Lucky is the parent who enjoys the process.
So while I could portray last year's exploration of potential colleges—14, count 'em, 14 campus visits, from Wash U, in St. Louis to Dartmouth in New Hampshire, quite a lot really—as an ordeal, the truth is I vastly enjoyed touring these historic campuses with my family. And while Son No. 1 did decide to go to a school, Pomona College, that we hadn't visited together, an irony for certain, it was still fun and interesting to explore these places that I had heard about all my life.
To be honest, the information sessions did tend to blend together, and our tour guides did eventually blur into one interchangeable coed, fiercely proud of her ability to walk backwards, dubbing all good things "awesome" and using "actually" as an every-other-sentence intensifier.
So I will admit that setting about to do it again, a second summer in a row, for Son No. 2, a rising high school senior, was sort of like running a marathon, collapsing over the finish line, sprawling for a moment, then shakily getting up, turning 180 degrees and loping off to do another.
But it must be done.
So we found ourselves at the University of Notre Dame last Friday.
Besides, he is leaning toward business, and Notre Dame has a highly-regarded business school, not to mention a tight-knit buddy network of graduates, which couldn't hurt in the scrabble up the greased pole of life. Its Mendoza College of Business is so popular, according to Mary, the spritely young lady leading the information session, that, new this year, prospective students must declare when applying whether they are interested in attending and, if so, whether they are willing to still go to Notre Dame and study something else if they don't get into Mendoza. Perhaps finance, Mary suggested, evoking in my mind a grumbling limbo of in-but-not-quite Notre Dame students dwelling on the chill periphery of their heart's desire, trying to replicate the Mendoza experience with economics courses and what stray Mendoza class they can jam themselves into. To keep the business school from being overwhelmed, Notre Dame now limits yearly admissions to 550 students, meaning that more than a quarter of each incoming class is there for business.
That seems reason enough to attend.
"You can be the Jew," I told my boy, half-jokingly. "They must need one." (Actually, they do. According the U.S. News and World Report, Notre Dame, among the nation's top 25 universities, has the fewest percentage Jewish students, while 82 percent of the student body is Catholic). Not to devolve to stereotypes, but I saw more carrot-haired young men in our three hours on campus than I've seen elsewhere over the past three years. "The Fighting Irish" is more than just a motto.
Trying to get with the program, I told my lad that we'll happily show up once a year to take in a football game with him. I went to a Notre Dame game once, the only previous time I'd been on campus, and found it an epitome, a finely honed ritual of pomp and grandeur that you don't really have to care for football to appreciate. The extra tall Irish Guard, the golden helmets, the fan frenzy, I felt like I was in ancient Rome to watch a mock naval battle at the Colosseum, or an anthropologist transported back in time and permitted to observe the Mayans sacrifice atop their pyramids. It was an amazing thing to see.
The only drawback was, the team didn't play half as well as the band, a perennial problem, I understand.
My younger boy shot me a cold look and said, "The hell you will," or words to that effect. A newly-minted 17, he's ready to push back at the world, which at the moment consists pretty much of his mother and me.
After the end of a film that brought tears to my eyes, the tour guides introduced themselves and—rather charmingly—displayed their favorite dance moves, then let the visitors pick which one they'd follow. Most went with the various buff athletic sorts (one strapping young man spoke at length about his involvement in inter-mural sports, only belatedly remembering, after the next guide had begun talking, to mention that he is studying physics). My younger son chose a slight, bespectacled tour guide, Sam B., whom we later agreed was hands down the best guide we've had in more than a dozen schools, including such places as Princeton, Yale and Williams. A philosophy major with three years of Latin under his belt, he had none of the blathering bonhomie of most guides. Instead, he enthused about having had the chance to go to a monastery in France to study Gregorian chants.
Given the reputation of football at Notre Dame, I thought both the info session and the tour showed an admirable restraint. Sam did point out Touchdown Jesus, the famed mural, and mentioned that students are allowed to buy game tickets, with the freshmen sitting nearer the end zone, advancing toward the 50 yard line as they rise toward being seniors (except for grad students, who are tucked back by the freshmen). Parents are also permitted to purchase tickets to one game a year, usually against Navy. I shot a glance at my younger boy, who seemed a bit abashed, as if suspecting for the first time that wanting to go to a game was not just a freakish desire of his own intrusive father, but might be a trait shared by other parents.
When we got to Knute Rockne Memorial Gym, our guide observed that it was named for the famed coach.
"Known as the 'winningest coach in college football,'" Sam said, with almost a sneer, then added. "I don't like 'winningest'. That's not how gerunds work."
"Finally, a real person," said my older son, who gamely tagged along on the trip to wrangle our dog.
Notre Dame still has sex-segregated dorms, which isn't quite the blue sidewalks for boys and pink for girls at Bob Jones University, but seems a charming anachronism, though Sam pointed out that visiting hours are from 9 a.m. to midnight, which struck me as plenty of time for resourceful undergrads.
The school also holds 140 masses a week, every dorm has one, though students are not compelled to go, a policy that they are perhaps more proud of than they should be in 2014. "I have many friends who are not Catholic," Sam revealed, trusting us to not judge him too harshly.
Notre Dame's campus itself is new and deluxe-looking, well-manicured and obviously the result of a cataract of grateful alumni cash flowing in (though, when the mother of the other student on our tour asked if we could see a dorm room, which are shared by up to six students, Sam told us they were "locked." It might be the first college in our experience which didn't show off a dorm—some schools start there and show several—and when I related this puzzlement to my neighbor, whose business works closely with colleges, he tossed his head back and laughed, explaining that the dorms at Notre Dame are notoriously "crappy and old" and that's why they don't let visitors see them. He added that Notre Dame has lost hot football prospects who quailed at the thought of living in the dorms).
I was surprised to learn that Notre Dame doesn't have a Greek system, which seems out-of-place considering how big football is there.
"Maybe the place is one vast frat," I mused.
We passed through the Jordan Hall of Science, opened in 2006, with cathedral-like stonework, including, on our way in, Madam Curie venerated with a full-body statue, like a saint, as she ought to be. I noticed that the displays inside pointedly hail evolution, and the age of the earth, as if to say, "We might be religious, but we don't blinder ourselves with it."
Walking out, I noticed Galileo given the same treatment, which seemed ironic, given his suppression by the Catholic church.
"Galileo," I whispered to my older son, pointing. "All is forgiven."
"He recanted," he replied, dryly.
In my capacity as encouraging dad, I try to be supportive of my kids, and sang the official party line on Notre Dame: a fine school my boy would be lucky to get into. I kept that up, a breezy banter as we walked to the car.
Though my older son, acting as a sort of Greek chorus, did speak my hidden thoughts as we ambled across the tree-lined campus.
"It's very, very Catholic," he said. "It's also located in the state of Indiana."
Hard to argue that.