Google+ Followers

Sunday, March 30, 2014

College Rejections: Did you Get in?






“Where are you going to college?” I ask every high school senior I’ve ever met.

More often than not, I get a shrug.

I ask my son, “Where is Julian going to college?”

I get a shrug.

“How about Yani? She’s smart. Where’s she going?

I get a shrug.

“You don’t know or you don’t want to talk about it?” I ask.

Leo says his friends don’t talk about college. They don’t talk about where they’ve applied or where they’ve been accepted. And they certainly don’t talk about where they get rejected.

Yesterday my spouse and I drove up to New Haven to meet one of our favorite friends and see her daughter who was in a play at Yale. It was a well-acted, thought-provoking performance that had it all – violence, humor, nudity, deep themes and dead babies. Afterwards, as we were eating blackened catfish in one of the cavernously-comfortable, wood-paneled dining halls, my conviction that there’s nothing better than college was strengthened.

Surrounded, and yes, intimidated by some of the smartest students in the world, I couldn’t help but think about how lucky these kids are. And I don’t mean lucky just because they’re at Yale, but lucky to be college students with their whole lives yet to unfold.

College is the time to bury the high school version of yourself that you didn’t like. To do, join and be whatever and whoever you want. You find yourself in an idyllic world, bound together for four whole years with thousands of other open-minded young adults. Some will share your beliefs, some will astound you with their lack of conviction, and others will inspire you with their insights and opinions. You will learn to live in close quarters with people you may not like. But you will also make the best friends of your life, and you’ll keep them for life. You will learn why your mother always separated the reds from the whites and didn’t throw all your clothes in one washer to save time. You will learn to watch what you eat and how much you drink because it will catch up with you when you least expect it. You will learn that it’s him, not you, when he doesn’t call in the morning. And you learn who to embrace and how to let go. You learn how to learn.

You learn to take chances. You audition for the play even though you’ve never acted before and land a challenging part in which you get to drop your drawers on stage. You join an intramural basketball team because you were afraid to try out in high school and realize you're not so bad after all.  You take a cake course in Philosophy and find out that deep thinking is a lot harder than you thought it would be. And a lot more reading.

As I sat there in the dining hall at Yale, I realized that there were thousands of kids out there nursing broken hearts, after receiving the rejection letters that were sent out this week. Valedictorians didn’t get into Yale and Princeton and Harvard. High achievers didn’t get in to Colorado College and Swarthmore and Trinity. And good students didn’t get in to Rutgers and Clemson and Quinnipiac.

I know how those kids feel. Because I was one of them.

My friend Claire says I am a college snob. There’s a bit of truth to that, though I’m the first to admit I went to a college with an 85% acceptance rate. My friend Jean thinks it’s absolutely absurd that I let my kids go 500 miles away to school, let alone 3000. Jenn only has one kid so when he fell in love with an expensive private school in Connecticut, she made it work. My friend Angela insists on a good balance of basketball and academics and Theresa, well she doesn’t bother to voice an opinion because Anthony runs his own show.

And every one of them is right.

“So, what about Jaelin? Did he get into Florida?”  I ask.

“I don’t know, Mom. What do you care?”

I shrug.

But I do care.

And while I believe every kid should go to the best college they can get into, there are all kinds of reasons why that won't happen. And so, it’s important to remember that where you go to college is not a direct reflection of who you are. That going to Stanford or Amherst doesn’t guarantee you success and that it’s all what you make of where you go; whether it’s an Ivy, a state school or a community college. It’s all within your power.

When I got turned down by Wake Forest, I couldn’t see beyond the rejection as I ran sobbing to my room with my Great Dane, Ludwig. I threw my arms around his neck and wailed to, “What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted,” as the record spun round and round and round on my turntable.

But, the cloud lifted and I started looking at my options. And in that new light the dorms at Shippensburg didn’t look so dingy. The kids didn’t look so creepy. And I found a friend who knew someone who went there and love, love, loved it.

Slowly, but surely, I realized that though it wasn’t the path I had planned to take, it wasn’t the end of the journey. It was just the beginning. And that the only thing to do was to take a step into the future and tackle it.

One semester at a time.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

What We Did Before Cell Phones



My kids can’t believe that we got through life without cell phones. And sometimes I can’t either. As a rampant texter with a teenager’s mentality that drives me to connect with everyone I’ve ever met (and some I haven’t), I have often thought back to how different my early years would have been had cell phones existed.

I know I would have taken more chances. After all, it’s much easier to flirt with your phone than your eyelashes. But on the other hand, I would have probably gotten myself in a lot more trouble, inadvertently sending texts about Madge to Patty and about Patty to Rachel and about Rachel to Debbie.

A big downside to not having cell phones was that we had to talk to our friends’ parents when we called.

“Hi Mrs. Ellis, how are you? Is Patty home?” I’d chirp before getting her on the phone and ripping her to shreds for going to Curtis Kaller's party with Donna Serianni when she promised to go with me.

The upside was that our parents didn’t know where we were or what we were doing. It was impossible for them to keep tabs on us; they couldn't check in by phone every five minutes like parents do today. And that actually kept us kids more honest. We only had to lie once - in person, when we got home - rather than multiple times in multiple texts. Parents were a lot less anxious because they knew a whole lot less.

But that’s not to say that the old-fashioned phone couldn’t get you in trouble.

My friend Margaret was fearless. She lived three doors down and always had a boredom-buster right up her sleeve. And one of the best ways to beat boredom was to call phony numbers.

The minute the red station wagon pulled down the driveway with Mrs. Sommerville and Margaret’s sister Susan in tow, my (house) phone would ring.

“They’re gone. Come on up!”

Margaret’s wish was my command and off I’d go as fast as my little legs would carry me.

One of our favorite pranks was to pull a random name from a phone book.

“Hi,” Margaret would say in her sultriest voice. “Is Tom there? Tom Wilson?”

She’d put her hand over the mouthpiece of the black rotary phone (black, because in those days it cost more money to rent a colored phone, a princess phone or a push button phone and Mrs. Sommerville was fabulously frugal), to muffle her chortling snorts.

“Is this Mrs. Wilson? Well, just tell him that Sondra called. Yes. Sondra. And that I’m calling about the baby.”

She’d slam the phone down and we’d roll on the floor hysterically, really believing that the wife on the other line fell for it.

But sometimes they did.

“Hi, Mom! It’s me, Kathy. I’m coming home!” Margaret said breathlessly into the receiver. “I’m at the train station and I want you to come pick me up. I’m sorry I ran away. WHAT? This isn’t 885-0828? Oh no! What am I going to do? That was my last dime!”

And with that, Margaret faked uncontrollable sobbing.

“You will?” she sniffled. “You’ll really call my mother? Oh thank you so much. Just tell her to pick me up at Chestnut Hill train station as soon as she can. Thank you, thank you so much!”

And as soon as she hung up, the phone rang.

“Hello,” Margaret said in a newly-disguised and ultra-mature voice. “Yes, this is Kathy’s mother. Oh, my Lord. That’s wonderful news. Thank you so much. You have no idea what an ordeal this has been. Oh, bless you. I’ll go right this minute!”

I had to agree with Margaret that this was the greatest phony phone call we had ever made. (Except maybe for the time we pretended to be the DEA calling to inform a mother that her daughter was arrested for smuggling drugs across the border.)

Margaret was sly, so I knew there must be a reason why she had given the woman my phone number instead of hers. 

I soon found out.

The next night, in the middle of family dinner, the phone rang. My sisters and I all bee-lined to answer it, but my mother waved us away, believing it was Jayne Dickinson calling about bridge club. A couple of minutes later she returned to the dining room table, her eyes filled with fury.

“That,” she said, tossing her cloth napkin on top of her meatloafed plate. “Was a woman who was very upset. And, justifiably so. Apparently, she got a phone call yesterday from a girl who had run away from home. She was calling to make sure I found her at the train station. Does anyone want to tell me about this?”

I don’t remember what my punishment was. I probably got a stern talking to from my father (as he suppressed his proud smile) and a dissertation on the domino effect of thoughtless actions. I most likely ratted Margaret out and suspect that my mother made me call the woman back and apologize.

All I know for sure is that they didn’t take my cell phone away.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Batting Lessons



Yesterday with the temperature topping out in the mid-thirties, I spent two hours shivering on cold metal bleachers watching Leo’s baseball scrimmage. Yes, scrimmage. It wasn’t even a real game. Of course, it could have been worse. And it has been. When he was eleven years-old we braved a March ice storm to drive to a tournament in Virginia, assuming the weather would be better in the south. It wasn’t. While the boys batted through snow flurries, Leo’s best buddy, Koree, laid in the backseat of the car, teeth chattering with a fever too high for even him to play through.

I have watched thousands of youth athletic events over the past sixteen years. My three kids played sports round-the-calendar from a young age; soccer, basketball, baseball, softball and football. Then there were the sit-in-the-crowded-gym-for-six-hours-for-a-three-minute-performance sports. Molly was a competitive cheerleader for umpteen years and Max took up wrestling one year when his teacher was the coach. Leo, then in second grade, tagged along to the first few practices until it came time to strip to the skivvies for a weigh in. Leo had a habit of going commando in those days and so, to avoid an embarrassing moment, decided on the spot that wrestling was not his sport.

I grew up playing sports. I was a golfer, a field hockey goalie, tried a season or two of lacrosse and was a really good softball pitcher. These days, my knees won’t let me run the bases but I walk for miles and miles every morning.

My spouse played baseball and ran track and cross-country in high school. And he kept on running in college. After graduating, he played in a bunch of different softball leagues, just ran a half-marathon in January and goes to hot yoga three or four times a week.

So, I suppose it’s no surprise that we steered our kids toward sports.

As I sat at the field yesterday alone in the cold, my mind drifted from the game as it so often does. I got to thinking about how we raised our children.

Why was it OK for Leo to miss his sister’s high school graduation for a baseball tournament in Florida?  And how is it that I’m even entertaining the thought of letting him miss her college graduation for the same reason? How did my daughter talk me into letting her go to a private high school for a semester just so she could be on an award-winning cheerleading squad?  Did I really encourage Max to choose a college based on his football options rather than the other way around?

But then why did my heart break when Molly gave up cheerleading after her freshman year at UNC and Max gave up football to transfer to the University of Southern California where he now plays intramural basketball games?

What makes me systematically follow the stats of every kid I’ve ever known whose name appears in a box score?  How is it that I can talk for hours and hours about the sport of the season and I can’t contribute a thing to a conversation about Crimea?  And how is it that we thought it was more important to spend tens of thousands of dollars on traveling for sports than putting that money into a college fund?

These are the questions that were bouncing around in my brain as I sat on the stands yesterday afternoon in colder-than-football weather. For so many years we lived on autopilot with color-coded excel sheets sending me and my spouse in opposite directions to far-flung fields and arenas. Friends and family would simply shake their heads and listen politely to our sporting excuses for celebrating a week late or leaving an hour early or missing an event altogether.

I wondered, as I shivered, if we had had time to stop and breathe along the way, let alone discuss what we were doing, would we have done it differently?

I looked up in time to see Leo get a hit. And then I shivered some more thoughts.

I have to hope that all these sports taught my kids good life lessons.

That the world is bigger than they are.

That a quarterback’s pass is only as good as his receiver’s catch. That the best can get pinned and the worst can kick the winning goal.

That you don’t quit.

That other people matter.

And that sometimes your best friend will let you down and sometimes you’ll be the goat. Sometimes the routine you’ve practiced a thousand times will collapse in front of the judges, but other times you’ll nail it.

That you have to take responsibility and not pass blame.

That there will always be good coaches and bad coaches, and whether or not you agree with them, you have to respect them.  

That shameless self-promotion only fuels the next game’s slump.

That a jammed finger, a torn labrum, and a bruised ego will all heal. If you let them.

That victories are short and defeats interminable. But even the longest games come to an end.

That it takes defense to win a game.

That disappointment is just another reason to keep going.

That having a father as a coach is a gift.

I hope they learned loyalty and dedication. Composure and perseverance. And to win humbly and lose stoically.

And at the very least, even if none of those life lessons sink in, I hope my kids have learned that wherever they are and whatever they do, they will always have a fan cheering them on from the sidelines.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Sophie Surprise




My favorite nephew, Harley, was a typical college sophomore at the University of Mississippi. He wore khaki pants, button-down shirts and Sperry’s just like a real southern boy. He studied a little, partied a lot, learned to say “Yes Ma’am” and “Y’all,” and did what they all did at Ole Miss. He tailgated in the Grove, ate crawfish in the Square and became a true Rebel-rouser just like thousands of others in the idyllic college town of Oxford, Mississippi.

Meanwhile, back home in Pennsylvania, a little bundle of joy was brewing. And, when Sophie Belle made her appearance, Harley’s life as a typical college student at Ole Miss came to a screeching halt and he was rocketed into fatherhood.

Sophie wasn’t a big surprise. After all, it’s no secret how babies are made. And it was no surprise that Harley loved her from the moment he saw her. But, the big surprise was just how many hearts this one little person could touch.

My sister Nancy didn’t expect to become a grandmother this way. She had pictured a blissful union and a beautiful wedding followed a year or two later by a baby or three. She had raised her son and daughter as a single mother, working at home as a seamstress, making selfless sacrifices every day of their lives. And now, she saw the finish line fading away and her carefully plotted plans for retirement going up in smoke. Visions of sticky little handprints on her customer’s $5000 silk draperies made her wonder if she was really ready for the grand part of parenting.

But Sophie came and Sophie grew and Sophie became the focal point of every family gathering, the heart of every conversation, the photo in every picture frame. My mother loves being a great-grandmother, all the great-aunts think it’s all just great, her Aunt Olivia thinks she’s the cat’s meow,  her first cousins-once-removed wish they weren’t so far removed, and my sister loves nothing more than sharing Sophie with her son on Wednesdays and alternate weekends.

And as for me. Well, once my kids grew out of toddlerhood, I really had no interest in anyone else’s. I feigned enthusiasm when my friends had babies and had to remember that these new parents truly believed that the sun rose and set on their offspring. My own kids had zapped all the energy out of me and I simply couldn’t understand the appeal of being a grandmother.

But somehow, Sophie was different. Of course, it didn’t hurt that she was the cutest thing in the whole wide world. Or how endearing it was to witness Harley’s new-found proclivity for sparkles and the color pink. Once a carrier of boring black backpacks filled with textbooks, he now totes that pink diaper bag with pride and purpose.

Sophie and her father have created their own language, a gibberish that no one else can understand, but the two of them know all the words translate to a simple “I love you.”  Sophie has learned how to high five and pound it and poses perfectly for every picture. Harley misses her every minute he’s not with her.

I saw Sophie cry for the first time last week. And it might have been my fault. At family dinners I used to always jockey to position myself next to my sister Emily who would then fall prey to my poking and provoking. But now I had found myself a new victim. We were out for dinner and Sophie and I were acting like the two year-olds that she is. While I wasn’t encouraging, I certainly wasn’t discouraging her crayon flinging and chicken tossing entertainment tactics. Soon she was shrieking with delight at the top of her lungs and being the good parent that he is, Harley reprimanded her with a firm, “Sophie. Stop!”

Well that dually-dimpled girl with the devilish eyes burst into the kind of tears more often reserved for the snatching of a favorite toy or a scoop of ice cream toppling from a cone. My sister swooped in and did the grandmother thing, expertly distracting Sophie until she started to smile again. And we all shook our heads knowing that Harley was in for the roller coaster ride of his life.

As I kissed Sophie goodbye that night, leaving her father to deal with her chocolate cupcake high, I suddenly understood what it was I felt in my heart.

It was love and happiness and hope all wrapped up in one little girl. Sophie will always be loved, that much is clear. And she’s certainly the happiest child I have ever encountered. And so, I hope.

I hope for good things for Sophie. I hope she has a fun life filled with lots of adventures. I hope she reads a lot of books and has lots of stories of her own to tell. I hope she travels far but always knows that a heart is waiting for her at home. I hope she is brave enough to take chances but has the common sense to stay out of trouble. I hope she blessed with good friends and good character. I hope she surrounds herself with positive people. I hope she is curious and wise, kind and considerate. I hope she is forgiving and honest, patient and compassionate. I hope one day she has children of her own. But not for a long, long time.

I hope that we all remember that the best surprises come when we least expect them. And that if we keep our hearts open, those surprises can fill us with more love and happiness and hope than we ever thought possible. 
 
But most of all, I hope Sophie’s amazing mother Marisa keeps smiling and that her dimples are always as deep as her daughter's. I hope Harley always, always remembers he’s got a huge support system who believes in the great father that he is. And I hope neither of them ever forgets that there’s nothing in the world more important than their daughter.