Friday, March 21, 2014

"I only know I'm going"

Disclaimer:  This post is going to be about how much we help our kids get into college. We did it, you did it, and according to the book of Good Parenting, which is also known as What Everyone Else Does, it is what we should do. This is not a post that thinks there's anything wrong with "helping", even though it is about what can happen when we don't.

Once I had a psychology teacher who said to the class, "When you get that feeling in your stomach that you're being manipulated, you are."

I have been reading about the changes in the SAT.  Among other things, the writing requirement will be removed, the subject matter will be updated to align with contemporary culture and curriculum, and kids previously unable to avail themselves of expensive SAT prep will find it online for free so that nobody is left standing behind the rope.

It means a lot of kids will get into college who might not have before.

I'm getting that feeling in my stomach.

It's not for us, because Sam graduated high school two years ago; it's more of a sympathy tummy ache for those who believe that  the easier getting in part has anything to do with the staying in and getting out parts, which have everything to do with initiative, drive, maturity, intelligence and of course, a compelling desire to run their own lives. Things for which there is no standardized test.

Most of us who have raised our children with the expectation that they WILL go to college gear up to "help" in the junior year and are full-on "helpful" in the senior year, when every conversation between parents and their seniors starts with "Did you", or, "Don't forget".  

Our own refrigerator door was so full of (cheerful! Always cheerful!) post-it reminders, it annoyed even me. It did not annoy Sam because he went to the refrigerator for little pizza snacks, and cherry Coke, not information. 

Here would not be a bad time to cultivate that initiative (or at least glimpse it) but this is when many of us move from full-on helpful to "I'll just do it." We schedule the SAT, pay for the prep, hire the tutors and suggest essay topics. We leave the Barron's guide where they'll trip over it, and have many, many meetings in the living room to "narrow things down". We read up and panic ourselves about the "difficulty today of getting in" (And by the way, there has never been a "today" when it wasn't difficult for one reason or another) and we cheerfully, always cheerfully, urge our students to bring their grades up when they get a chance. We send them to take the SAT every quarter. We book flights and tours. We send them  links.

Why do we? Two reasons, in my opinion:

First, because the thought of leaving life-altering, critical priorities and deadlines in the hands of people who start big projects eight or nine hours before they are due, is terrifying.

Second, because everyone else does it. 

What if we didn't? 

What if the helpful-parent culture suggested that getting into college belongs to our kids as much as staying in college does? What then, would we see of readiness?

A parent once said to me about her exasperatingly mellow junior, "I told her, 'This is in your hands. You don't research where you want to go? You're not going.'"

What if we meant it?

Think for a moment, if we parents stopped the college-prep bus, moved over and asked the kid to drive, how far they'd get. What if you left the entire project in their hands? Made them buy their own Barron's guide, organize their tours, pay for their apps and their own SAT prep? What if we ceased the nagging, and said, like the friendly neighbor over the fence, "How are you doing with the whole college thing? Good?"

Can you imagine? I can.

I met that kid.

She is one of the teens at our local Boys and Girls Club who is competing for "Youth of the Year", the Club's scholarship program. There is a $500 scholarship for participating, another $500 if they win, and at the state level, a $10,000 scholarship to the college of their choice.

When I began working with her on her essays and speeches, she was a junior who had  "never really thought about college" because nobody in her family had ever gone. Family expectations of her amounted to graduating high school, finding a job and moving out. She was self-conscious when she talked about her college plans with me as if she were not convinced by her own words on the subject.  

I wondered how her ambition would be sustained with no money, no role model, no support from home. No refrigerator door with post-its..

"I only know I'm going," she said.

At school, she took on an ambitious course load, including a sprinkling of AP classes, the strain of which, on top of managing a household in the dawn-to-dark absence of her parents, reduced her to tears more than once.

Still, she pulled her GPA from the low threes to a 3.8, and took a job bagging groceries twenty hours a week to pay for the SATs and college applications. The first SAT "really, really sucked" she said,  but scores from the second one were much better because "she knew what to expect." 

There's your free SAT prep.

She applied to six schools, five where her major is offered and a "safety". As of this month, she has been accepted into all but one.

She has no idea how she'll pay for it. Her guidance counselor responded by telling her she wasn't the only one going to college, and to come back after she'd done more digging on her own. I took her to the New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation for financial counselling.

"So how can I help you today?" asked the counselor. 
"I have no idea how to do this," said my B & G teen. 
"Well, then, we know where to start," said the angel-counselor.
And she was off.

Last week, she competed at the local level for the Youth of the Year title and gave a speech describing her "story". Afterward, she answered questions before a panel of seven judges about her life. When she was asked the question:  "Where do you see yourself  in five years?" she looked straight at the judge and said, "I'll be a marine biologist. And," she laughed, "I'll be in some pretty big debt." 

She won the title and the money. In May she'll compete for the big money.

With no family culture that reinforced the importance of college, with no funds and then, with that dismissive response from the school's guidance office, my B &G teen still found a way because she has one thing: a compelling desire to move on with her life.

There's your level playing field.

Parents who can support their kids should. And many kids would not get as far as my B & G teen did without the lifelong expectation of a college education like a hand at their backs. Conversely, many kids who are walked through the process as our kids were, go on to set up very impressive staging for their futures on their own.  

But here's my sympathy tummy ache:

We should not be manipulated by our culture of parent-dependent achievement, or, the industries that profit from parent-anxiety, into thinking our kids lack the initiative to do the college thing without us. 

When they are driven to move on with their lives, even without post-its on the refrigerator, they can. 

And will.


  1. Good for her! I recently watched the documentary, Girl Rising, and was so moved by the determination of girls around the world whose sole goal was to go to school and get an education. Their passion and tenacity will get them so much further than kids here who are pushed and enabled and take it for granted. Thanks for a great, really thought-provoking post.

  2. Nicely put Lois, thanks for stopping by.

  3. My parents did not a thing to help me with my application. I've lived my life with a strong sense of self because I started to "do it myself" then. Just saying.

  4. I was definitely among the hovering, anxious parents about college applications and admissions - but once they left for school I was hands-off. Much of my anxiety came from the culture around me, but plenty came from my desire to see my children happy (that loaded word, happy).

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  6. True, Sharon, a loaded word it is. I remember reading you on this subject

    and thinking: she's right, sometimes we behave like the whole family's going to college.

  7. Susan, this is such a wonderful story and I wish your B&G girl all good luck. Keep us posted!

  8. Thank you Grown and Flown...and I will have an update soon, I'm sure. She heads for the state competition in a month...fingers crossed.