O’Connor is a school ambassador fellow with the Education Department and associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in metropolitan Detroit.
By Patrick O’Connor
Thanksgiving traditions tend to put families in two groups — those who eat early, vs. those who eat later; those who put stuffing in the bird, vs. those who roast dressing outside the bird, and the whole pumpkin vs. mince pie issue. But the element common to all who celebrate Thanksgiving is the presence of that outlier friend or relative who sees the world just a little differently — and he or she is especially flummoxing to high school students.
Uncle Bob may have been that cool, weird guy who pulled quarters out of your ears in second grade, but a high school senior’s world is more about being cool and making it to graduation. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for negotiating with characters, even the harmless ones that are staying only for dinner. We may scoff at the apparent burdens of youth, but to them, this is a big deal.
This explains what’s likely to happen on Thanksgiving, when Uncle Bob begins his soliloquy on the mysteries of millennials, and how life used to be so much harder in his days of walking uphill to school both ways. That’s when he’ll turn to the unsuspecting senior as he’s buttering his bread, and ask about his or her plans for the rest of their life.
As a high school counselor, I can’t fully describe how unhelpful this is. Fall of senior year is an intense time, as students try to make sense, all at once, of the hardest classes they’ve ever taken, social cues that are getting more complex with every passing day, and the idea that the school they’ve taken for granted over the past four years won’t be there for them anymore. Uncle Bob may be doing his best to show restraint and interest, but 17-year-olds who are looking for relief from life’s pressures don’t really find solace in answering questions about who they’ll be when they’re 36, or where they’re heading to college.
Uncle Bob won’t understand this, and it’s easy to understand why. His college choice was the one state university that could be paid for with a little family savings, a good summer job at the local factory, and three hours of work each week at the college library. That college now admits only 10 percent of the students who apply, and the average graduate emerges with student loans that could buy a nice midsize sedan. It’s a little tough for a high school senior to get excited about applying to a school that’s nine times as likely on average to say no but could saddle them with $30,000 in debt if they say yes. There are upsides to both, but late adolescent ennui won’t let them see that.
Mom or Dad can be a champion here, and save the day for all. A quick phone call the day before Thanksgiving to Uncle Bob can lay out the life of a modern teen in terms he can understand. If all good plans start to go awry at the dinner table, a withering stare and strong clearing of the throat can bring Uncle Bob back in line, or at least give him a gracious out. “I hear you’re applying to college” can just as easily be followed up with “But what else are you up to?”
Adults get excited making plans and dreaming about possible futures, but high school seniors in the middle of applying to make their future dreams come true would give anything to remember what it’s like to live in the present, especially because society says this is their last November as a child.
Thanksgiving gives them that chance, and everyone who loves them can make that happen, including Uncle Bob, who can always be gently redirected to telling that story of the time he spilled a drink on Florence Henderson. College will be great, but college is tomorrow, and Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude for today. Let that happen.