Sometimes I close my eyes and wonder what my parents' first date looked like. I imagine a snowy day in Philadelphia, my dad picking my mom up in his one-day-old, cherry red, Toyota Forerunner, a 'sports utility vehicle' as they used to say. As I was told, he wore a pink sock necktie knotted lopsidedly around his rather thick round neck. It barely reached his belly button. My mom always said she fell in love with my dad for his brains and heart, not his sense of style. His large neck was, like a soft cushion that was the perfect place to rest your head. His hair was jet black, thick and wavy, just like mine. Two things I remember clearly: his rosy cheeks and gleaming eyes.
I'm seventeen now and only my mom is alive. Sixteen is an odd time in life where it's acceptable to be as much of an adult as you want to be. No one seems to acknowledge, but while there are broad allowances made for recklessness there is, at the same time, immense pressure to be 'promising.'
A few months ago, in late June in the afternoon, about four PM, when the bells of Rockefeller chimed, and graduation caps were thrown into the sticky air, I made a speedy, uncontrollable, transition. My body suddenly morphed from junior to senior. From nematode to top of the food chain of the University of Chicago Laboratory School, the home of old fashioned leftism and for thirteen years, my home.
It was an odd transition. I had ended my academic year after finishing a surprisingly doable physics final. When I got home, the first thing I heard was my mom calling "Where's my little senior in high school?" I immediately remembered Mr. Fetch, our high school principal had said as he welcomed our class of 128 freshman to our first day of high school. "Blink," he had said. "It will be over in a minute."
I also remembered that his voice was so deep and his suit so dapper, certainly more than any middle or lower school principal, that I suddenly was inspired. And, looking back, what he said was ultimately true. Where had the time gone? Angsting over who I would sit with at lunch. Establishing myself as part of the Lab School world. Ultimately wondering whether people were constantly aware that I was that girl whose dad died. In those early years of becoming part of that world, the college, and the process for admittance, was only a faint concern.
Now, here I am at the end of the summer before my senior year. I still have another year in at Lab School. And most of that year, the part in which I will be the most focused, will be spent filling out applications, trying hard to encapsulate myself into 650 words. Another large part will simply be spent waiting.
My goal is to be admitted to a school that will give me a strong foundation in my academic interests, my career goals, and especially challenge me. The college seminars combined with a level of pressure about college admission college pressure at Lab School make college admission, especially where one is admitted, seem like an ultimate lifetime goal. Sometimes, when I'm thinking about where I want to go and I let my mind creep to a 'good place',,,,therefore, of course, potentially jinxing it....I imagine getting accepted into the school of my dreams. It's like a great hallucination. The light is overexposed, my hair is flowing and my smile is fluorescent as I jump up and down with joy, waving my letter of acceptance. Definitely a hallucination since I'm pretty sure they send emails now. My happiness is like a Crest Toothpaste commercial: unrealistic and minty. But it is also a fantasy somewhat based on truth, since, somewhere deep in the recesses of my brain ingrained the idea that getting into a "good college" is the key to happiness, An endpoint in itself. It's not really a fair fantasy since college acceptance does have an element of unfairness. And I know that lives and success are not really school dependent. That wonderful careers are person, not necessarily school dependent. Still, when I think of the process, what I want, what I think I can get out of a particular school's education, I am nervous. It's that wonderful hallucination that helps me get through the angst!
Why do people get so enmeshed in this process? And why is the process so painful? Without question, to me, there are three main reasons: peer pressure, family pressure, and the unknown.
Let's start with the peer and familial element. Which is basically, college-specific peer pressure. In the word of academia, where so many kids parents got into an Ivy League school for being unparallingly brilliant or because Harvard's acceptance rate was 20% instead of 4%, pressure is high for adolescents. More than simply fearing that they are not 'as smart' as their parents or praying for the legacy gods will kick in, they also have to face their peers; a group of individuals who have been told one thing but trained to think another. We are all told "it's what you make of it," and that is absolutely true. No school can promise timing as a tuition benefit. But simply by the fact that we are told to apply to one school early as a "reach" and others as "safety," blatantly insinuates that one is a better choice. That competitiveness and higher acceptance rate means better. It's impossible to generalize all students. I have some friends that are truly cut throat about the process; some recklessly spread word about their test scores like three year olds with pinkeye and some hide their GPA's under lock and key. I also have some friends whose outlook on college is entirely healthy, that accept chance and embrace the aspirations of their friends. Even at Lab, it is impossible to categorize. But for myself, who is highly competitive, like many others, it is impossible not to sink under your perceptions of your friends' perceptions of the process and you.
Now let's touch on intimacy.The college process is incredibly personal and private. Imagine, writing and rewriting an essay for months about the most profound experience of your life or an extremely private moment and then to be 'rejected.' It's hard not to wonder whether your experience wasn't 'good enough' for the school you wanted. The college counselors are wonderful, and try to reassure you to write from the heart and to leave flowery language at the door. But there is a little piece in everyone's mind screaming 'sound smarter!' What's a more impressive synonym for "also?"! Even arbitrary things, like test scores, feel like a reflection of your intelligence. Even though theoretically you're being judged based on 'fit,' a more accurate word feels like 'worthiness.'
The hardest part is the unknown. I always say, if I could have a crystal ball and just 'know' I'd feel a lot better. There is a lag time between the beginning and end of junior. You are left to you own thoughts to ruminate. But the truth is, waiting is a fact of life. In life, my mom says, there are always going to be periods of time that are so uncertain and uncontrollable that all you can do is sit back and wait. I personally hate waiting, but it's something that I'm going to have to learn. I don't think I'll ever be a patient person, but the fact of the matter is that in this situation, it's only going to help me.