One of my very favorite students flung open the heavy door of my classroom early this stormy morning with a smile on her face and a bouncy spring in her step. That springy step was immediately noticeable; as a teacher who has over a hundred students, ninety of them seniors, I can tell you with certainty that the first semester of senior year is not the most relaxing and joyful time for a kid who cares about her future. That said, for the students who don’t think about the future (or tomorrow) and only have a grand total of seven brain cells anyway – though it’s Monday, so they might have whittled that number down this weekend to five – this moment in their lives is pure and uncomplicated bliss.
Life might be a whole lot easier if you choose to live it as an imbecile.
Anyway, the reason this sweet girl was so happy and almost skipping across my grey linoleum classroom floor is because she signed with a college this weekend. She’s off to a small school in the east where she will play field hockey and major in Film. It is only November and she knows where she will be unpacking her sweaters next August.
She is one of the lucky ones. Most of my college-bound students have no idea where they will spend the next four years of their lives – and most of them won’t know for sure until around February or March. They are still frantically running around the building, leaving rooms where we’re still tasked as teachers with trying to keep them somewhat engaged in the Now, to hurl themselves down flights of stairs to the Guidance Office, a place you couldn’t pay me to work from now until mid-January when the college application craziness somewhat subsides.
See, there are recommendation letters to procure.
There are resumes to write.
There are desperate attempts to make “I sometimes babysit for the brat down the street so I can have a place to be alone with my boyfriend” sound important and growth-inspiring on said resume in the same way I once managed to turn “Sorority President” into pretend proof that I was and would always be a leader.
There are essays to write and to rewrite and then to write once again when it’s realized the word count was way off because the kid forgot to look at the guidelines from the college.
There are days in which fifteen students toss essays across my desk and beg me to read them immediately:
Can you just look this over?
Can you do it by the end of the period?
You can read and edit my essay while you’re lecturing on why Hitchcock shot Psycho in black and white, right?
What’s crazy is that I’ve actually figured out a way to do both at the same time.
I mention to the sweaty and frazzled kid that he should have planned better and been more aware of deadlines, but I can’t fully pull that diatribe off because I was just like him when I was eighteen – and when I was twenty-eight.
I do a lot of college essay tutoring for my school, and I work with kids who aren’t my own students. I don’t know who is trying to play some misguided prank on me, but this year I’ve been working with a ton of students who dream of becoming engineers. When I meet with them to help guide them to their eventual essay topic, I listen puzzled as they expound on how great the Physics class they took was – and I stare at them with my head tilted to one side like a schnauzer as I try to determine if they and I could possibly have descended from the same strain of the human species.
I’ll ask the ones who love Biology that question next time I see them.
I’m looking forward to the day all of this bustle and terror ceases for the kids who care about what the next stage of their lives will be. I want them to begin having the senior year that John Hughes movies promised they’d have. They probably should get used to some disappointment in that area though – I’m still waiting for the day I can sit cross-legged on a wooden dining room table across from anybody resembling Jake Ryan while he presents me with a birthday cake topped with layers of pink and white frosting and covered in glowing candles I can blow out in one easy exhale.
But sometimes dreams are simply dreams.
Back when I was in high school, nobody had taken the time to enlighten me with the reality that the first semester of senior year would suck. I was raised thinking senior year would be one long prom weekend interspersed with football games and nights in a backyard, the leaves crunching underneath me when the boy I liked would roll me gently backwards to kiss me on some lawn. That’s what senior year was supposed to be. Instead it was writing college essays and reminding harried teachers to write me recommendations and cutting the number of schools I eventually applied to down from something ridiculous like thirteen to four.
Four? exclaimed my worried Guidance Counselor, a woman who genuinely loved me and cared about my well-being. I met her right after my father died, when I had to leave the school in New York City I had gone to while I lived with my dad. I had to move back to the suburbs, back in with my mother, and I was expected to immediately wake up and enter a world every day with my father no longer walking beside me.
And I was expected to do it quickly because my father died in late August and school began the first week of September.
My Guidance Counselor took good care of me. She checked in. She made me really feel like I had a place to go if everything began to feel like it was all too much. She let me sit in her office and play with all the toys on her desk, including my favorite one that was a block of silver needles that you could press your hand into and the needles would hold the shape of you palm. I liked to stick my whole face into that thing. The coolness of the metal silver felt comforting.
But as I altered my college plans, she started to get worried.
“You’ve always wanted to go to U.S.C.,” she said to me. “When and how did Indiana come into your head?”
Fair question. My college ideas had really begun to swirl all over the place.
See, I was torn. On the one hand, I wanted the perfect college environment. I wanted large dorms and green grass as far as the eye could see and I wanted so many students that there would be no way I’d ever know everyone because sometimes anonymity is kind of nice. I wanted to join a sorority and wear tees with Greek letters stitched on them and I wanted to walk up to the doorway of a fraternity house and be let in immediately by the pledge playing bouncer for the night. But I also wanted to be in an artsy place, an environment where films that had a limited distribution would play, and I wanted a setting filled with as many coffee shops as bars so I could sit with a frothy latte and discuss what the framing of a shot in the last obscure movie I saw actually meant.
So it was confusing. Did I want a rah-rah party school that could have been the inspiration for Revenge of the Nerds? Or did I want a school that held full classes on the work of Godard? And could there be a place that was both?
I didn’t want to be in a fully artsy place because the thing is, there’s maybe nothing worse – okay, maybe famine, but it has to be rampant famine – than a room filled with Film majors sitting around pontificating about their views. That shit could be insufferable, and I knew that even then. But being around flighty and always-drunk people who didn’t want to watch good movies was also something that I just couldn’t deal with.
It was a confusing time.
One night, after paging through the college guide that was bigger than a phone book, a guide that clearly illustrated how just severely my SAT scores were lacking, I looked up at my mother when she walked into the kitchen. I was sitting at the high counter on one of the stools and my foot had been tapping against the side of the counter over and over in the kind of nervous twitch that was not something I ever had before October of that year.
(By January, that foot-tapping thing was gone, and that college guide, highlighted in an unnatural yellow, was gone too. I wanted to burn it in a dramatic display that might have been a nice visual memory for the seventeen year old I was at the time, but there were so many pages in that fucking book – so much potential kindling – I feared taking down the entire neighborhood just for the excuse of a memory.)
“Did you and I ever discuss that maybe I wouldn’t go to college?” I asked her that night when she came into the kitchen to make herself a cup of Red Rose tea.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she tossed back, and I guess when you’re raised by a Dean of Students and by a Professor, not going to college is never discussed. And the thing was, I wanted to go to college. I’d been raised being taught that it would be a magical four years. I’d been conditioned to accept that getting my Master’s would be the next logical step after that.
In a perverse twist of horrible fate, I didn’t have to worry about money when it came to my tuition. When my father keeled over and died in front of me, he left behind some money that would pay my college expenses. I knew he never thought that he would die at the tender age of forty-six; I knew he figured he’d be around when I went to college and part of him was probably already gearing up to fight with my mother about costs since they did that kind of battle so well. But with him gone, that’s where the money would go.
I’d been told again and again that the only way I could make an informed decision about where I would be happy was to go and walk on those campuses. I couldn’t get a real understanding from a brochure – and it was before the days of websites and virtual tours, something that is scary to think about now. So off my mother and I went on my college tour, a journey that took us across the country to the rains of the Midwest and towards many nights of utter confusion.
We flew to Los Angeles first and we arrived on the manicured campus of The University of Southern California. Every building was named after a legend and there was more construction happening in the distance. The students were gorgeous and fit and I couldn’t help noticing that nobody smoked. I sat in a screening room and spoke to a professor about the opportunities for internships that would become available to me and how producers often brought early cuts of their films to screen for students. I knew I was in rarified air, and I was consumed by the place. But I also knew that the life I could build with USC on my resume would also be a somewhat compromised life while I was there. The school was loaded with some of the richest kids in the country – and I don’t mean let’s-go-to-Cancun rich; I mean the kind of wealth where someone can actually look at you and ask what-do-you-mean-you’ve-never-been-to-Monaco? I might have had the money put away for tuition and room and board, but I wouldn’t necessarily be able to afford flying home for anything other than Christmas and summer and I wouldn’t be able to go out for sushi every night like the people I would probably live with could.
I was scared that I wouldn’t fit in.
So off we flew to my second choice, Indiana.
Why Indiana? Well, they had a great Journalism school and I wanted to become a film critic and the school had basketball games that were always on television and a coach in a fitted red sweater who would heave chairs across the court when he was angry about a call, and I liked the atmosphere of the place. And maybe I wanted to be at a school so huge that it probably had its own zip code. And maybe I wanted to be in a state that nobody I’d ever known had been, not even accidentally.
The truth is that I liked Indiana University and the town of Bloomington very much, but the school was kind of toast in my head from the start. I arrived there on a frigid and rainy Saturday and I walked the campus that morning, a hood pulled tightly over my head to keep the downpours from wrecking my hair.
My hair was curly then. Rain was not its friend.
But the problem was with way more than my curls. On a rainy and freezing morning, students are not outside. They are not walking to classes on Saturday. They are snuggled in bed, hungover and warm. And so across this massive campus walked me, my mother, and the tour guide, and the place looked like it had been ravaged by a solar eclipse that wiped everyone else clear off the land.
I tell students today: go see the college when classes are in session – and try not to go when it’s so cold that you can’t stand to be outside. To really see what a school feels like, you have to see it on a regular day.
I still decided to apply to Indiana, but the chances of my actually going there were slim. I just didn’t feel the pull, the interior voice that told me that I’d found my new home. Looking back now, I know with certainty that I could have been pretty happy at that school, but at seventeen, when lessons and visions need to line up almost perfectly just to be able to see them, I couldn’t envision it.
Where I really thought I wanted to go was San Diego State. It was my safety school. Way less expensive than USC, the dorms there had pools outside of them and mini barbeque pits too. I could be lying out and then get up for a second to walk in a bikini towards the grill and toss a hamburger on top of it. I hadn’t seen one body of water in Indiana – and certainly not a pool – and San Diego State had a good Film program and it was close enough to Los Angeles that I could probably get an internship and it was near the zoo. The zoo! Plus, my tour guide, all blonde hair and white teeth and charm, was impressed that I was a girl from New York and I could see then that being from the east coast would make me kind of exotic and almost like a legend, and that seemed kind of fun.
I could totally pull off pretending to be a legend for four years if the challenge came with its own swimming pool.
Then, on the very last day of December in my senior year, I walked outside to get the mail and inside were two envelopes. One of them was from Indiana University. It was a big fat envelope, the kind I’d been taught to view as stuffed with probable good news. But I didn’t even have to wait to tear it open to find out for sure because the word congratulations was emblazoned on the outside of the envelope in bright red. And I took a moment to truly appreciate the compassion involved in the university making that choice to not force the students to suffer through the nervous tearing of the envelope to know their fate.
The other envelope was from San Diego State – and it was so thin, I thought I could actually see through it.
I got rejected from my safety school? How would I ever be able to make hopefully-blonde children with my physically perfect tour guide? Did the universe not care at all about the route I’d decided my life should take?
I needn’t have worried; the letter was an acceptance and mentioned that the gigantic packet with all the necessary information would arrive in the mail shortly. And so that was that: San Diego State and its dorms with the barbeque pits and a pool with a waterslide (which, by the way, the real pool didn’t have but the one in my fantasy totally did), would be my new home.
I walked inside, waving my letters in the air, and my mother hugged me and congratulated me warmly – and then told me I would not be going to my safety school.
“But they want me in the Honors Program,” I wailed, knowing even as I said it, even before I looked up and saw my mother’s arched eyebrow, that any school who saw me as an Honors student when I had never really studied once in my entire life was a school that was probably grasping for straws.
There were a few days of anger and confusion and pleas for my future with the tour guide and the appeal that surfing would teach me commitment and dexterity, but the pleas fell flat. And I didn’t know what to do because I just couldn’t see myself in Indiana.
“You applied to University of Delaware too,” said my mother. “And if you got into Indiana, you’ll be accepted at Delaware. Let’s go see it. You might love it.”
I’d only applied to Delaware because my Guidance Counselor was terrified that I wouldn’t get into my other schools and she told me she couldn’t live with herself if I ended up not in college. So one day she pulled out an application for Delaware and made me sit in her office and fill it out and I applied only because I didn’t want her to be up nights because of me.
But I had no desire to go to Delaware. Delaware? It had no panache, no real feel. Okay, so I heard there was no sales tax, and that seemed nice, but what else did it have? And its mascot was a “fightin’ blue hen,” which offended me because there’s perhaps no less ferocious being on the planet than a blue hen, and what kind of institution of learning actually publicized that its mascot was spelled incorrectly with “fightin’” instead of the grammatically proper “fighting”?
I thought the whole thing was a very bad sign.
But down to Delaware I went one sunny spring day and I took a tour. And I walked through a campus teeming with happy and good-looking people my age and watched scruffy boys play hacky-sack and I liked the big archways carved out of stone and the place we had lunch, where you could pay using your meal plan card, had a huge salad bar and french fries, which combines perhaps my two favorite edible things on the planet. And that was before the day I learned that you could also purchase Ben & Jerry’s with the meal card too.
There was something strange about that day. As I walked across the campus, I could almost see a version of myself already there. I’d trudge behind the group as we stopped in front of the brick Student Center and the tour guide world explain that it was where sweatshirts and textbooks were sold and I would peer into the distance and see a cloudy enigma who looked like me, except the girl in the distance struck me as a bit older and much happier.
I enrolled in The University of Delaware that very day.
It was a strange journey, the one I took to college. I got to see parts of the country I never would have seen and I got to narrow down who I was and what I wanted for myself at that mini moment in time. I bonded with my mother and I trusted myself to turn away from places others tried to get me to enroll in because I knew they weren’t right and I waved a sad goodbye to my San Diego tour guide and I knew deep down it was all probably for the best.
At only seventeen years old, how am I possibly supposed to know where I want to spend the next four years of my life? I’d think that question over and over to myself back then, especially at night when I couldn’t sleep and always first thing in the morning.
And I still don’t know how a child is expected to make that kind of choice, but I do know that once I forced myself to finally make it, I chose well.