IN DARIEN, CONNECTICUT, THE MOST important thing to any child’s parents is where he goes to college. Later, where he works, where he lives as an adult, and his political affiliation. Actually, it starts earlier. Even preschools are competitive. The child who gets insufficient fingerpainting instruction is doomed to spend his wasted life in an alley with a needle in his arm and a dick in his mouth.
(Low-quality coloring books? Not enough crayons? Take the number of dicks and multiply exponentially.)
Basically, anything a child from Darien does has the potential to cause his or her parents great anguish or joy, depending on how it sounds when they swap notes with other parents in the supermarket checkout line:
“Richard just graduated from Yale and earned a spot at a very prestigious investment banking firm. How about your son?”
“Mike wants to be a writer.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” says that mom to my mom. “You must’ve really fucked up as a parent.”
A few months ago, my mom called to tell me in a very even and measured tone — worse than if she’d been yelling or crying hysterically — that I seemed to be drifting through life and wasting my time since 5th grade, when I discovered writing and performing (e.g. my passions). “I’m only telling you because I love you.” Note to parents: you can’t tear someone’s heart out and say it’s for their own good. It might be true, but it’s hard for that person to believe as he watches you hold his still-beating heart in your hands and feels the blood drain out of his vital organs (and non-vitals, like the appendix).
I should patent that conversation and sell it to the Red Cross; turns out you can give blood over the phone.
A week after that call, people who mattered (e.g. people who aren’t me) showed interest in a screenplay I’d written and the rest is history. Talk of me being a failure was completely forgotten by exactly half of the parties involved.
But enough melodrama. All in all, I’ve had a pretty sweet life. My parents say they love me and I know they mean it. I love them too, for everything except what I just brought up.
I’m serious about college being important in Darien, though. The last time I got my mom that upset was during the applications process. It too had to do with my writing.
As soon as US New & World Report releases its annual issue on the best colleges in America, the hens in town start squawking about which pan will get to fry their eggs (how’s that for a metaphor?). Because no one wants to admit their kid is shit, parents talk a big game in front of other parents, whether or not they can back it up, which lays the foundation for a slow torture to occupy the child’s remaining time at home:
“So… Richard’s mom says he’s planning to go to Yale.”
“Yale or Harvard.”
“Lot of Presidents went to Harvard,” the dad would say.
“I don’t want to be President,” the kid would say.
“Christ, we did fuck up. Richard’s mom was right.”
(Note that I keep using the name “Richard” for the overachieving douchebag. When I was about 4 or so, there was a kid on my block who could already read, at age 3. I think his name was Richard. I’ve always associated the name with evil. My apologies to anyone named Richard, though the Richard I’m describing would probably respond to my apology by flipping me off as he drives away in his Porsche.)
Even if a kid says he doesn’t want to go to Yale or Harvard, the parents begin brainstorming how to make it happen anyway. But there are no guarantees. There are horror stories every year about the most brilliant applicants in America getting rejected from their dream colleges. Years later, I spoke with a distant relative who used to be an admissions director at Georgetown, and he explained why: schools that arbitrarily reject obvious can’t-miss candidates get free publicity, look like they know something others don’t, and become much more desirable as a result.
Being aware that that kind of bullshit happens behind the scenes can either be good or bad. I personally don’t mind it. But most parents go to extremes scouring the literature for any clues on how to become a real can’t-miss candidate, not just someone with a flawless SAT score who speaks three languages and is captain of both Varsity baseball and lacrosse (even though both teams practice in the spring, so it’s technically impossible). They latch onto anything they hear about and blow it out of proportion, resulting in awful ideas:
“They want applicants who are worldly.”
Mom takes the kid to a nail salon so he can learn Korean. It turns out to be a brothel.
“They want applicants who have demonstrated leadership skills.”
Dad makes the kid sub for him at work. Though he means well, the kid is clueless about running a Ponzi scheme.
“They want applicants who have overcome personal hardship.”
Both parents draw straws to see which one has to bite the bullet, rape their kid and leave him for dead.
By the time Senior year rolls around, there’s only so much you can do about extracurricular activities, grades, standardized test scores, and overall life experience. The final piece of the puzzle is the admissions essay.
When I was applying to college, there was something like an arms race for writing tutors. I wasn’t privy to how the process worked, but I’m sure the best ones had waiting lists that were miles long. I can only imagine the degrading things my parents were forced to do — and I feel awkward about asking — but they somehow landed me a twice-monthly appointment with a lady who ran an essay business out of her house. Her premise was that schools want to read essays that are “unique,” and she promised to teach students to write them.
If that sounds vague and potentially problematic, congratulations, you’re two steps ahead of my parents.
The lady (I’ll call her “Marianne”) was pleasantly plump, with reading glasses always at the tip of her nose, a toothy smile, and hair that was just starting to gray. She looked ready to bake you a pie at any moment. Hell, if a company put her picture on the box of a line of pies, I bet they’d sell like hotcakes — she could even become Aunt Jemima’s White best friend. But there was a radical ex-hippie underneath that flaky, doughy exterior, who wanted me to write about what I was feeling — really feeling — deep inside.
I was 17 at the time. And male. So that was a mistake.
After about a month working with Marianne, I brought home an essay that provoked the “our son’s a failure” talk I should’ve become immune to by now. In it, I told the following story in vivid detail:
I was in an A Capella singing group in high school (this deserves its own story at some point — looking back, it’s strange that I did this). One of my friends — also in the group — asked four of us (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass) to come to the park and serenade his girlfriend for her birthday. He was romantic like that. The Bass’s parents were out that night, so the Alto suggested that after we did our ditty, we should go to the Bass’s basement and get drunk on beer and some flavored vodka she’d gotten from her older sister (also a Soprano). Our Soprano agreed, and invited another Soprano and an Alto to join us, along with another Bass. The Tenor, yours truly, had never had a drink before, but the Alto kept pushing it. As I discovered, this was the Alto’s way of getting the two of us to make out on the floor of the Bass’s dad’s office. And we did. The End.
I couldn’t tell you what I intended as the purpose of this essay — its “thesis,” if you will. I can tell you that my parents were furious, as they probably got the essay in tandem with the Marianne’s bill. The only worse way to read about your kid drinking underage and engaging in risky sexual behavior would be in the police blotter, and that’s debatable.
Yet life goes on. I never saw Marianne after that, and was sent to a separate essay tutor who encouraged me to get less in touch with my feelings. I got into college, and dated the Alto from roughly the time that story took place until the end of Freshman year. And I never upset my parents again.