Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Steinbergs in the Southland: The college march to the sea

The University of Virginia
     Who knows what motivates people? They often don't know themselves, and even if they do, or think they do, opinions change.
     My oldest son Ross, for instance, at the outset of his search for a college, announced that he was not interested in schools in California. "Too far away," he said. I pouted—no Stanford!—but also viewed it a compliment. The boy doesn't want to be too far from the familial nest. So we did not consider West Coast schools. Our tour last summer was of eight colleges exclusively on the East Coast. Places you could drive to in a long day. 
    He is at college now, almost needless to say, at Pomona. In California. I've never seen it.
    Our second son, hot on his heels, now a high school senior, wants to go into business. Thus we have visited strong business-oriented colleges nearby like Northwestern and Marquette and Notre Dame and, in the first half of August, took a swing through the South to look at six southern colleges: Vanderbilt, Davidson, Wake Forest, College of William and Mary, University of Richmond, Washington and Lee University, and three in passing, Duke and University of Virginia and the Virginia Military Institute, which I slipped away to explore myself, briefly.
     Why the South? I have put that question to him in several different ways, and piecing the answers together and squinting, I get: most bang for your buck. Which makes sense. Not everybody can go to Harvard or should. They have good schools down there, but not everybody in the United States even considers them, well, because they're down there. One essential in business is finding value where others overlook it, and if my kid could do that right out of the box, well, I'm not going to stand in his way. And the food's great.
     Still. While last year I had been eager to finally set my eyes on such stories schools as Princeton and Yale, I had almost no mental image of any of these southern schools. Vanderbilt I had glimpsed, a few years back, when the family spent two happy weeks traveling around Tennessee. A gate of some kind. The rest, I knew almost nothing about, a few crumbs. Wake Forest is big in sports. University of Virginia was founded by Jefferson and is the subject of a cutting Karl Shapiro poem that my father liked to quote.
     And that's about it. College of William and Mary? It's old, right? But as a father I am nothing if not equitable when it comes to my boys, and if the first one got a two-week, 2,500 mile trek through the colleges of his choosing, by God so would the second. I tried not to think about the fact that he did not end up attending any of those colleges. It was not a waste, because we had fun, and if my younger boy didn't go to any of these, well, so be it.
Orientation at Vanderbilt
    "How many of you all are first time visitors to Vanderbilt?" asked admissions counselor, Ben Gutierrez, in a grey suit and salmon tie. Hands shot up. "A lot of you all."
     I savored those "you all's" — there's a joy in finding the epitome cliche right where you expect it, like hearing someone in Boston say they'll go "pahk the cah."   
     He asked an ice breaking question that no college session had yet asked: who thinks they have the weirdest high school mascot? A few prospects were tossed out, but the prize was retired, obviously, by Atoka High School Wampus Cats, from Atoka, Oklahoma (a folkore version of the cougar, a glance at Wikipedia reveals that four other high schools also have a wampus cat).
       Gutierrez lauded what he called "southern comfort experiences"—people smiling, holding the door for you, and of course, the food.  We had eaten the night before at the Loveless Cafe, whose claim to making the best biscuit in the world might be disputed, but not by me. Of course, not everyone might be looking for that. When he asked who in the audience liked country music, hands stayed folded in laps. "Wow, very few," he marveled. I was lucky in that a magazine once asked me to interview Loretta Lynn, so I boned up on her oeuvre and developed a healthy appreciation for country music, a true American art form, like jazz.
Vanderbilt University
      Teens are another matter. Gutierrez soldiered on, Vanderbilt is right in the heart of Nashville, he said, "a growing city of 1.7 million." That figure gave me pause, since Chicago has 2.7 million. Turns out, Nashville has 600,000 people, which means our host exaggerated the size by a million plus. (He probably meant the Nashville metropolitan region, which does have 1.6 million people, but covers 13 counties, including other cities such as Murfreesboro.  On that scale, Chicago has 10 million people. Though perhaps he merely misspoke).
      The stat that leaped out of his presentation, put two fingers in its mouth, and whistled was on an otherwise dull chart of where Vanderbilt students come from: most from Tennessee, naturally enough, but the second most prevalent source of students is Illinois—526, more than even New York or California.
    Suddenly I saw the sense of the Southern Gambit.
    Our guides were  pair of students, Jevaugn from Washington, D.C. and Rani from Beirut, Lebanon, who regaled us with tales of his mother, who worried about her son leaving the security of Beirut ("Are you safe?" she asked him) and who bristled when he referred to his dorm as "home" -- "Are you so quick to forget about us?" Based on his mother and his looks, I assumed he was Jewish, a misconception I only gradually let go of after I asked him if there were much of a Jewish community in Beruit and he said, "No, none."
    They showed us the commons. "We kind of based it on Harry Potter," a phrase used at so many schools to often to describe anything ornately clubby that it should be retired at this point. Which I suppose it will as the series, a cultural obsession five years ago, recedes.
Proudly walking backwards: Tour of Davidson
     Next stop, Davidson College, in Davidson, North Carolina, which Forbes had just named the No. 1 Best College in the South. Hopefully they use a more rigorous formula to evaluate the school than I did, because based on the answers to "Why did you come today?" the handful of prospective freshmen at the orientation session managed strangle my opinion of the place, aborning in the bassinet.
    "It's close to home," said one.
    "My mom made me come," said another, and a third said something very similar about her mom forcing her here. A big percentage of the college experience is added by the people you go to school with, and the image of prospective freshman being so clueless as to announce that to a room of strangers staggered me. I'd have clapped my hand over my kid's mouth had he said that. It also surprised me to learn that 26 percent of the incoming students are varsity athletes, which made the school seem like an athletic program with classes attached. Though other schools were to cite a similar figures.
     My son, needless to say, liked it very much, and the more "Really, you like this?" vibe I radiated, the more enthusiastically he seemed to like it. I struggled manfully to shut up.
    "You absolutely do not have to be a Presbyterian to go to Davidson," our guide, Jennie, told us, which somehow was not comforting. She was one of those guides who took great pride in walking backward, and was the first to stride in reverse full speed into a post, though no damage seemed done. She also pointed out "boxy wooden desk things" in the commons.
Wake Forest
     When I first stepped onto Wake Forest's campus, suddenly the second word in their name flashed as if in green neon. "Ah, Wake Forest." The place is practically in the deep woods—it relocated from the town in the 1950s, and all the buildings seemed as if they were built at the same time. I missed the orientation, taking the Honda in to the dealer in Winston-Salem to check it out after encountering a stray truck tire tread on the highway. But I showed up in time for the tour, held in the rain. Rain is supposed to dampen (sorry) your ardor for a school, but Wake Forest is just the sort of place you could happily wander around for four years. The fact they offer classes is icing on the cake.
    Our guide, Dan, a pre-med, presented his coming to Wake Forest as a kind of personal epiphany. He knew, just knew, the moment he stepped on campus that this was the place for him. I snuck glances over at my own boy. I didn't expect that kind of certainty. Maybe that's a good thing, a sign of flexibility. My friend who is a college admissions adviser said Rule No. 1 in applying to colleges is: Do not set your heart on a particular school. That's a recipe for finding yourself at a wonderful school yet unhappy, since it isn't the one you wanted most.  
      The College of William and Mary is one of the oldest in country, set next to colonial Williamsburg. The buildings were charming and old, and we paused in front of a statue of Jefferson.
College of William and Mary
     "This is old TJ, as I like to call him," our guide said. Greek life was treated the way fraternities and sororities are always treated in these tours—handled with tongs. "I really like it, and it adds to my experience," our guide said, "but I wouldn't like it if it detracted from others," he said. 
     My older boy, who gamely tagged along even though he was weeks from starting his own college, sent his buddy Matthew, who would be attending College of William and Mary, text updates—mildly taunting him, no doubt, based on everything I know about the boys (and because, at Vanderbilt, he had been taking pictures of slavery-related objects at a library display and sending them to another friend who would be going there, along with tweaks, no doubt along the line of: "See the sort of place you're going to.") Occasionally a guide would notice his Pomona t-shirt and expound on what a great school it was, which also pleased my lad to no end.
University of Richmond
      The University of Richmond is the school that stood out, for me. The administrators greeted us with a sincere zeal that was a full twist stronger any of the nearly two dozen schools I've visited.  They just seemed to want us more—handing out coupons that waved our application fee, as a reward for coming out. 
     "We want to put you in the shoes of a spider," said Austin Kelso, the administrator who greeted us—Richmond has the best mascot, the spiders, and a shirt so cool I thought of buying one, "Fear the Spiders." As fine a school as Pomona is, its mascot is still Cecil the Sagehen. 
     More significantly, Richmond's Robin School of Business will take $300,000 from the school's endowment and allow juniors and seniors to invest the sum for them. They also have their own electronic trading floor. I tried to catch my kids eye and do a little Isn't-that-cool? eyebrow dance, but he wasn't willing to look at me.
     The campus, set around a lake, is lush and lovely, the buildings new yet refined. It helped that we had the best guide, well, that I've had in nearly 20 college tours, a budding journalist, Andrew Jones of Houston, Texas, who wasn't affected, wasn't preening, just commenting directly about school life. He wrote his class schedule, which had no classes Monday, Wednesday or Friday, on a white board in a classroom.
    "Who thinks this is a good idea?" he asked. "Who thinks this is a bad idea?"
     Bad college guides, I've learned, obsess over themselves, sharing more than you care to know, or recite some canned nasal speech. Jones was a person, talking as people do.
     During the tour of a dining hall, we saw these fabulous desserts laid out, rainbow cakes and special pies. I was ogling rows of homemade cookies, thinking "A savvy school would give us a cookie."
     "If you want a cookie, take one," Jones said, reading my mind. You don't attend a particular college because someone there gives you a cookie. But it doesn't hurt.
     Washington and Lee University, to my surprise, is directly associated with both men, perhaps the two most heroic figures in American history. George Washington gave stock to get the college going, and Robert E. Lee assumed its presidency after the Civil War to help the battered school get up off its knees. He's buried there, and so is his horse, Traveller.  Of all the schools we visited, Washington and Lee really radiated Southernness, with its row of red brick buildings and square columns.
     We toured first. On one hand, 75 to 80 percent of students are in the Greek system—the sorority houses are lined in a row, and we viewed them from a far distance, as if that is as close as men could get. 
    On  the other, if Richmond was impressive for giving 300 grand to finance students, Washington and Lee dumped $5 million of its endowment into the laps of its investment club. That had to be an educational experience.
     Our guide talked about the honor system—many of these Southern schools have them. You can take your final home to do, and leave your computer on a tree stump, since all students sign a pledge to be scrupulously honest. By this time, I had heard it enough to ask, carefully, how many students were brought up on honor charges? It seemed almost an elaborate system for inflating grades by allowing everyone to openly cheat under the cover of honor. But I was reassured this is not the case. If it works at colleges, we should all take honor pledges: society would be improved.
     The Washington and Lee information session, however, was held in a long, thin room where, out the windows to the left, men worked with howling leaf blowers while, out the windows to the right, they worked cutting bricks with a shrieking masonry saw, and it was distracting enough that I wondered: if the woman in front of us were as dynamic as the school supposedly made her, why she couldn't either get them to stop, or march us all to a different, quieter room, rather than compete against these distractions. 
Virginia Military Institute dorm rooms
     Kent and I had to duck out, to get him to his interview. While he in shirt and tie talked with an administrator, I strolled over to the Virginia Military Institute, which is directly next door. I was impressed with its crenelated silhouette, though when you walk through the gates you are confronted with a sight that resembles nothing more than a prison. I ducked into the chapel, and was surprised to find the area where normally you would find, oh, pictures of Jesus and such, was a painting of the rebel charge at the Battle of New Market during the Civil War. Yes, it was VMI cadets doing the charging, but still, in a church? Remember, the person who said, "The past isn't dead, it isn't even past," was a Southerner, William Faulkner.
     The University of Virginia we didn't tour properly—too big for consideration. But I wanted to see  the famous campus, and we clomped around looking at the Thomas-Jefferson-designed building, the central dome, alas, being under heavy reconstruction. We happened upon room 13, where Edgar Allen Poe lived, restored to how it might have been during his residency. An English grad student was moving next door -- the rest of the rooms are in use -- and we chatted with her pleasantly. We walked the breadth of the place, I can't say I regretted Kent's idea not to apply, and then on tiptoe left.
     That night at dinner, I called up the Karl Shapiro poem about the University of Virginia on my smart phone:
University of Virginia
To hurt the Negro and avoid the Jew
Is the curriculum. In mid-September
The entering boys, identified by hats,
Wander in a maze of mannered brick
      Where boxwood and magnolia brood
      And columns with imperious stance
      Like rows of ante-bellum girls
         Eye them, outlanders.

In whited cells, on lawns equipped for peace,
Under the arch, and lofty banister,
Equals shake hands, unequals blankly pass;
The exemplary weather whispers, “Quiet, quiet”
      And visitors on tiptoe leave
      For the raw North, the unfinished West,
      As the young, detecting an advantage,
         Practice a face.

Duke Gardens
   The college glimpsed least was Duke. To be honest, we only toured the botanic garden in the center of campus. It was quite beautiful. As for the rest of the school, well, I hear they have a good basketball team. 

     As we headed northward and westward home, I was glad I had come—these were fine places all, and he'd do well in any he got in. He seemed leaning most strongly toward Vanderbilt or Washington and Lee, but these things change, and I'll be quietly drumming for Richmond. It really was an excellent cookie.
Virginia Military Institute


  1. Knowing quite a bit about college admissions I'm not sure if can fathom why a kid would think
    He had a chance at Vanderbilt but not Virginia. Though Vanderbillts financial aid is outstanding so worth a shot.

    1. Ahhh. See you changed it. Makes more sense now. Franklin and Lee is interesting and of he attends there you'll have to let us know how a kid from northbrook does in a place that's only 4 percent Jewish ( though with a commitment to growing that number)

  2. Loved reading this piece. Even more, loved hearing about those boys who graced my classroom not so long ago. Wishing them both well!

  3. have enjoyed steinbergs in the south very much, both as a travelogue and a parenting piece

  4. You said in this or another blog about your kids college picks, their choice of college-if you are paying, you have plenty of say too, not just their choice. Don't spoil them.

  5. Sherman's March to the sea was even better. I like the idea of white Southerners getting punished, especially the plantation owners.

  6. His Orangeness was still just a loudmouthed reality-show host in 2014. Nobody dreamed what...or who...was coming down the road. And the Karl Shapiro poem was probably not all that well-known. But all that changed last year, after the torchlight parade on campus and the fatal rioting that followed. That poem has been widely quoted and commented on ever since.


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