I was chatting with the mother of a rising freshman. We talked about the social scene, dating, drugs, drinking and all of the rumors and realities of high school life. I reassured her that her son would be fine, but it was time for her to build up some armor.
You will attend a parent coffee, I said. You will find a group of moms near the food table, and they will be comparing notes about their children; how many AP classes they are taking, how many years ahead they are in math, and how they’ve already taken the SAT to get a baseline as they start their college preparations. As freshmen.
They will ask you how many sports your child plays, who they study oboe with, and insist that colleges like to see at least one study abroad experience before junior year. They will give you the business card of a consultant who will begin to build your child’s curriculum vitae, and will tell you to call today, since you should have started in kindergarten.
Be strong, I said. You are the bug and it is the big blue buzzing light. Stay away. The room is full of sanity. Find it.
The Dude always knew when I’d gotten scorched. I’d start talking about the cello and lacrosse and maybe he’d like to spend a summer learning quantum physics. I’d worry that I was too busy writing to pay sufficient attention. The Dude assured me that if I paid any more attention to him, I might as well put a microchip in him like a family pet. I didn’t remind him that his cell phone served the same function. Find Friends is an awesome app. Eventually, I believed him.
But the Dude came home last night from an evening with some friends all freaked out. The colleges he was considering were all lame. If he wasn’t going to Northwestern, UVA or Michigan it wasn’t worth it. His life was over.
I wasn’t paying enough attention. He got zapped.
Having a razor thin definition of success is the easiest path to failure. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but it’s not the only way to connect them. Wearing blinders doesn’t keep you focused, it keeps you from seeing new alternatives. The chances he’s going to Michigan, UVA or Northwestern are small. His chances of being awesome are 100%. All he has to do is get there, step by step. His steps won’t look like anyone else’s, not because he’s the Dude, but because everyone’s does.
Besides, I said. I know plenty of people who took a rocket ship from A to B only to find that B wasn’t all that great. All he had to do was look at his parents. Money is an easy measurement trap to fall into. Salary isn’t always correlated with happiness. It doesn’t hurt, but it can’t make up for the misery of being in a life that isn’t yours.
The Dude took it all in, and I searched his face for a reaction.
His face said, blah blah blah, my mother’s mouth is moving. After all what do I know?
Well Dude, I know a lot more than you think. I’ve been there, I’m your Mom, and I’m also a badass.
And if that’s not enough, I have a master’s degree from Northwestern. You might have heard of it.
Words by J. B. Everett
Photograph “Bug Zapper” by David Keyser © 2007 Creative Commons/Flickr