College Bound (and Gagged)

Because our oldest daughter absolutely refuses to join the Merchant Marines after high school, she made me drive through New England this summer looking at prospective colleges. It wasn't a bad trip, as it turned out, because I was able to spend a lot of one-on-one quality time with her in the car, whenever she removed her earphones (twice). In fairness, she would occasionally set aside her CDs to listen to the radio, which was great for me since she enjoys a wide range of music, as long as it's the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (Maybe it's best we never listened to my generation's music, since it would have led to tough questions like "Dad, what is a 'Shondell,' and why does Tommy James have more than one?")

Our trip up the East Coast was good after we got through New York (motto: "Expect Delays"), and we did well sharing the food we had brought along, especially after we developed a procedure of first counting out all the pretzels and then dividing them by two. Of course, driving with 79 pretzels on your lap took some getting used to, but I managed (the secret is keeping your legs perfectly still—and never, ever move your foot to the brake).

After only two food-related incidents (Toll booth guy: "Sir, do you have any other bills? This one has yogurt on, licking it off won't help!...sir!...I'M NOT TOUCHING THAT!") we entered the Land of Expensive Colleges. These were schools that matched a comprehensive set of criteria that my daughter had devised: They must be at least three hours from home, and they must cost at least $32,000 a year.

Her parents' criteria were only slightly different:

  • She could not attend my alma mater (30-year-old unpaid library fines);
  • She has to enroll in a school we could brag about at parties. (I really wanted her to go to Haverford since, if you say it real fast, it sounds a lot like "Harvard.")

Our daughter also evaluated schools on the basis of what people would call her. She immediately eliminated Bucknell because she refuses to be called a "Bucknellian." She likes Tufts University, but being a "One Tuft Cookie" she's not so crazy about.

As you can see, we're looking at schools that accept only the best and brightest students because, frankly, I knew that my daughter was exceptionally qualified the moment she was born. I think I even mentioned this fact to my wife, but at the time she was too busy not appreciating the beauty of childbirth to pay much attention.

Our daughter has fulfilled all our hopes since that very first day (after we got her cleaned up a bit). She's studied hard and done well in school. In fact, she achieved the same SAT scores as her father (if you multiply mine by two) and she's been on the Dean's List all through high school. Not to brag, but I was frequently on the vice-principal's list, although as I recall it was not specifically for academic achievement, per se.

After VISITING a dozen of these schools with their varying philosophies and diverse curricula, I have discovered the one thing that they all have in common: They're exactly alike.

They're expensive, hard to get in to, and apparently were all built during the Great Decorative Stone Glut of 1835. Wood is a lot easier to lift than stone, of course, but it must have been more expensive back then because all the schools look like large, gray monuments to lower back pain. But maybe it's better they were built so long ago, before the invention of vinyl siding salesmen. Otherwise, wealthy people today would brag about their kids going to a Vinyl League school, and that just wouldn't sound right.

In the visitors lots of these schools, I was pleased to see many cars that suggested we wouldn't have much competition for financial aid. Some of these parents seemed wealthy enough to own their own colleges and were probably just visiting to borrow some more decorative stones.

My daughter and I took numerous tours around the campuses, all of them led by students who must have been part of some bizarre fraternity initiation, since they were forced to walk backwards, talk in loud distorted voices, and flail their arms in all directions.

We parents tried our best to look interested, even though one college tour is indistinguishable from the next. After about the fifth one, you're praying for something unexpected. "And in this building we've imprisoned the witches that had infiltrated the English Department. WAIT! DON'T OPEN THAT DOOR! AIIIIEEEE!!"

One tour was so boring that most of the dads dropped back from the group to watch a bulldozer knock down an old building. We stayed there for an entire wall and when it finally came down we all said, "Cool." Actually, that was about all we said to each other, since most of us just walked around with a sad frown that silently expressed, "How did they grow up so fast? Was I in a coma?" And if we did ask a question, it was usually "Hey, can I go to this school? Or at least retire here?"

The admissions officers at these schools go to great lengths to build up your child's hopes so that, when she's not accepted, she'll feel the maximum level of disappointment. Sort of an elite rite of passage that admissions folks must take enormous pleasure in. Still, my daughter is undaunted by the odds against her and plans to apply to "every one of them, Dad." At 60 bucks apiece, that adds up to all the money I've been saving for my heart bypass. But hey, she's worth it. So what if I have to attend her graduation in an iron lung (which, my HMO assures me, will be fully covered on alternate weekends).

ED SPIVEY JR. is art director of Sojourners.

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