The College Tour: BS or Worth It?
“Well, that’s horseshit.”
That’s what my father had to say, upon hearing the news that I was taking my son, Sam, on a college tour.
“Thanks for your support, Dad!” I said, carrying the weight of a thousand stones.
But I knew his drill. My brothers and I had never been taken on college tours, because…what could spending a few hours on a campus tell us that would be of any possible significance?
According to my father, you go to the “best” school you get into. The end. No matter that I fled Swarthmore College in the middle of my sophomore year, after discovering it was a pressure-cooking mental institution posing as a center for higher learning.
But whatever. It was my turn to make my own egregious mistakes that the kids could one day hold against me, and damn if I wasn’t going to make the most of it.
So, after logisticizing an itinerary that nearly exploded my steaming ADD brain, we set off on a ten-day, eight-city college tour.
Here’s what I learned.
1. The proverbial college tour is basically a tense, awkward traveling circus. For starters, you’ve got a stampede of anxious parents pretending they’re not anxious, trying to be normal with their semi-but-mostly-fake-adult children, also pretending not to be anxious.
There’s an intimacy paradox at work here: By this point, most of our 17-year-olds have not talked to us in years. Yet, suddenly, we’re on a long trip with them, sharing hotel rooms, toilets, hours-long airplane rides—all kinds of new challenges not to over-manage, over-suggest, over-breathe. And here are our kids, trying either gently or meanly to separate, ask their own questions, figure things out for themselves.
The result? At Embassy Suite breakfast buffets, info sessions, campus tours across America, the prickly dynamics of the kid/parent troupes take the stage, a multi-ring circus featuring the push-pull of love during a time of tense transition. Stony glances, lots of “Okay, Mom,” the occasional parental arm thrown around the teenage shoulder in a vain attempt at connection, shrugged off. Which brings me to my next revelation:
2. I’m embarrassing. Although not big news to me, the college trip offered an exciting, new deep dive into the subject.
My son is a sensitive and extremely loving person. And yet, every few hours, he was forced to act for my own good. I would feel his big, warm hand on my shoulder; the squeeze, followed by a soft but firm: “Mom. No.”
When I raised my hand at the info session one too many times: Mom. No.
If I made the slightest move to music under any circumstances: Mom. No.
There was gentle advice. As I drove us to the next city: Mom. Speed limit? Mom. Blinker? As I started, like any normal person, jaywalking: Mom. Crosswalk?
And there was interpersonal coaching. As I strained to connect with my friend’s 9-year-old son by asking how school was going: Mom. That’s the worst question.
Luckily, all the other parents were embarrassing, too. And every once in a while, as we kid-parent couples stepped into an elevator, we’d catch each other’s eye, share an empathetic little nod. It was a little moment of grace. Our version of a traveling support group, a silent: it’s okay, they’ll miss us one day.
3. College tour or eating tour? Hard to say. But my splitting pants are proof that the Midwest has some of the best eating in the world. Where else can you get Poutine, where they pour creamed gravy over an enormous heap of fries and then smother it in a blanket of smoky, shredded prime rib? Or a Wisconsin burger piled with bacon, slabs of smoked cheddar and truffled onions? Where else can you get fried pickles? Golden cheese curds? Cleveland’s plate of brown-butter-fried potato pierogi with a side of stuffed cabbage? Plus a side of chicken paprikash on a bed of hand cut noodles? I mean, come on.
4. College tours might not be all horse shit, but maybe they’re a little horse shit. No doubt you can learn something of a school’s culture and offerings by visiting campus, but boy oh boy, did they feel a lot the same. It was as if all admissions directors attended the same giant workshop to produce the College Tour Experience: The chipper, self-deprecating admissions presenters, all asking for dragged-along siblings to raise their hands. The requisite power point slide shows, featuring diversity pie charts and earnest kids looking through microscopes, throwing frisbees on electric green lawns. Exuberant tour guides walking backwards at breakneck speeds, stressing you out. The research opportunities, oh, the research opportunities!This school is your home away from home. We offer a work hard/play hard ethos, blah blah blah. I couldn’t help but hear my father whispering in my ear.
5. Or maybe…the meaning is behind the madness.Just a few weeks out, I barely remember one school from another. But something else happened on that trip that’s harder to explain. It was like when our kids had their bar and bat mitzvahs, an unintended trip up to 50,000 feet to look down on this moment in our lives. To take in how far our kids — and we — have come. To tip-toe closer to the reality that, as parents to at-home children, the jig is almost up. And that, for our kids? Their childhoods, as they’ve always known them, are coming to a close.
For me, the college tour turned out to be a traveling microcosm for all of us parents and kids, the loving struggle for the growth that this new chapter calls for.
“I think maybe I can see it now,” I said to Sam as we looked out the tiny, oval window on our flight home. “You, at college.”
“Yeah, me too,” he said quietly.
And so concluded our joyful, bittersweet dress rehearsal for the road ahead, together and apart.
I wouldn’t have given it up for anything in the world.
Next up: A Secret, Surprising Anti-Depressant
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