Tour de Farce

The agony—and ecstasy—of taking my son to visit colleges.

July 2008By Comments

Campus Fugit: How can it be that my own trip to look at schools in New England was so long ago?
Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Sam has made it very clear that he is on his way out. Our son is seventeen now, and though he tries to be nice about it—“Did you guys have a good time [all alone, without me] last night?” he asked last Sunday morning—we have trouble getting on his calendar, competing, as we do, with schoolwork, SAT/ACT/AP prep, his friends, his girlfriend, his car, Flavor of Love, I Love New York, iTunes, and, of course, Facebook. That his father and I do not really rate on this list of priorities I take as a sign of reasonably effective parenting. He’s age-appropriately independent, having successfully navigated his first job as a busboy last summer, and this summer he found respectable work again, even without signing on for the multiweek, $4,000, life-changing latrine-digging project in South America. But just as we are all learning to move forward into a new life stage—big-time separation—fate has thrown us together again for one last brief, intense period. I am talking about the college application process, and specifically the college tour.

When I was growing up in San Antonio sometime between the Kennedy assassination and the fall of Saigon, most Texans didn’t take college tours. This was largely because they went to school in-state. People thought, in fact, that there might be something a little wrong with you if you didn’t want to go to the University of Texas. I mean no disrespect when I say that UT was my safety school back then—like Sam, I was hell-bent on getting out of Texas for reasons I hadn’t really explored but that my parents bravely supported. So the summer before my senior year, we took a short trip to look at three schools in New England (New England? I ask myself now. What was I thinking?), and we liked them all just fine. I applied to all three, was admitted to two, and chose one. Applying was sort of nerve-racking, mostly for my mother, but relatively straightforward. My mom was my only “consultant,” and when she suggested gently that my Radcliffe essay wasn’t exactly targeted to win admission, I dutifully ignored her. Of course she was right.

A nanosecond later, here I am, enduring this rite of passage from the other side—and at a pretty grim moment. As the New York Times recently noted, “A demographic bubble has produced the largest group of graduating seniors in history, and they now are facing rejection by colleges at record rates—more than 90 percent at Harvard and Yale, for example.” Texas’s top 10 percent rule, in which seniors in the top 10 percent of any Texas high school are guaranteed admission to a public state university, has made things even tighter here at home. Getting into UT’s Plan II Honors Program is now almost as hard as getting into Princeton.

Never one to pass up an opportunity for high anxiety, I have armed our family with approximately one thousand books on college admissions (Sam’s favorite is Harvard Schmarvard) and saved virtually every piece of promotional mail, which now forms a Matterhorn-like mound in my office. (Not surprisingly, given the situation in Iraq, the Army, Navy, and Marines want him too.) We have bowed to peer pressure and hired an SAT tutor and a college adviser, though not the sort who charge $180 an hour. Friends who survived the struggle but are still traumatized send me thoughtful, residual e-mails titled “More college advice.” All this insane strategizing reminds me of being pregnant, only it’s much more expensive and will, I assume, produce the opposite result.

The experts agree that the first crucial step in this process is the college tour, which is supposed to help your child make an informed decision—a noble but futile goal for a teenager, unless, maybe, you frame the whole thing as one giant shopping trip. I’m told that these days, visiting about twelve to fifteen places is the norm, though such diligence in no way guarantees a smooth, cost-effective selection process. A friend scheduled an extra trip to show her son just one more school, and at the entrance he graced her with a disgusted look, shook his head, and said, “We don’t even need to get out of the car. I’m not going here.” His peer group back at home had already told him the school—an excellent one by objective standards—was no good. And the clothes the kids were wearing were just . . . wrong.

Common sense suggests that any number of colleges would be a good fit for any kid (hyper parents would do well to peruse George Vaillant’s famous study demonstrating that happiness and a Harvard education do not necessarily correlate). But common sense isn’t a prevailing feature of our time; it’s been replaced by the hysteria of falling behind or, more to the point, the fear that our children will not do as well economically as we have and the conviction that the only thing that can save them is admission to one of ten exalted schools that can cost way more than $50,000 a year. Visiting a college, then, is touted as an opportunity to avoid making a devastating error—and also offers the chance to conduct the kind of research worthy of a UN arms inspector. Harvard Schmarvard borrows from a book called The Truth About Getting In to suggest a fourteen-point checklist for campus visits, including “audit a class,” “interview faculty members and students,” “eat at the cafeteria,” and “track down and keep in touch with the admissions officer liable to read your application.” Knowing her audience, the author’s very last suggestion is “ask your parents what they think.”

Sam had already narrowed his choices to schools on the East Coast, the West Coast, and maybe, Chicago. (“I love cold weather,” he insists, having never spent a winter outside Houston.) So, soon enough, I found myself planning the journey that would take him away from us forever, or at least until graduation. I mapped out our five-day East Coast assault with a cracker-jack combination of planes, trains, and automobiles; set up coffees with relatives of friends who happened to be professors at colleges of interest; and reserved tour slots via e-mail. (Three decades ago you just showed up, and admissions officers were damn glad to see you. Not anymore.) Sam stayed up late the night before our departure flipping through his old baby pictures, eager to share memories that have become, for my husband and me, almost unbearably sweet. “I just can’t get very excited about this trip,” John said that night, giving voice to my own, identical sentiment.

That the two of us were operating in a parental fugue state became sadly apparent the next morning at the airport, when the young woman behind the JetBlue counter gave us a hard stare as we announced our intention to check in for the 1 p.m. flight to Kennedy. There was no 1 p.m. flight, she retorted, adding, “You must be the people we’ve been paging for over an hour.” Our flight left at noon. After some tense standby negotiations we made it to our New York hotel around 1 a.m., which meant that when we woke up the next morning at about 10, we had the perfect excuse to cancel that day’s scheduled train trip to tour Philadelphia schools. Not one to waste a day, however, John had an idea at breakfast: “Let’s go look at Columbia!” he suggested, throwing down the gauntlet with his napkin.

There it was, proof that I had married someone from Upper Volta. Was I really going to have to explain why I thought that was a bad idea? Not because I don’t believe in our son; he is, to my eyes, an extraordinary young man who will go far in life, with a shot at being happy as well. But Sam is also a pragmatist—like his father used to be—and so knows that despite impressive grades and admirable extracurriculars, he probably isn’t a candidate for the Ivys. Other kids were driven to set up their own nuclear power labs or write poetry in Mandarin; he was content to read Car and Driver or sit on our front porch watching the rain. It had been wonderful to watch him find his passions in the past year or so—photography, public health, Latin America, and what he calls “saving the world”—though it took some doing on my part to get out of his way. Now, it seemed, we were headed uptown, forcing him to visit the Land of Unrealistic Expectations.

At Columbia we filed into a sunlit room in a building dating back to the 1800’s where a charming twentysomething Latina admissions officer greeted us. The space was SRO, filled with many people who were either Asian or of Asian extraction. “I’m studying cognitive neuroscience and philosophy!” one exclaimed exuberantly, to the dismay of almost everyone else. After our host asked for a show of hands, I noted that plenty of Texans—from Laredo, Houston, and San Antonio—were also interested in Columbia. Her pitch was calibrated to both students and parents: Lost hunk Matthew Fox and Barack Obama were alumni, she told us. On the other hand, learning was serious business; Columbia wanted students who were “excited” about their core curriculum, which included classes like Contemporary Civilization (Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli), Literature Humanities (Virgil, Shakespeare, Woolf), Frontiers of Science, and two terms of PE, including a nonnegotiable swimming test. “We want to know whether you can thrive here,” she said. “Did you take the most rigorous courses in your high school?”

I slid my eyes toward Sam expecting to see the usual teenaged contempt and saw rapture instead. “I loved it,” he gushed as we walked out. “I wish I had studied harder.” Uncharacteristically, this remark did not provoke in me the urge to say “I told you so.” I could see in Sam’s face that he had just received a clear view of the opportunities awaiting him, and he could barely wait. Score one for Dad.

The next day we headed to NYU, which had been Sam’s first, nearly obsessive choice for the past year. (Some have suggested that the enrollment of Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen has bumped NYU into a more competitive tier.) I couldn’t blame him. I had desperately wanted to live in New York when I was a teenager and started wondering, as we crossed cacophonous, rain-drenched streets on our way downtown, how I had wound up in placid, rural New England.

NYU’s information session was held in a cramped, real-world-style room, complete with metal folding chairs and fluorescent lights. Clearly we were encountering a very different educational ethos, but the room was again packed with potential applicants from around the world and . . . Texas. Jacob, from Houston, announced that he intended to major in “psychology and anything.” Sam’s eyes burned as a soigné woman in white go-go boots touted the school’s great career prep (you could learn to be a record producer at the Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music, in the Tisch School of the Arts), as well as its programs in Paris, Prague, and Ghana. He nearly had to be restrained when our host described a student in a special program who’d created his own major in “Evil.” As if that weren’t enough to close the deal, a ravishing beauty from South Carolina then introduced herself as our tour guide. “I have something really cute on under my coat,” she promised, and proceeded to lead us into and out of the pouring rain, through classrooms, dorm rooms—“Every room at NYU has its own toilet and shower,” she told us. “People, that’s a big deal”—and the Escher-like Philip Johnson-designed library. “I have to go here,” Sam told us. Only once before had I heard him that determined: when he lobbied us nonstop for a year for a car.

The next day we drove somewhat halfheartedly to New England. By then we had nestled into New York, happily seeing friends and relatives, thinking we had accomplished plenty on our first college tour. But I had suggested in past years that my alma mater, Hampshire College, in Amherst, might be a good fit for Sam, and after a few of his friends gave it the stamp of approval, he was willing to take a look. It seemed silly not to go when we were only a few hours away.

We borrowed my brother’s car and trundled up Interstate 95 to Interstate 91 to Route 9 in Western Massachusetts, and the closer we got to Amherst, the more I started to feel like Rip van Winkle on Ritalin. I hadn’t been back to Hampshire since graduating, in 1976, and that was not accidental. As a teenager in San Antonio I had forged an identity as an iconoclast, which meant that I read lots of novels, was politically active (I protested the Vietnam War and the construction of a freeway through town), and was just generally a moody, broody teenager. Hampshire had seemed a perfect fit because it was then the experimental college in the country: a bastion of the counterculture with no hours, no grades, and one of the nation’s first Frisbee teams. When I got there, I found out pretty quickly just how bourgeois—a new word in my lexicon—I was. Or maybe that isn’t quite the right term: Before Hampshire, I had never met anyone who’d gone to an East Coast boarding school, never met anyone who drove a foreign car, never met anyone who wanted to study social theory, much less knew what it was. Then there was the climate issue. The campus was located atop a hill in a deceptively cheery apple orchard, but by November the salacious fruit and the incendiary, romantic fall foliage were gone, replaced by (what I remember as) about six months of unremitting winter. Suffice it to say that I remained moody and broody for most of my stay, and then, like almost everyone who winds up in Houston, threw over that identity for a new, improved one almost as soon as I hit town. We cruised the Pioneer Valley—home to Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, Amherst, and Smith colleges, as well as the University of Massachusetts—at dusk. The place had changed significantly in 32 years. Instead of a tired movie theater and an even dingier Stop & Shop there was now a huge Whole Foods, along with a Target, a Barnes & Noble, cool gyms, and a seemingly infinite number of yoga studios and coffee bars. You could eat Mexican—that would have been a godsend in my day—and Thai and Moroccan too. (It almost could have been Austin.) Smith had built an impressive art museum for its impressive collection in 2003. Every business and educational institution seemed even more intent on out-greening one another than before—no small accomplishment. “Mom, tell me again why you didn’t like it here?” Sam asked, now fully alert in the backseat.

I was asking myself the same question. Driving through the leafy streets of Amherst and gawking at each Victorian mansion that was prettier than the last, I wondered why I hadn’t bothered to explore my world then, as I do so intently now. Maybe I found the answer when we finally got to campus and I saw my old dorm, my old dining hall, my old mailbox, my younger self at every turn: the girl who went without sleep because she was too afraid to ask the kid in the room next door to turn down his music, who stared dumbfounded at a dorm mate’s garbage bag full of weed, who pined over some insignificant boy on long, lonely walks through the woods, who muted herself in class because she was sure everyone there was so much smarter. I did fine in college—I excelled in classes and, I think, moved maybe a whole six inches outside my psychological comfort zone by the end—but somehow it was the pain of growing up far from home that had stayed with me for so many years, not the memories of my successes. It was very hard to meet that melancholy, if determined, girl again. I wanted to tell her to ease up a little, to relax and explore and enjoy, to understand that this was one of the last times in her life that she would be so totally, astonishingly free. Instead, I took up the nagging worry that what had happened to me would happen to Sam—indisputable proof that the phrase “my child isn’t me” tends to disappear under pressure, like on a college tour with my easygoing, optimistic, nearly grown son.

The next morning we showed up for our tour, during which I heard a teenage girl hiss to her mother, “You have contributed nothing to my body of work.” Sam was already laser-focused on our guide, an open-faced kid from Colorado who could have been his best friend. As we crossed the (April!) tundra from the admissions office to the main campus, I could see that he was sold, just as I had been. He loved the photography studio, the private dorm rooms, the fact that he could create his own major and study any program he had the guts to pursue. Even if Hampshire was located in New England, it suddenly occurred to me that the place had somehow managed to institutionalize the creative restlessness of ambitious Texans.

Then, in the vast third-floor science lab, I had an epiphany: In leaving home I had learned what I most needed to, which was that I was responsible for propelling myself forward. By graduation I may not have ever taken economics—or learned to laugh at myself—but I had figured out how to manage myself in chaos, and I knew that I had no intention of risking my dreams in Boston or New York when I could already see a path forward in Houston. Wherever Sam goes to college, he will have to find that path for himself.

I let him go, and took my old self home.

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