Great Expectations

(Originally published July 19, 2010)

IN DARIEN, CONNETICUT, the most important thing to any child’s parents is where he goes to college. Later: where he works, where he moves to (if he moves), and his political affiliation. But college comes first.

Actually, it begins earlier. Much earlier. Even preschools are competitive. The child who receives insufficient finger-painting 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 accordingly.

Basically, anything a child from Darien does has the potential to cause his parents great anguish or joy, depending on how it sounds at the supermarket checkout line:
“Richard just graduated from Yale and earned a position at a very prestigious banking firm. How about your son?”
“Mike wants to be a writer.”
“I’m so sorry,” says that mom to my mom. “You must have really fucked up.”

A few months ago, my mom called to tell me, in a very even and measured tone – worse than if she’d been crying or screaming hysterically – that I seemed to be drifting through life and wasting my time since roughly 5th grade (when I discovered writing and performing, e.g. my life’s passions). “I’m only telling you because I love you,” she explained, with my still-beating heart in her hands, blood slowly draining out. Melodrama aside, it was brutal.

A week after that call, we heard from someone interested in producing 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. Kidding. Putting everything into perspective, I’ve had a pretty sweet life, and my parents love me, and I love them too, except for within that one moment I just brought up.

I’m serious about the importance of college 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 News & World Report releases its annual issue on the best colleges in America, the hens start squawking about which pan gets to fry their eggs. (How’s that for a metaphor?) Because no one will admit their kid is shit, parents talk a big game in front of other parents, whether or not they can back it up, laying the groundwork for a slow torture to occupy the child’s remaining time under their roof:

“So… Richard’s mom says he’s planning to go to Yale,” the mom might say.
“Okay.”
“Yale or Harvard.”
“Lots of Presidents went to Harvard,” the dad might say.
“I don’t want to be President.”
“Christ, we did fuck up,” either might say.1

Even if the kid says he doesn’t want to go to Yale or Harvard, the parents begin scheming how to make it happen anyway, even though there are no guarantees. Every year there are horror stories about the most brilliant applicants in America getting rejected by their dream colleges. Years after my own experience, 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 word-of-mouth publicity, look like they know something others don’t, and become even more desirable as a result.

Being aware that that kind of bullshit goes on behind the scenes can be good or bad. I personally don’t mind it. But most parents go to extremes, scouring the literature for clues on how to become a real can’t miss candidate, not just someone with a flawless SAT score who speaks three languages and captains both Varsity baseball and lacrosse (even though both are spring sports, so it’s technically impossible). Parents will latch onto anything and blow it out of proportion, resulting in some absolutely awful ideas:

Cause: “I hear they want applicants who are worldly.”
Effect: Mom takes kid with her to the nail salon to learn Korean. The salon turns out to be a brothel.
Cause: “I hear they want applicants who have demonstrated leadership skills.”
Effect: Dad takes kid to work with him. Kid learns Dad operates a Ponzi scheme.
Cause: “They want applicants who have overcome personal hardship.”

Effect: Mom or Dad proactively engage in a murder-suicide.

By the time Senior year rolls around, there’s only so much you can do to bolster your extracurricular activities, grades, standardized test scores, and overall life experience. That’s where the admissions essay comes in.

When I was applying to college, there was a kind of arms race for writing tutors. I wasn’t privy to how the process worked, but I know the best ones had waiting lists that were miles long and I can only imagine the degrading things my parents were forced to do to bump me up. Somehow, they landed me a twice-monthly appointment with a lady who ran an essay business out of her home. 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 one step ahead of my parents.

The lady (I’ll call her “Maryanne”) was pleasantly plump, with reading glasses always at the tip of her nose, a toothy smile, and hair that was just starting to grey. She looked ready to bake a pie at any moment; Hell, if a company used a picture of his face to brand a line of pies, they’d sell like hotcakes.

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 with Maryanne, I brought home an essay that provoked the “our son’s a failure” talk I should’ve become immune to by now, and even by then. In the essay, I told the following story in vivid detail:

I was in an A Capella singing group in high school.2 One of my good 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; not our Soprano). Our Soprano liked the idea, and invited another Soprano (also different) and a second Alto to join us, plus another Bass. The Tenor, yours truly, had never had a drink before, but the Alto kept pushing it. As the Tenor found it, this was the Alto’s way of getting him to make out with her on the floor of the Bass’s dad’s office and make beautiful music together. Which we did. The End.

I couldn’t tell you what I intended as the purpose of this essay. My parents were furious, regardless, rightly so, as they received it in tandem with Maryanne’s bill.

Yet life goes on. I never saw Maryanne again, was sent to a separate essay tutor who encouraged me to get less in touch with my feelings. I got into college, dated that same Alto through the end of Freshman year, and never upset my parents again.

The End.

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