As faithless as it is calculating, college admission becomes a decade of denial for most.
The first of April becomes the focus of lifetimes. Many parents and their issue have connived, planned, even negotiated for this date: college admission — April First. This April Fool’s Day, millions of households will have their 17-year-old collegiate lay locked and loaded, kinder-glued to their laptops. No, it’s not porn, binge-watching, or even OD-ing on FB. It’s all about admission to college. That’s Decision Day.
It used to be so simple: you got a fat envelope and were IN, thin envelope OUT, middle envelope MAYBE. We looked at SAT prep books, hand wrote our apps, typed them up, got them in the mail on time in December. All analogue, all the time, like everything else. We thought about it some during the end of Junior year, but really it was 5 or 6 applications: a “Reach,” some “Good” choices, and the “Safety” schools. The basics have remained: IN or OUT: getting into a “Reach” is a triumph, not getting into a “Safety” is beyond embarrassing. We have known both: it’s often why the “Gap Year” was invented.
This process has morphed beyond all comprehension in this generation: computerized everything, combined with Baby Boomer over-reach and our children’s supreme ability to focus, has manifest all the worst aspects of our culture on one goal: getting into “The Best School Ever.” At a time when almost every sentient middle-class family should be celebrating their almost-adulthood offspring, the mini-cabal zeroes in on the bumper sticker,
You could make the case that every child is the most precious carrier of every parent’s best hopes and dreams — and college admission is the clearest evidence of that. From the lame base hit in T-Ball that guarantees a Division 1 scholarship, all of us, myself included, take every aptitude, every opportunity, to wedge a foot in the door of a place that can never hope to admit the vast majority of applicants in any year. Yale admits around one student for every 20 it rejects.
For reasons that are exquisitely human, parents project themselves into the lives they created far deeper than any generation in history. We troll the roster to verify we get the best 3rd grade teachers. We plot and plan to be part of “hook” programs to impress the admissions reviewer like “Backpacks for Homeless,” “Meals on Skateboards for the Hungry,” or “Bach Lessons for the Tone Deaf.” Course options are re-re-reviewed continuously. “Elite” music/sports/leadership gatherings are scoped, paid for, recommendations seduced, all with the Greater Mission in mind.
But is this really — really — the Greater Mission?
We tend to rewrite reality when it comes to our kids. There are a zillion ways to assess every kid today. The Travel Team can be local, regional, or state-wide. The poor Rec Team players must reset their vision for collegiate athletics. Every orchestra or band has “chairs” — First Chair down very very lame last chair. The Science Track can happen in a child’s Middle School Years — and it’s a bitch to hop on board after that. Then there are ACTs, SATs, Achievements, and the universal recitation of the number of Advanced Placement courses that your spawn was or was not a genius at obtaining access to.
There are now a legion of supplementary “College Admission Experts,” zillions of “College Acceptance” books and seminars, and dozens of college fairs abound. We, as parents, went, and paid for, all of them. Truth be told, their job as “Experts” is to make the less-than-elite schools “Just As Good” as those that are being competed for. We are happy to forget The Truth in the heart of battle: not everyone can be “elite.”
Cred is why many of us are alive. In the inevitable ranking from best to not-so-good renders each child the single most destructive projection of our worst values and hopes upon those gifts and life foci. Just like the rest of life, only worse.
We are at our worst when we are aspiring to our best: I would have gladly taken every steroid to become a better football player: thank God I am 61 today, or I would not have lived to 45 if born 5 years sooner. We saw a musician’s ear and ability in one son and the full-throated football capacity in the other. We tried to give them every opportunity to max-out and get admitted to great schools.
Like steroids, the worst truth is that it worked. I really never even thought to pray upon it. It was akin to asking to get a job, or make enough money to make payroll some weeks: important but not of this world. Not worth bringing God into the equation. The effort had to be based in the love and spirit that our boys showed from birth but was often seen through one sad, ultimate, lens: college admission.
When one rejected the saxophone we begged him to try the harp. We were not thinking of him but some admissions counselor somewhere. When the other son was not admitted to the All-State Orchestra one year, my first thought was not the end of this year’s future rounds for him, but drifted to that same admissions counselor. (Next year, he made the orchestra, first chair.)
When it came to our kids, it was too easy to forget about God and the greater values we all feel: truth, honor and expression of the gifts we were given. The very gifts we have been given. And not by any admissions committee.
My wife and I made supremely secular connections, not because our boys wanted them, or really even that these achievements (amongst many others) would facilitate lifelong happy memories (though I suspect they will). We offered to pay, called the calls, drove to endless foreign places 24/7/365 because we knew, really knew, that it was The Best Thing To Do. That was in the air, it was part of our lives and everyone around us. It is the height of human perversity that the most sacred, our babies, morph to profanity in our expressions for them — but sometimes, really, for us.
Quite reasonably, almost none of our friends’ children got into a “Top Tier” school. Where they were admitted was deemed to be “The Best School Ever” — no matter where. Many were not in “The Best School Ever” a year or two later. Distance, obtainment, and cost made other life options preferable.
I know our kids had great places to go to school. One was chosen at a good Division 3 School to play football long before most of the rest of his class knew where they were going. The other made it to an “Elite” conservatory. They both graduated. They both went on to “Elite” graduate schools.
Was it due to their parents? Of course not. Those tackles were made, those notes were hit by them, and them alone.
But somehow we felt it was part of a victory when we were simply in the stands, cheering. “We” won. We did nothing — but we manipulated, cajoled, and pushed to a result that was unknown except in its general direction: “The Best School Ever.” That is the view that can screw any of us: when the best of us gets overwhelmed by desire, we lose ourselves, our motives — and even our souls to this world.
The complete melding of the most personal and overtly public-faced realities is very scary for everyone involved. If there is an overriding solace, its that Nature (God) always crushes Nurture (Us).
No matter how hard we try to improve them, our children remain as perfect as God made them. We may attempt a feverish polishing to make our impact as potent as possible, but in the end, the children and their next home seek each other out.
The good news is The Good News: trying as hard as we are able, we still have The Backstop. Surprisingly this moment of acceptance/rejection is only this moment: the greater truth of Grace never stops, and is there, clear as a bell, no matter what bumper sticker is offered up to you.