They are waiting for acceptance. Or for rejection. Somewhere in an unfamiliar room in a distant town, a committee of strangers is passing judgment on these high school seniors. It is a ceremony of spring rather like the Cherry Blossom festival or, more accurately, the Boston Marathon.
Next week, the last batch of college admission letters will be in the mail and so will the answers. Yes or no. In or out. Acceptable. Unacceptable.
The seniors have gone through this jittery process the way their parents' generation went through it. It is a gauntlet they run together and separately. At 17 and 18, they are classmates . . . and competitors.
"Getting Into College," I wrote last fall, bears all the markings of a tribal rite of passage. There are the required number of tests, ritual markings, grueling tasks for the young to perform. They must go through the interviews and applications, the SATs and achievement tests, the endless questions from adults: where do you want to go? At the end, they will leave their parents and childhood for the campuses of young adulthood.
But a friend insists that the pattern is not quite as universal as that. There are differences for the members of our modern American tribe.
In a so-called primitive culture, he says, the point of any rite of passage is to make sure that every child makes it. The whole society roots for their success. In that so-called primitive culture, the rite of passage seals a life- long bond between the young people as they become the adults.
In our tribe, though, success is not a sure thing. We don't let everybody in. Our tribe doesn't just welcome the young; we also weed them out. One of the tests of "success" in America may be the ability to beat out others.
I find this an uncomfortable notion, not the stuff of high school memories. But there is truth in it. Every culture devises the admissions tests into adulthood that most fit its adult values. So, for many young people, "Getting Into College," especially the colleges labeled competitive, may be a fitting initiation.
The adult world is, after all, built on the shifting grounds of friendship and competition. The double message of this society and economy are to get along and get ahead. We want our children to fit in and to stand out. We rarely address the conflict between these goals.
It is common in everyday life to work with our competitors and to compete with co-workers. Even ballplayers are, at the same time, team players and free agents.
Some of the most awkward encounters of adult life come when a success gap opens between friends. It is a rare person who has neither apologized for nor bragged about his own achievement. It is an equally rare person who hasn't felt a distance grow when a friend was promoted out of the coffee klatch or the neighborhood. Only the sainted among us have never taken out their rulers and measured their lives against their friends, even their best friends.
This tension between friendship and competition, between team play and the star slot, runs all the way through our tribe. Every child's life includes a host of admissions committees in which we are judged against peers, friends. The teachers who grade us on a sliding scale, the coaches who pick us out of the pack, the boy or girl who chooses us over another for love.
These acceptances that come next week by mail are not some final, or even critical, judgment. Those of us who have been through other seasons know that. But they come at a vulnerable moment, at the edge of adulthood, when the young are just about to become full-fledged owners of their own lives. The letters come delivering tickets that lead in a hundred different directions.
For the very first time, inseparable friends opening those envelopes may feel the chill of distance. For the first time, a class of mates may really understand how our world tries to subdivide their future. So this spring rite of passage also tests friendship against competition in the raw form of the adult world. It's one way we come of age, a hard way, in this modern tribe.