Wednesday, September 15, 2010

College Talk

Maggie Barbieri

I went to a dinner party the other night to not celebrate my friend’s daughter’s sixteenth birthday. The daughter was so opposed to celebrating this birthday—we’re not sure why—but we went against her wishes and brought her presents and sang “Happy Birthday” while cutting a big, giant ice cream cake. All in all, it was the best non-celebration I’ve been to in a while. It was refreshing to have a retro birthday party, complete with ice cream cake, candles, family, and friends.

This birthday is significant because her birthday represents the last of my friend’s children to turn sixteen. They are now in their junior year of high school and with that come PSATs, college essay writing courses, SAT prep courses, Advanced Placement courses (AP), and a lot of stress. My daughter and her friends—no slouches when it comes to studying and doing well in school—are hearing a lot about what it takes to get into college and how they might fall short of their personal goals with just one random misstep. I have spent the better part of the summer convincing my child, as well as her friends (when I can get them all together and hold them hostage), that they are very bright and not to sell themselves short when it comes to applying to schools.

But what is even more troubling than kids thinking they can’t achieve even their most realistic goals is how early all of this talk of college—and careers—is starting. It seems like this conversation, at parties and on ball fields alike, has been going on since the girls first entered high school. This may be a function of their having played on varsity sports and being surrounded by older girls who were making these decisions, or maybe not. Maybe we, as a group, are starting the conversation too early. Instead of using high school as a way station to college—a means to an end—we should just shut up and let the kids enjoy the experience that four years of high school can bring. Maybe I should take my own advice and “shut my dang pie hole.”

I’m just as guilty as other parents, I suspect, and that is why I’m going to keep college talk to a minimum around here until absolutely necessary. Heck, all this talk is starting to stress me out! I keep thinking back to my own college search which involved me visiting two colleges, applying to both, getting into one, and going there. There was no talk of the “common app” or the “safety school” or applying to ten or more schools, even though you would probably only choose between two, three, at most. When I was applying, college applications cost upwards of $150 to send in, and back in the recession-riddled late seventies and early eighties, you picked wisely so as not to have to take a college loan to pay off the cost of applying to college in the first place.

At the birthday party, there was talk of SAT tutors who charge in the neighborhood of four thousand dollars to help your kid ace the test and “college coaches” who can help you and your child navigate the process of applying. There was a discussion over the value of taking the Advanced Placement courses versus doing well in non-AP courses. A conversation centered around going to state university as opposed to private university. It’s enough to make your head spin.

The varsity football team had their home opener this past Saturday, which was a gorgeous late summer day in the low 70s. Girls’ field hockey commences this week. Mums are on sale at the local nursery, and soon, I’ll be making the first of many apple pies with delicious New York State apples. Homecoming is the second weekend in October. I need to remind my daughter that these are the things we should be talking about and doing and forget about test-taking skills, scores, and financial aid forms. There’s plenty of time until we need to get knee-deep in all of that.

What do you think, Stiletto faithful? Live in the present and enjoy high school or focus on the future?

Maggie Barbieri


  1. Ah, those lovely stress-free days of high school! Ha! Honestly, I think high school is great training ground for learning to balance family, work, and fun. Yes, it's about being a kid still (even if, at that age, you feel fairly grown up), but it's also about looking toward the future. Maggie, I'm sure your kids are as well-balanced as they come. You are such a good mom! It's so much easier being the mom to three fur-kids. I tell them, "Just play! To hell with school!" And I'm happy so long as they don't use too much catnip.

  2. Well, I guess we're gulity of taking about it too early too. I think it all started after our trip to Boston 4 years ago (our son was in 2nd grade). We stayed right around the corner from MIT and while my husband was in meetings my son and I explored Boston and the MIT campus.

    At the top of his list was the Museum of Science and there was some talk by those at the museum about the great engineering program at MIT when they saw my son build a stucture. What?? was my comment but for my son that was it. He's been talking about going to MIT ever since, with Cal Tech a close second. Then he wants to work at JPL. (Got any tips Rachel??)

    I don't think was that driven but some kids are just wired that way. My husband and I agree that our son is in charge and we are just along for the ride with our wallets open!

    Who knows what will happen in 6 years when he is actually applying for college. Right now I just want to get through 6th grade. : )

  3. I think we're just too high-pressure across the board in our culture. And, I think it's not for nothing that the biggest thing most of this pressure generates is income for the many and varied "industries" that have popped up around getting out of high school and into college.

    What's funny is that those of us who've been in college can surely confess, even this quarter century or more on, that it was NOT all that hard or, more importantly, focused a time. We were still young, were still resilient, were still all similar if different, and it was school--just SCHOOL and it was do-able because it's been done.

    As to the importance of that level of school and the amount of work it takes to succeed and make it a keystone of your future, I'll say this: College is like most every other thing in your life in that you get out as much as you put in. I was a high-school drop (but excellent and avid reader) with a high SAT score and I went to a state school and got out with a B-average in two majors. I was focused to the degree that I knew I wanted to make a life around words and it's true that at about age 14 I understood that meant probably English or Journalism as a field of study. I went to Journalism school and loved every minute. But, I never thought it was bad or weird that peers of mine took until sophomore or junior year to hone in on their dreams. College seemed exactly for that: the place to fine tune your vision for yourself.

    And, I have always had a good and varied career where I was able to get a fair and decent wage. I've always had fun with the hard work. I've switched careers here and there (had a good decade in IT). And, all of it, college and everyday since is part of the path of a life's work and the career I've earned now is the one I spent the past few decades on and that is just fine by me.

    So, I say, enjoy your days, pay attention to what you do well and love to do but also find out, experiment early with what you suck at because it's just as important to figure that out so you don't waste your talents. High school and college are the front-loaded early part of your life and are meant to be your personal learning curve, and not just on what's in a text book or on a webinar.

  4. I'm long past all this, my children have made their careers--and in some cases retired, and none did much with college. In all of their cases, they got married right out of high school.(Probably our fault, since that's what we did.)

    Eldest girl had a great career that began with being a Kelly Girl and ended up being a secretary in a school district office, for many different departments. They still call her back to sub when they get behind.

    Had one son who didn't do well in school at all, but always had a job.

    One granddaughter is a speech therapist in a public school.

    Have a grandson who didn't complete his college, but is doing exactly what he wants--he's a police officer.

    Two grandsons have their electrician's license and both are doing well.

    My point is, you don't have to go to college to make it in this world. There are a lot of jobs that are necessary to make the world go round that are satisfying and pay well.

    So don't stress so much, moms, if that's what the kids want great--but if they don't get into some wonderful college, or don't want to go, that's not the end of the world.