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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Choosing the Perfect College (old school)

I decided, sight unseen, to go to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The reason being, it was closest enough in profile and far enough in miles to The College of William and Mary, where my next older sister, Emily, went. Also, Brian Piccolo had gone there. I fell in love with Brian Piccolo watching a Tuesday Night Movie of the Week. Brian Piccolo was the Brian of Brian’s Song. He was a football player who, after a sobbing-on-your-sleeve battle with cancer, died in the end.

All through high school, it was a given that I’d follow in the family’s footsteps and attend a prestigious institute of higher learning. Wake Forest was a perfect fit; good enough, but not too highbrow for the lowbrow self I was carelessly creating.

It never crossed my mind that I might not get in.

When I got the rejection letter, I was heart-broken and humiliated. Though in hindsight, what did I expect? I had spent my high school years building up my social circle and breaking down my GPA. I didn’t study for SATs, I did nothing to warrant stellar teacher recommendations and I suspect I sent my college essay riddled with typos.

“Well, you better apply somewhere quick,” my pragmatic father advised. “And make sure it’s a place you know you’ll get in.”

Pennsylvania has a whole string of state colleges that my Ivy-leagued ancestors would scoff at. But, hey, they’d accept me in a minute. They had goofy names like Slippery Rock, Lock Haven, Bloomsburg, Clarion, Kutztown and Shippensburg.

I chose Shippensburg State College because Beth Holmes lived on Shippen Road and she was our class president.

As fate would have it, I loved Shippensburg. But, after two years of partying my parents $3,000 away and learning absolutely nothing more than how to have fun with my freedom, I left anyway. 

With the same out-of-the-blue reasoning that I chose Wake Forest as my dream school, I decided I was going to become a screenwriter. Since the days of Google were still a gleam in the future’s eye, I looked for screenwriting programs the old fashioned way – flipping through dozens of college catalogs in the library. It wasn’t long before I stumbled upon the perfect place – West Virginia University. Not only did it have the dubious distinction of being amongst the top party schools in the country, but it was three hours due west of Shippensburg and I could stop in and visit every time I came home.

And so, I enrolled at WVU. My parents took me to Morgantown that summer for orientation and while they were golfing at the lovely Lakeview Resort, I went off to sign up for my classes.  Well,  apparently somewhere along the line, I had gotten all those colleges I had been looking at confused. My stomach lurched as I discovered that West Virginia did not have a Screenwriting major after all. My parents would absolutely kill me, after having convinced them that this transfer was completely for academic, not arbitrary reasons. I perused the course catalog as quickly as possible, my advisor sitting across the table from me chewing on a pencil and tapping her foot. 

No way. I had barely passed Consumer Math. 

Hmm. Advertising.

And just like, that I became an Advertising major, managing to bring up my mediocre GPA and earn my degree right on time, despite all the dropped classes at Shippensburg.

Now, as my children fuss and fret (or don’t) about their college choices, I have to take a step back, recalling my own journey. Had I gone to Wake Forest I wouldn’t have my found my life-long soul-sisters at Shippensburg. I would have surely taken up residence in North Carolina after graduating and would never have worked at TV Guide magazine in Pennsylvania. If I had never worked at TV Guide, I would never have met my ever-loving spouse. And if I had never met my ever-loving spouse, I would have married some cute, but simple soul from the Fireside Inn. If I had married a simple soul I would have borne simple children and I wouldn’t have had such a full and chaotic life. And if I hadn’t had such a full and chaotic life, I’d be writing boring articles on “How to Choose the Perfect College,” instead of stories about why the perfect college is but a passing perception.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Choosing a College: Part Two (and Three)

I boycott the mall at all costs. The only way I’ll go is if every possible online site has been depleted of the object of my affections. The mall is just one big battle, from finding parking to sifting through sales to coveting things I simply can’t afford.

But, college shopping? I’ll do that any day.

I love driving through the gates of a college campus, envisioning my child crossing the quad, flinging a Frisbee with friends, catching a music show at the concert hall. It hits me like it was days, not decades ago; that boundless freedom, the plethora of possibilities, the endless kegs.

I love taking the campus tours; walking with dozens through dorm rooms decorated with college collectables, peaking in at empty classrooms, breezing through bustling student union buildings and overpriced bookstores. I love asking inappropriate questions of the tour guides and picturing Parent’s Weekend when I’d take my child out for dinner, new roommates in tow.

That’s how it went with Molly, my oldest. Though her heart was set on the University of North Carolina, we traveled the east coast looking at other schools, just in case. Sometimes we brought her buddies, sometimes it was just the two of us and when it was one of the really academic schools, we all agreed, it was best if she went with her father.

Once Molly was launched, I couldn’t wait to start with Max.

Well, Max had other ideas. He had absolutely no interest in looking at colleges. Our very first visit was in September of senior year, a good year-and-a-half later than I had started with his sister. I was itching to get back on the hunt and sure enough, as we walked through that New Haven campus (University of, not Yale), I felt that old energy, enthusiasm, earnestness once again. Of course, that all emanated from the other parents. The kids spent the tour eyeing each other suspiciously and texting tenaciously, making sure not a single college fact sunk in.

Max had no interest because his only interest was playing football in college. And I had to walk that fine line between supporting his dreams and dousing him with reality, half-hoping he would, but knowing he wouldn’t, choose academics over concussions.

In the end, he got what he thought he wanted. It wasn’t Ohio State, but he was recruited to play quarterback at Rowan University. And that’s when it all began.

For months and months, it was all we could talk about. Friends, family, strangers all weighed in on his decision. Should he go to Rowan and play football, or go to Temple University and watch from the bleachers? Round and around and around we went.

I finally told him he should do what he’d least regret. If he went to Temple, he’d always wonder. If he went to Rowan and it didn’t work out, he could always transfer. My ever-loving spouse kicked me under the table with a nix-nay on the transferring idea.

But, Max picked up on it.

“You mean, if I get straight A’s I can transfer anywhere I want to go – like USC or UCLA?”

“Yeah, Max. Go for it,” I say, knowing his academic effort mirrored mine. There was nothing to worry about.

Max went to Rowan, loved the football team, but decided it wasn’t what he ultimately wanted. He came home at Christmas with an unprecedented 3.8 GPA and announced that he was going to transfer. He was accepted at Temple, paid his deposit and secured the most expensive housing alongside his buddy, Jamal.

And then, the big envelope came in the mail.

You have been accepted to
The University of Southern California.

The rest is history.

Part Three:

Leo’s turn! I dreamed of a New England tour in the summer, a southern excursion in the fall; knowing that dozens and dozens of campuses awaited my grand finale.

But, last summer when Leo was a rising senior, he went to a baseball camp at Rutgers University. They liked what they saw and offered him a spot on the roster. And that was that. One shot deal. He’s going to Rutgers in September.

I learned something through the college process, albeit a little too late. These kids of ours may have sprung from our loins, clung to our breasts, pilfered our paychecks, but they have minds of their own.

The future is theirs. Not ours. We have to let them find their own way. And, like it or not, their way is not always our way.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Fine Art of Choosing a College: Part One

We’ve been doing this college thing for a long time. We started when Molly, the oldest, decided that she was going to go to Duke University. The most probable reason for her impulsive declaration was that it was a school that had once rejected the smartest person she had ever known – her father. So, the summer after her sophomore year in high school, the two of us planned a trip to North Carolina to check out the campus. Considering it’s an eight-hour drive –if there’s no traffic and you stick to just one 13-minute stop in which you wolf down a McDonald’s burger, fill up the tank and empty the bladder all in one fell swoop – I suggested we also visit The University of North Carolina, which is about an inch on the map away from Duke.

Well, I may as well have suggested visiting the Holocaust Museum during Senior Week at the shore. She flat out refused. She would never, ever go to a school like that. Like what? I wondered. But, I was older and wiser, not to mention in control of the car, so I took her there anyway.

UNC Chapel Hill was beautiful, ripe with students of all colors and creeds criss-crossing the brick-pathed, tree-lined campus. My darling daughter threw a fit like a four-year old, stomping her feet, pouting, and pronouncing, “I’m NOT going on a stupid tour. You go on the tour if you want to so badly. I’m NOT doing it.”

So, I did what all good mothers do in these situations. I stopped the cutest boy I saw and asked if we could follow him to the library. Then I paraded her and her rolling eyes through classroom buildings, the athletic facilities, even the school store –where she lingered, but her bullheadedness ultimately refused a Carolina blue T-shirt.

It was lunch time. I suggested going into the student dining hall, which if you’ve visited any college campus in the past decade, is an all-you-can-eat bonanza with more choices than the food court at the mall.  

“I’m not hungry,” she snarled after I handed the cashier a twenty.

Through gritted teeth I hissed, “You will eat.”

She picked up a cheeseburger, took a bite and threw it out.

“Not hungry.”

I hated her guts.

I dragged her outside and plopped down in The Pit, the hub of campus. It was late August. The students had just returned for the fall semester. It was 99 degrees. We sweated in silence. We looked at the kids. We sweated some more. We sat and watched until it was time to leave for our tour at Duke.

We walked the half-mile to the parking lot. In silence. Got in the car. Turned on the air conditioning. Programmed the GPS.

“I’m going to UNC,” she announced, as we drove off the campus.

She hated Duke. And I did, too. There were way too many boys with blown-dry hair, expertly styled to look natural. The students traveled in homogeneous groups, exuding wealth and privilege.

I told her she didn’t have to go to a top college and that if she felt a connection with UNC, she should just go there. And then we went home and looked in the Fiske Guide to Colleges to see what UNC was academically all about: “…admission is next to impossible for out-of-staters who aren’t 6’9” with a 43-inch vertical jump.” Gulp.

On paper, Molly could run with any Tar Heel out there. But, as anyone who has gone through the college process knows, it’s all a crap shoot.

Molly beat the odds and will graduate from UNC this May. She insists that we all wear our BEAT DUKE T-shirts every time her school takes on their biggest basketball rivals. She wells up at the thought of leaving; she has had the best four years of her life.

Choosing a college is a ridiculously stressful time of life. Parents and their over-achieving children spend way too much time obsessing and scheming, writing and rewriting essays, begging for references and then praying for acceptances from the one school in the world that will complete them, make them proud and turn them into who and what they were meant to be. We push, we plot, we pay.

And in the end, none of it matters. Because fate just laughs and laughs and does whatever it wants to do anyway.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Ugandans are Gone!

“No, Mom, sit down. I will cook the dinner.”

“Today, I wash the dishes.”

“How can we help you?”

Music to a mother’s ears, those words. But alas, they were but fleeting phrases, for they came from the mouths of the Children of Uganda, who danced in and out of our lives this week.

They arrived in the middle of a blizzard with flimsy shoes, ragged gloves and happy hearts. They were 11 days into their two-month cross-country Tour of Light ( and were greeted with record-breaking temperatures that their equator-born bones had never known.

They came with drums and xylophones, costumes and courage. They told their tales of pain and poverty with dimpled smiles and thankful souls. They had so little and gave so much.


Our family was blessed with housing four 15-21 year-old boys; Julius, Karim, Rogers and Vincent. They fell in love with our dog, Griffey, and we fell in love with them. As they politely picked at my prized beef stew, they told us of their meals of maize and beans. The next day they cooked – teaching me how to make authentic rice and beans and demonstrating the delicious difference between my dried-up fried eggs and theirs, which were cooked with care in a pan of oil. As my son, Leo, waltzed in and out of the house during mid-terms week, they talked about their nine-and-a-half hour school days. When I apologized that they had to get up at 8 am, they shrugged it off, explaining that in Uganda they woke up at 5 am and went to bed at midnight.

They loved the iPad and we had to charge it at least once a day. A couple of them had Facebook accounts and e-mail addresses, but little access to computers at home. They got hooked on Netflix and were surprised when the movie they were watching was really a television series that went on and on and on.

They made their beds every morning, called us Mom and Dad and hung out with Leo and his buddies in the basement.  They protested me doing their laundry until they realized I wasn’t hand-washing and that all I had to do was push a button. When I took the four boys to Target and bought them all boots, you would have thought I had handed them keys to a Porsche.

We got and gave multiple hugs a day.


On Wednesday, the Children of Uganda and their host families were treated to a pizza lunch at Dante’s Restaurant in Leonia ( At the end of the meal, the children stood up and broke into song:

We are grateful,
we are grateful,
we are grateful
for all you do for us.

The restaurant went silent as we choked back tears.

All that gratitude motivated me to want to do more. I wanted to adopt them all and make sure every last one of them got to college. I wanted to buy them cell phones and Nikes and laptops. Until I saw them perform.


Now, I have seen my own children perform thousands of times. Ice hockey, soccer, basketball, baseball, football, cheerleading – I have sat in the stands with bated breath. I’ve seen them score, I’ve seen them soar. I’ve seen them earn awards and accolades, win competitions and championships. But, I’ve never seen a one of them perform with the pure passion and joy that the Children of Uganda brought to the stage.

As they danced and drummed, sang and stomped, the pride on their faces, the love in their souls, the happiness in their hearts was real. It was genuine. It radiated from the stage.

Leo, my child of few words, said it best, “They are better people than we are.”

They didn’t come for fame or fortune. They didn’t come for jewels and jeans. They simply came to shed their light and share their spirit.

They left our little church in Leonia this morning in a flurry of hugs and tears. As we stood outside in the frigid air, waving goodbye to our newfound friends, I found myself humming, “We are grateful, we are grateful, we are grateful for all you did for us.”

This week, we gave the best of ourselves to each other, leaving us all better people than we were before.

And isn’t that the best gift of all?