I’d arrived with my 16-year-old son the day before to attend a dinner for my daughter’s major, and I’d asked her if she would give her brother a tour of the school the following day. Even though he’s been to the school a bunch of times over the last four years, it’s mostly been to go to its legendary football games. Probably the last time he walked around the campus he was in seventh grade, and college was only something he was dragged to in service of moving older siblings in and out of apartments and dorm rooms, and not something he had to think about for himself. But now, as he heads toward the last few months of his sophomore year, it’s his turn to consider where he’d like to go to college.
My secret hope is that — much like how he taught himself how to tie his shoes and ride a bike when he was small — my fourth child will figure out how to get into school by himself.
For the better part of the past decade, I’ve had a child either applying to or attending college and for four straight years, had two kids enrolled at the same time. I’ve spent countless hours driving up and down the Eastern Seaboard to visit college campuses and thousands of dollars on SAT prep and essay-writing assistance. I’ve sat through presentations on playing sports in college and how to pay for college. I’ve fallen down so many Internet wormholes on College Confidential, trying to figure out whether my kid even has a chance of getting into certain colleges that honestly, I don’t know if I have it in me to do it one more time.
It’s not just the competitive process of my child getting into school that I dread, but the competition among fellow parents. It can be equally intense, and I fear getting snagged by its sharp teeth.
We’re still in the honeymoon phase of high school with my son — when a parent’s greatest concerns are how much time your kid spends playing Fortnite and the two empty Natty Light 30-packs you discovered in your crawl space over the holidays. When I see fellow sophomore parents in the bleachers watching games or bump into them at the grocery store, conversation topics are varied. We talk about how the team is doing or how smelly our sons are when we pick them up after lacrosse practice. But once junior year hits, our talking points will be relegated to who’s offering the best SAT prep, what schools we’re visiting over spring break (summer vacation, Columbus Day weekend, etc.). We’ll size each other up after that, judging the other parent for having the audacity to think her kid has a shot getting into certain schools, and then using that stick to measure our own child.
At least once a week, I head to the woods to hike with two good friends who have daughters the same age as my third child. It’s usually a therapy session, discussing the kid crisis du jour, and that hour spent picking our way up dirt paths with the river gleaming in the distance leaves me feeling recharged. But when the college process was in full swing for our daughters, I’d feel a rush of anxiety as we walked while my companions debated the merits of EDII versus Early Action or choosing SATs over ACTs and strategies based on the schools each child would be applying to.
“Wait,” I thought, “What’s EDII?” I’d already gone through the college application process two times, and my friends, who were just on their first go-rounds, were well-versed on the vagaries of the system. “Is something wrong with me?” I’d wonder. But in retrospect, I think by the time I’d gotten to my third kid going to college, I was over it.
This fourth time around, I don’t want to wonder if something is wrong with me or whether I’m somehow letting my child down. Instead, I’d like to pay to have my son magically get into college, like some rich folks allegedly did. But honestly, I don’t really care where my kid ends up. I don’t need a UCLA or Georgetown bumper sticker on my car. Having three children who’ve gone through four years of college, I’ve reconsidered what I used to think mattered.
I thought that where my children went to college would not only define them, but me as well. For a while, I thought that the sticker on my car would be proof of what a good parent I was. But now that I’ve seen my older three kids come out the other side of four years in college, I know differently. My third child will graduate from college this spring and move away to start a job, and her older siblings, who haven’t lived at home for a few years, are the proud holders of 401ks and dental insurance. I’d really like a sticker on my car to brag about that.
When my son and I got back into our station wagon to drive home from my daughter’s school last week, he said, “I love it here. I think I’m really going to work hard next year and senior year so I can get in.” Obviously, my first thought was, “Next year? How about the rest of this year?” But I was happy he’d found an incentive to work hard, because I barely have enough money to pay for college, much less pay someone to get him into college.
I looked at him as he popped in his AirPods for the long car ride home and busied himself on his phone and said, “That’s great, buddy, all you can do is try your best,” and — just in that moment — believed that would be enough.