Eavesdrop on any knot of people this past week and they might have been talking about the weather, the price of groceries or Hitler's diary. But if any of them had been a parent with a high school senior, the conversation would have been much more predictable. Last week, you see, the country was divided between the families of high school seniors waiting to hear from colleges and reasonably normal households.
It's been drama leading up to this in thousands of homes around Washington. Drama as intense as the tension between Desdemona and Othello when Iago masterminded the pressure. Only this time the Iagos were sometimes the parents, schools and the kids themselves. The parents and schools want the students to do well, and the kids have dreams of their own. Would the letters arriving from colleges be acceptances or rejections?
Actually the whole senior year is one of pressure. Gladys Stern, director of Georgetown Day School, says that's called separation anxiety. Students are switching from dependence to independence. They have to decide where to apply. They must have good first-semester grades in the hard courses. Their college boards have to be strong to stand a chance of getting into the colleges of their choice. "Kids today are realistic and serious about their futures," she says. "They know they need graduate as well as undergraduate school today. They also know it's harder to get a job after college."
I had watched the pressure building up in our high school senior. She worried constantly about the mail. She fretted about being rejected. She didn't seem to hear reminders that a rejection from the colleges she wanted didn't mean she would be less worthy as a person.
Other parents told me that their hyper kids stopped talking. Quiet ones never shut up. One mother said that when she even raised the question of what her daughter thought about college, the girl took the question as pressure: "The whole process was so painful . . . that even a simple question would elicit, 'I don't want to talk about it . . . it's too much pressure'."
Another senior, bent on going to Harvard, responded to her mother's reminder that there are many other wonderful schools with "Don't confuse me. There are no other schools."
It's hard to think of all this without noting the injustice of the system--that there is not enough room in these schools for all the kids who deserve to attend. Said one educator: "People should have enough confidence to say it doesn't matter in life, but it is a fact of life that those schools open doors whether you want to recognize it or not."
Nor is it fair that in a country with such an outstanding system of higher education, other schools seem to pale in comparison. "In the East," says Stern, "there is this mystique that you're not anything if you haven't gotten into one of the Ivy League schools. In other parts of the country, they don't share that view."
"The tragedy," says Barbara Finckelstein, mother of high school senior Laura, "is that we're sitting in a land with the most glorious higher-education system, yet that fact doesn't enter the consciousness of kids. They take this enormous opportunity and transfer it into a measure of themselves and temporary ruination of their lives if they don't get into the college of their choice."
The Ivy League and other big East Coast schools often are not the colleges of choice for black parents, whose children choose a black school for its absence of racism and special cultural nurturing.
One black mother whose daughter chose the University of Virginia was gratified when she received early notification from that school's office of minority affairs that her child's record appeared strong and she would be highly recommended to the admissions committee. "It relieved a lot of the pressure," she said.
But in the end, the real pressure for parents comes now that the teen-agers' anxiety levels have begun to drop. We know that financing a college education is a major investment. That's why we're busily reading a book called, "How To Finance a College Education."