“I know your child is very bright,” I told her. “Don’t do what we did. Put your ego aside and appeal to the colleges. You must!” I knew exactly how she felt, having been there only a couple of years ago last spring.
Spring is a thorny time of the year on many counts and I understand why the roses pout. Tulips burst into this mellow season of stressed parents and distressed college applicants, marking the end of March every year.
I recalled my own season of disappointment. I was the typical Indian-American parent whose social destiny would ride on where, at last, her daughter would go to college.
Outside, in our yard, daffodils and hyacinths swayed in yellow and blue, cheering for the newborn bud. But inside our home, we went about a barren routine. Our harsh winter—one that began with an early rejection from Columbia—had just about begun. Our noses were bulbous and red, from collective crying over colleges indeed very much deserved in the eyes of this honorable family committee, yet, seemingly undeserved, in the opinion of the dishonorable, biased, and clueless college admissions committees.
Friends chose to ring the doorbell with telling leaves from their notebook of college experiences. The phone rang more often. Friends who rarely visited decided to call “just to chat” and the conversation gently plowed into the landscape of college admissions.
How many times, I wondered then, had I been unknowingly insensitive in previous years when other parents were grappling with their child’s emotions and their own dreams for their children? Had I ever come off as nosey? Had I overstepped my bounds? Had I seemed condescending? Had I, maybe, doled out unwanted words of wisdom?
When it was my turn, I got my earful of solicited and unsolicited advice from friends and acquaintances. I listened, nodded, smiled, laughed, and commiserated, remembering to prune, shear, weed out, and trash. Some advice resembled manure. Some I’d sow for another admissions harvest four years down the road.
“How many Bs’ did your daughter have?” From a parent, whose kids didn’t have a single one.
“Didn’t you think of talking first to the department you were applying into? You HAVE to establish a relationship, you know.” Parent who believes that pimping and networking is the only way to guarantee any admission.
“What? Your daughter didn’t make UCLA? What was her GPA? You know it’s harder to get into than Stanford.” Parent whose child is at UCLA, the best college in the country.
“Okay, so you’ve done a lot for your own self-improvement. How much did you give to others?” Great advice from our school guidance counselor who felt my child simply didn’t have enough community service hours.
“You mean you didn’t work with a college counselor?” Parent who donated $3,000 to a counseling service, only to be told that college admissions have become a game, you know.
“You mean she didn’t have a sport on her application? The best kids have a sport.” Parent, whose kid, apparently, was courted by every coach in every college he or she applied to but hasn’t been seen holding a ball or a bat since.
“I’m sorry. Your daughter does not have a shot at any in her first list of colleges.” College counselor who, after taking a look at my daughter’s application, tells me her honest opinion.
“Colleges X, Y and Z are a reach for your daughter. Here, try these others instead.” College counseling service–referred to by dad’s company–which plugs in a bunch of numbers and spits out a boatload of safety colleges, match colleges, and reach colleges.
Our daughter, like all kids, did finally make it to a college that has turned out to be a great fit for her. Her experiences in her first quarter of being on her own were documented in an India Currents article titled Unmade Beds and other College Compromises (November 2008).
Reading them today and watching her during the week she spends with us at spring break, I realize I’ve a lot of things to be proud of: her tenacity, her high work ethic, and her deep maturity about people and relationships.
In my mind, however, the questions haven’t begun to end. Did I make life miserable for her by ferrying her around to music, dance, and violin lessons from the tender age of four? Could I have made her life many times easier in high school so she could have focused harder on her coursework? Should I have forced her to work towards an advanced violin accreditation when she was inundated with homework and tests in four tough AP courses and juggling the other requirements of high school’s junior year?
I wince every time she dredges up the details of her intense extra-curricular life. “Did it really matter that I killed myself over classical dance and violin for 14 years? Where was the payoff? College admissions committees don’t look beyond one’s grades and test scores anyway.”
And thus, even two years later, many questions about my parenting skills and self-styled decisions linger, like pollen in the air, unseen by all but wreaking havoc on the inside.
Spring is a riot, both inside and outside.
Kalpana Mohan is a freelance writer in Saratoga, CA.