Saturday, July 21, 2012

The College Experience

If you are not now, or have never been, the parent of a 17-year-old, then you do not know that this summer marks the beginning of College Search Season. Lucky you. It’s a time of such importance, expense and tension for families everywhere, that I’m surprised our create-need-where it-doesn’t-exist industry hasn’t developed a line of cards, or decorations, or required gift-giving moments (“This adorable needlepointed pillow is for shedding hot, sad tears when you don’t get into your dream school!”)

Emma has been swinging wildly in her search for what the career counselors might call a Life Path. She reminds me of an old Tarzan movie, grabbing blindly at each vine in front of her, but she’s cuter, of course. First she’s veering off to rigorous academic life. Then, it’s an international focus on foreign service. Every few weeks, she starts to feel the pressure, and announces that she wants to be an elementary school teacher, or perhaps start a day care.

Finally, forced to zero in on something a little lower than the treetops, she made this pronouncement:  “Here is what I want to do: I want to learn a lot of languages. I want to do a lot of math. And I want to shoot things.”

Alrighty, then. With that goal as her guidepost, she spent a happy week at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs this June, and declared that it seemed to be an ideal life. (Unlike some of her unfortunate classmates, she neither soiled herself nor vomited during the rigorous five-day “Taste o’ Fun” in which she participated, which she took to be a good omen for future success.) 

Every now and then, she worries about this military option, and wonders if she will be missing “The College Experience.” I do, too, since I have no idea what that phrase actually means, but suspect that it involves a sickening amount of alcohol, plus classes that never start before noon. Also, date rape drugs, but that’s just the mother in me, jumping to conclusions.

We have a family friend who is attending the Air Force Academy now, and I asked him, when he was home for his three-week summer vacation (you read that right), if it drove him crazy to see his high school friends boozily stumbling their way through a “College Experience,” brains unused, bodies lethargic, but livers in full throttle.

He told me about a high school buddy who was attending a notorious party school, whose Facebook entries from Thursday through Sunday grew progressively less coherent. I opined that, upon graduation, this kid would find himself scrambling for an Assistant Manager job at the wireless phone kiosk at the mall, and that seemed to cheer the military man in him, just a bit. “Short-term pain, long-term gain,” he said with a smile, and I remembered why I’ve always loved this kid.

Having jumped the initial hurdle of finding something Emma likes to do -- at least for five days in a row -- everyone around here relaxed for a couple weeks. Then someone looked at a calendar, saw that it was almost August, and realized that we’ve got just a couple weeks left to make The Tour at all the other places where she might possibly want to matriculate. Planning commenced apace. When pressed, she narrowed her top choices to every school on the East or West Coast. She suggested a journey that would require several weeks of vacation time and a major investment in airfare and hotel rooms, not to mention frayed parental nerves.

The demand was made to “narrow it down, dammit,” so the current plan is for six days in the Washington, D.C. area, visiting Georgetown and American University, and making a side trip to the Naval Academy in Annapolis. Emma and her dad will be going on college visits, then visting the Spy Museum and the Holocaust Museum. Mary Katherine and I, the homosexual men trapped in straight women’s bodies, will be enjoying what is shaping up as round-robin of the gayest places in our nation’s capitol. First stop, of course, is Judy Garland’s ruby slippers.  Then Mr. Rogers’ sweater and Julia Child’s kitchen.  Someone told Mary Katherine about “an outfit museum,” which I think is a First Lady Exhibit at the Smithsonian, but we’re still looking. If there’s an Outfit Museum anywhere in Foggy Bottom, we’re just the girls to find it.

The one thing that seems almost certain about this entire exercise is that it’s probably won't stick, anyway. I’ve been observing my friends with older kids go through this drill, of which the death march, I mean tour, is just the beginning.  As soon as all the work is done and the kid finally arrives at that “dream college,” dissatisfaction sets in before the mini-fridge is stocked with Red Bull, and the transfer process begins. One friend’s son lasted only a semester at the University of Minnesota – Duluth, because “it wasn’t in a city.” Didn’t he notice that on the tour, I wanted to ask. Actually what I wanted to ask was, DEAR JESUS IN HEAVEN, IS HE SO STUPID THAT HE DIDN’T GET HIS HEAD OUT OF HIS RECTUM LONG ENOUGH TO LOOK AROUND THE CAMPUS FOR FIVE MINUTES? Another friend’s daughter began transfer procedures with a week of arrival at her school.“She knew the first day it wasn’t for her,” my friend told me. The first day? That observation couldn’t have come during, say, I don’t know, THE FIRST TEN MINUTES OF LAST YEAR'S TOUR?

By this point my tongue is starting to hurt from the amount of biting I’m doing, so I’ve decided to prepare myself in advance for the fact that all this effort is only to pick the first school Emma will attend, the one she will end up hating immediately and transfer out of. Even though I do plan to tell her to get her head out of Textville and look around a bit, I’m not sure it will take. NOW would be a good time to decide if you hate, hate, hate a school, but I’m ready for the inevitable call in September, 2013, telling me that the Navy is too wet. Or the Air Force is too airy. Or American University is full of foreigners.  

Then, I suppose, we can start The Tour all over again.

I just hope we get to go to visit some really gay places again, and so does Mary Katherine.


  1. When our time comes, you'll be a serious pro. Can I ship my kids to you???

  2. I'm printing this and putting it in my tickler file for Summer 2017. Mostly so I'm reminded to make sure we go to places with the best tourist attractions.

    My gawd you're a brilliant writer. Made me laugh out loud before 10:00 a.m. Which I truly appreciate because after 30 solid days of temperatures rivaling those in hell, nothing seems funny anymore.