 a.m. we filed into the office with good humor and handed over envelopes creased through repeated re-checking, thanked the staff and left.
The sun shone down on an unseasonably warm Sunday morning. I shed layer after layer of clothing as I ran to play in my regular soccer game. The girls could behave nicely for my wife while I played. After all I’d done for them, it was the least they could do.