Thursday, April 3, 2014

Westward ho, to ... Pomona!

Pomona College

     "April is the cruelest month," The Waste Land famously begins. Though T.S. Eliot is referring to memory and desire, and not to colleges accepting —or, in most cases, rejecting—prospective students in the days clustered around the 1st. But he might as well have been. Everyone comments on how hard this process is on kids, and it is. A vast game of high stakes musical chairs where colleges entice you to apply, flatter and beseech, so they can spin around and reject you, and then point to their low acceptance rate as proof of their desirability. It's a mean trick. 
     But kids are resilient. Like babies, they bounce. Less spoken about is the effect on parents, who see their dreams not just deferred, but rejected altogether. "Cruel" is apt.
     My high school senior is one of those bright kids who parents don't guide so much as applaud. A dozen years of arriving at parent conferences where we walk in and the teacher looks at us and almost bursts out laughing. What's there to say? He's fantastic. You know. Yes, yes we do. Thank you very much.
     Not that we expected top colleges to echo that. We knew it would be a struggle, a crap shoot, to find one he liked, that would also let him in. The top schools reject 9 out of 10, if not 95 out of 100. A lot of good kids are sent packing. Ours could draw the short end of the stick. I told myself that. But I didn't believe it. Not really.  
     It is one year and two months since we started the process, flying out to look at Johns Hopkins, Swarthmore and UPenn, the first of 14 schools we would visit. A grueling 14-month trek up Mt. College. "It's all part of the education!" I would quip, putting on a brave face, as we puzzled over maps, tour schedules, admission guidelines. We giddily visited the East Coast: Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Amherst and such. After each school, I'd suggest we race in triumph to the bookstore, buy him a school t-shirt in celebration. This was the one! Wasn't it? No, he'd say. Wait. These were long shots, my boy explained, even for a guy with a 36 on his ACT. At 17 he viewed the situation with more maturity than I did. I almost didn't believe him. What do you mean you won't get in? Have little faith in yourself! But by the time you slice up the various groups — half the class will be women, a third will be minorities, plus athletes, plus legacies, the number of slots going to the army of bright middle class suburban Jewish white kids are few. That's just the way it is. 
     I admired his level-headedness. He examined the numbers — he's so good at that — and decided to go early decision to improves his chances, for the two schools he had the best shot at, Columbia and the University of Chicago. Plus a dozen more for variety and backup. 
     Win-win, I decided.  Either one would be fine. New York is the center of the world. And I work in downtown Chicago, and immediately formed the fantasy. I could see myself taking the Metra electric train—convenient as heck and only $3 — down to Hyde Park, to the University of Chicago campus. Squiring my young genius to lunch, plus a few of his equally quirky U of C friends. Stopping at Powell's Bookstore, then happily back downtown. I could see myself on the train, on the trip back, contentment rolling off me in waves.
     Early decision verdicts came in February. The news was bad. No Columbia. No U of C. To be honest, at first I thought he was teasing us, pulling our legs, gauging our reaction before he sprang the "Just joking!" My faith in him was that high. No, incredibly, it was true. It seem almost unfair. No lunchtime visits to Hyde Park. I felt cheated — how could this be happening to me?—but rallied. Okay, I thought. "That's God's way of saying he's going to Princeton," I told co-workers. They'd look at me strangely, and it dawned on me that they have problems bigger than mine.
     I knew I was approaching this all wrong. It was his life, not mine. I kept trying to remind myself: this isn't about you, it's about him. His school, his life, his future. And to be honest, he never panicked, or at least never showed it. A quiet, studious boy. Our entire conversation when he didn't get into Columbia went like this: Me: "Are you okay?" Him: "Yes." Me: "Promise." Him: "Yes." I worried because he was too calm. That had to be a bad sign.
     I tried to focus on him. But somehow, this kept slipping back into a referendum on me, as a parent, as a person. Other kids were being waved into the top schools. Somehow, the same malign fate that put stumbling blocks in front of me had turned its attention to my son. I had given him this genetic curse: bad luck.  
     Then at the end of March, the whipsaw. Northwestern admitted him — he was relieved, he said, because he had worried there might have been something faulty in his application.  I was relieved too. I had gone to Northwestern, it's half an hour away, in Evanston, he'd be following in my footsteps, which I wasn't crazy about, but okay. It would have to do. A mild cheer. Hail to purple, hail to white. The next day, Middlebury said yes and NU was forgotten. Middlebury is Exeter and Andover gone to college. It has its own ski slope. We would spend four years visiting Vermont. 
     Then Pomona. I barely recognized the name — a college, right? — and kept pronouncing it "Ponoma," then correcting myself. I had never heard of the place before February. He had an airline voucher to use before the end of the month, so visited his uncle in Los Angeles, took a day and grabbed the train to see Pomona. His idea. That's when I first heard the word. It meant nothing to me. He could have said he was going to Tangelo or Emerita. It sounded like a word plucked from a Beach Boys song. "Oh darlin', climb into my Dodge Daytona/ I'll pop the clutch and we'll cruise the beach road/all the way up to Pomona."

     No matter. And now he was going to college there. Pomona it is. I fled online. One of the Claremont colleges. Forbes ranks it No. 2, after Stanford. Not just among liberal arts colleges, but among all schools. No. 2. How could that be? They're kidding, right? How could I have missed it? I asked a friend about the school. "Amazing," she said, adding that David Foster Wallace taught creative writing there. It was 20 years ago, and he's gone, but that for some reason helped — this is not a rational process, much of it, but emotional and intuitive. Asking people helped. Everyone seemed to know about Pomona but me. I visited 14 schools, and he picks the one, not only I had never seen, but never heard of. That seemed a kind of justice, payback, retribution for the hubris I brought to the process. "You want to brag, dad? Brag about this...."
     The boy is thrilled. He went online and bought two Pomona t-shirts. He has no doubt — ordered us to send in the deposit now, not to wait. Being subsequently admitted into Vanderbilt and Wake Forest were shrugged off. "Don't you want to even ...?" No. I put in a halfhearted plug for my alma mater. Northwestern has a great reputation, and is so much closer. He killed off that idea in 1o words: "Why would I pay more money for a worse school?" I'm actually the one doing the paying, but saw his point. 
     So now I explain to people what Pomona is: an amazing school, for smart kids who don't need the ivy cache, and their grandiose parents who are being dealt one of those little lessons that fate occasionally serves up to help make a person less grandiose. California is far away, and has earthquakes, but that's where life is taking him. Taking us. I had wanted him to get into a college that I could beat my chest and brag about. A validation. A gold star. But fate would have none of that, and denied me the pleasure, and forced me to think — is that not what college is all about? — to see the ugly solipsism of my ways, and try to do better. I'm still proud — proud that he will be following a trail that he blazed entirely on his own. It's all part of the education. 


  1. I went to Stanford. Going to college in California is fabulous. He's going to love the daylights out of it.

    Congrats all around.

    1. What he didn't try Harvard?

    2. We visited campus briefly. He didn't like it, and didn't think he had much of a chance of getting in. Very practical boy.

    3. Thanks for the reply.

      Yes, at Harvard it isn't just about getting top grades.

      Better weather in Cal. anyhow. Stanford would be another good choice.

  2. #1 son went to Occidental (where Barack Obama started out before transferring to Columbia). Of course, #1 did this after stops at American U. in DC, and UIC.
    He loved it. I didn't see the place until graduation, but I loved it, too.

  3. If only your understanding of the process could be reduced to pill form and prescribed to every prospective parent in this process.

    1. Had I been thinking, Bill, I would have given you a big shout out -- though I'm not sure you'd want that. Your wise counsel made the process a lot more comprehendible.

  4. I graduated from Pomona in 2012. This was EXACTLY my experience when I applied to schools. Its uncanny. I am a middle class white Jew, got rejected by my first choice schools early decision, got admitted to Northwestern and considered going there before I visited Pomona and decided that it was the place for me (despite the internal struggle over the lack of name recognition). It was the best decision I've ever made. The students are absolutely brilliant, the learning environment is fantastic, and more than anything else, it's almost impossible to be unhappy when its sunny and beautiful outside. I'm currently in medical school, and I have no doubt in my mind that my experience at Pomona contributed most significantly to my academic development. I will venture to say that your son made the right decision.

    1. That's welcome news. What residence would you recommend?

    2. For freshman year- Mudd-Blaisdell. The air conditioning is a life saver.

    3. Oh and tell him to be completely honest when he fills out his "profile" or whatever for housing. They will use that to choose which sponsor group to put you into (the group of people that live on your hall). If you are honest, you will be placed with people who you will stay friends with for a very long time

    4. As fate has it, he's in Mudd. Loves it. I just visited him for Parents Weekend. Happy as a clam, padding around paradise in his shorts and flip-flops.

  5. I'm surprised you hadn't heard of the goddess Pomona, as you're much more educated than I am. I became acquainted with her through my favorite play, Lookingglass Theatre's "Metamorphoses," and the short tale of Pomona and Vertumnus. I will assume you saw this piece of art, because to think otherwise would pain my heart.

  6. Neil-
    Pomona is the alma mater of critic and essayist Paul Fussell, a person whose frequently acerbic writing I'd think you'd be familiar with.

  7. I've been wondering ever since your first columns on the subject where he'd be going. Seems like he made a great choice. Which you'll have to remind yourself of when the pain in the a** logistics of a school so far away come up. Getting the stuff there! Ugh! Getting him home for vacations when he won't know exactly when he can leave til tickets are a fortune! Ugh! The ease of northwestern will taunt you. I speak from experience. But pamona seems like such a great choice fir a kid like him.

  8. You MUST find and watch the documentary "The Kids Grow Up". It centers on the filmakers relationship with his daughter as she is finishing high school and about to go to college...,at Pamona.

  9. I graduated from Pomona in 1965 and had a great experience there. My father really wanted me to go to Stanford but I didn't get in there, a similar reaction to yours re: bragging rights.

    I loved Pomona for the easy access to excellent teachers, the casual California life, warm winters and the opportunity to live in a small community. I think Pomona is much richer today for the greater diversity of both the student body and the faculty. I send your new Sagehen my best wishes.

  10. "I'll pop the clutch and we'll cruise the beach road
    All the way up to Pomona"

    For those unaware, Pomona (and its famous drag strip) are east of Los Angeles, not it's OUT to Pomona, hence the lyrics:

    "Take it out to Pomona...and let 'em know,
    That I'm the coolest thing around
    Little buddy, gonna shut you down
    When I turn it on, wind it up, blow it out--GTO"

    (Ronnie and the Daytonas, 1964)

    I ended up at a small conservative college in the Midwest,after Pomona dumped me onto their wait list. Had I worked for a year and patiently waited, a two-year unpaid internship at the University of Saigon would have become a non-negotiable option, unless I chose the alternative option of matriculation at the University of Toronto.

  11. Congrats to your son for knowing his own mind and choosing an amazing school. Typical parent hoping he would get into a more prestigious school. Luckily Pomona has its own qualities of which you were not aware. And actually, most youngsters view it a bonus when the college is in a state other than where their parents live. Another bonus, the weather. It’s all good.


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