I’m going to stay on the topic of parenting (and my mother) for one more blog post. And discussing parenting vis-à-vis the college process seems timely at this point in the month; Early Decisions have been released all but one of the phone calls I have received have been parents asking why their son/daughter was deferred or denied.
For some parents, particularly those who have been able to secure every available opportunity for their kid, college admissions represents one of the few times when they haven’t been in control. (Of course, the entire transition to college by itself represents a significant loss of control for parents.)
I often think back to my own experience as a prospective applicant and particularly to a trip to Pennsylvania that I took with my mother. We drove south in my grandmother’s car. It wasn’t a particularly fancy car, but it was brand new, and that new-car smell added to the anxiety of driving out of New England, particularly because it was just the two of us. I remember a particularly anxious crossing of the George Washington Bridge, with the looming New York City skyline to our left. These were pre-Giuliani days where a charred metal frame of a former vehicle wasn’t an uncommon sight on the Cross Bronx Expressway. Each one we passed intensified my mother’s fear of Manhattan and everything it represented.
We eventually made it to Pennsylvania and our first stop, an idyllic liberal arts campus complete with oak trees. I explained to my mother that I was going to handle everything, that she should wait in the car. Looking back, it seems preposterous that she allowed me to direct her. To this day I feel guilty for not including her (it was a long drive, after all). But the college world was not my mother’s realm. I’m not sure how she passed the time that afternoon, but I suspect she dutifully reclined the seat and took a nap or read a magazine, while I interviewed with an admissions officer and was escorted around campus by a member of the cross country team.
I was pretty confident in myself; far more confident than I should have been. This was my backup school. Despite my lack of sophistication about college admissions at age eighteen, I was savvy enough to understand that unlike the other institutions, this college sent weekly postcards; surely they were eager to enroll me.
Two years ago, I chaperoned a college trip and returned to this particular campus. Other than those tall oaks, I recognized nothing. I realized I had only one memory of my initial visit, and that was the moment when my host walked me back to my grandmother’s car. I introduced him – awkwardly, I’m sure – to my mother, and the two of them talked for ten minutes or so. This student, a sophomore, lived locally and was a science major, I think. He was also extremely polite and humble.
The more powerful memory is that from that day forward, my mother always talked about this particular school. Throughout my senior year, during the infrequent times we would talk about my college applications, she would always ask in a wistful tone, “what about college X?” (in the same tone she would ask about a former girlfriend whom she clearly preferred).
I’ve always thought that my mother’s interest in this school — and her frequent mentions of its name — had to do with the fact her goals for me were simple. All she really wanted for me was to grow up like the kid who hosted me on that fall day. She would be perfectly happy if I emerged from college a polite and humble person. (Something I think I still resist.)
Now that I am a parent, I wonder now if my mother’s agenda wasn’t far cleverer and far more complex. She, too, must have had awareness that this was my safety school, and that by regularly mentioning this school, she was reminding me that college admission wasn’t the most important thing in the world. She was reminding me that choosing a college shouldn’t be about a ranking, or the size of the school’s endowment, or the number of volumes in the library. She was, I think, suggesting that education in itself represents a treasured opportunity, and that her sincere hopes for me weren’t wrapped up in a name-brand. The only reputation that really mattered was what I was very much in control of.
My hope for the parents I work with is that they too can give their kids a gift much like the amazing gift my mother gave me during the college admissions process. It was a free gift. It was a simple gift. And it was a gift I wasn’t entirely ready to accept at the time. However, by loving my backup school and regularly reminding me that I should value what that school had to offer, she affirmed her confidence in me. Sadly, as an eighteen year old, it was drowned out by my desire for forthcoming independence.
Stepping away from my typical role as a college counselor, I’m thinking more deeply about what the role of the parent is in the college process. Certainly ours is significant because we mediate and maneuver between the desires of teens and the dreams parents have had for their offspring. As counselors we can help parents appreciate how much students still have to learn, and help students appreciate the many gifts (both subtle and overt) their parents have given them.
To you and yours, happy holidays.