Volume 22, Number 18 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 11 - 17, 2009

Hallelujah, it’s college application time

By Michele Herman

The trees are in their autumn beauty, the woodland paths are dry, wrote Yeats. But here’s how we know it’s fall in the city: the mailbox is full of glossy brochures of Chris Quinn surrounded by small circles of concerned constituents, and we parents are going school shopping. Most of the time this means shopping for school supplies, but every few years – on a schedule nearly as regular as the City Council election cycle -- it means actually shopping for schools.

I’m happy to say that my family has reached a milestone: with our younger son safely enrolled in high school, we will never again have to submit an application to the New York City public school system. Hallelujah. We have done well by the system, managing to thrive despite all the wrenches history and mayoral control threw our way -- a period of rotating principals at P.S. 3, the shaky post-9/11 months with three schools squeezed into one building; the indignity and idiocy of I.S. 89, our high-performing middle school, receiving a D on its first Dept. of Education report card. Looking back, we’re just thankful to have arrived in the distant days before there were 5,000 more kids Downtown than there were seats.

But now, with our older son entering his senior year of high school, we’re deep into college shopping. This is a ritual the city has prepped us for well, because if there’s one skill our friends at the D.O.E. have drilled deep into our cerebral cortexes, it’s how to shop for schools. The college search resembles the high-school search crossed with shopping for real estate (another skill at which New Yorkers excel).

There’s a wide-open quality to the process that can be both daunting and liberating. Like college itself, it costs lots of money. But in other ways the colleges and the people in the auxiliary professions – the publishers of the college guides, the guidance counselors at school, the recruiters who come to the college fairs -- make it easy. After years of being matched with a single school, we public-school parents still feel amazed that our children can apply to multiple colleges and possibly be accepted at several at the same time. They send us glossy literature by the bucketful -- any mailing that doesn’t feature the mug of Judge Leslie Crocker Snyder or Yetta Kurland these days is likely to feature a group of engaged students under one of those Yeatsian trees, with a cupola or a fillip of collegiate Gothic trim in the background for good measure. Sometimes the literature is standard P.R. fodder (Excellence, Thirst for Knowledge), but sometimes there’s a nerdy fun to it, like the Williams brochure that informs readers of how many molecules were represented at the recent chemistry department Halloween party.

We’re especially lucky that Stuyvesant, our son’s high school, sponsors a series of whirlwind fall trips to campuses within busing distance. Last spring our family also pulled off a nine-day spring-break tour of six Midwestern colleges just to get a feel for what’s out there -- the Universities of Michigan, Chicago and Wisconsin, Northwestern, Carleton and Macalaster. This was not easy but it was worthwhile. I highly recommend touring the U.S. by hopping from campus to campus; you’ll end up with the impression this nation is a bastion of beauty, liberalism and optimism where you can make your own Belgian waffles in the cafeteria.

It’s possible to get so caught up in the excitement of the possibilities college offers that one can forget the bittersweet end result: the child who has been the center of your field of energy for 18 years, who has recalibrated your routines, your outlook, your pretty much everything, is ready to be sent out into the world. This is the 18th hole of the big mini-golf game, the one where even if you hit par, you don’t get your ball back.

Kids grow in a funny, lurching fashion. They seem exactly the same for ages, and then they emerge from the bedroom one morning with a physique where just yesterday there was only a belly. For years on end, they read the same Calvin and Hobbes books until you worry the attachment is getting pathological, and then one morning over their Corn Chex they reach for the front section of the Times. You cringe for years at their inability to look a grown-up in the eye, and suddenly they’re carrying on an intense conversation about the Bauhaus with your friends.

Our village of family, friends, neighbors, teachers and peers has prepared him beautifully, and our son is more than ready to go out into the world and make it a better place (though he doesn’t yet have a clue which discipline he’ll choose as his vehicle). But his period of what I’ve been calling healthy confusion is about to end. Starting next week, when senior year cranks up, he will buckle down to fill out the “common app,” the form which many schools accept. He’ll home in on an essay topic for that, and make a working list of schools. Then he’ll have to tackle the supplementary essay these schools inevitably require. We’ll pay the SAT people to submit his scores (paying the SAT people is a frequent college theme). We’ll sit down ourselves with the dreaded FAFSA, the financial-information form.

Before long the applications will be sweated out, trees will be bare and who knows what the woodland paths will be like -- we live in New York City, a very good place to incubate a productive new member of society.


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