Paper Trophies


It’s that time of year when the hottest home accessory is not the limited edition tablet computer or the free-trade wood carving from an exotic country. It is something even more exclusive—an 8×11 envelope, valued by its weight, made precious by the identity of the sender, a status symbol that assures that your child will not be doomed to a life of deadbeat dependency.

Lovingly encased in plastic, the college admission acceptance is trotted out to envious acquaintances eager for the accrued wisdom of the parent of a successful senior; “What were his grades?” “How many AP courses did she take?” “What was the college looking for?” The  answer to this last query is couched in the modesty of cultural expectations: “I don’t know!”

It takes but the slightest of proddings for the pride to bubble out—the near perfect scores, the summers of service, the facility with language, the all-round excellence. As the parent basks in the brilliant, if reflected, glory, the hearts of the listeners sink, as they gird themselves for the task of molding their unexceptional offspring and burnishing their resumes. Thus do the mass psychosis and osmotic anxiety of college admissions begin anew for a fresh set of desi parents.

It is the rare immigrant parent who lets the 17-year-old take control of the steering wheel of the admission process. The species does exist, and such counter-culture behavior deserves a special mention; to trust your child and to have faith in your parenting skills is a remarkable act of courage. The rest of us blindly follow the herd in search of scholastic brand value.

It is easy to mock, but the day the family receives the envelope has been years in the making. And it is indeed the entire family that should be given its due. The short paragraphs with their words of welcome are a validation of years of sacrifice—the relocation based on school district, the painfully high mortgages, college consultants, private tuitions, battles with teachers for grades, tough-love parenting that demands distinction in every endeavor.

Some of the stress we put on our kids and ourselves is a hangover from the memories of the intense competition for limited opportunities back in India; some of it is a belief that the most valuable contribution we can make to the lives of our children is to equip them with the best education possible. If our efforts are misguided sometimes, our intentions, I hope, are pure. And while we may wonder if the exhaustive regimen we put our families through is worth it, the siren call of the paper trophy is, ultimately, irresistible.

Vidya Pradhan

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