"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.
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 I 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.