No Dude, there is no dream college

It’s the fairy tale we tell our children from the time they are very young.

…and one day, you’ll meet the college you’ve always dreamed of, with small class sizes, abundant clubs and opportunities to study abroad. You’ll lock eyes across a grassy field crowded with wandering peasants after a brief meeting in a ballroom where, despite knowing very little about you, they will tell you that they are the only one for you and you will believe every word. Choose them and you’ll live happily ever four years with challenging but not too hard classes and weekends full of awesome yet responsible parties.

It seems like a benign fantasy. Who wouldn’t want to meet their perfect match, the one that will lead to their ultimate destiny–a well-paying job and the opportunity to move out of their parents’ scrutiny?

School counselors talk about it, so does the media. How to find your dream school. Break the mold to get into your dream school. Behold the Name-your-source “Review Top 10 Dream Schools until we need to sell another edition”, edition.  The Dude and his classmates swam in the collegiate primordial soup of hyperbole. No wonder he’s flailing.

Not that he’s at college, the Dude is miserable. The work is hard. The food is awful, and if someone is throwing those parties, he hasn’t been invited. Somehow, he managed to choose the only university that has outlawed fun. As much as I explained that this was perfectly normal in the first term of freshman year, he feels he’s been lied to. He questions his decision-making ability, and blames his father and me for unduly influencing his choices. There is a dream college out there where his life would be perfect, and it’s not where he is.

He’s not the only one questioning his decision-making. I’m revisiting every step of the process, wondering where we went wrong. I struggled my freshman year too, but I thought it was just me. I wanted it to be better for him. Maybe he wasn’t the only one viewing the situation through the rosy glass of hope.

College isn’t a fairy tale. Prince Charming didn’t charge Cinderella $40K a year for the privilege of his company, and oh by the way, he’s dating another 10,000 fair damsels and maybe, if she proves herself worthy through a series of increasingly complex challenges, he’ll put a ring on it. It’s an important four years, and charging into it with dewy eyed fantasies of the best years of one’s life is bound to create some post purchase dissonance.

The Dude has a decent head on his shoulders, and even he admits perhaps he romanticized it all too much. He just feels that he had help.  The avalanche of propaganda began the second he signed up for the SAT. “Why don’t they just tell us the truth?”

Good question.

It feels better to say it will be the best time ever, but college is an investment not an all-inclusive resort, and maybe if we talked about it that way with our kids, they’d be happier in the end. I certainly have friends whose kids were happy from the moment they stepped foot on campus. I know more, however, whose kids are wrestling with homesickness and the difficult adjustment from high school to college.

Sorry Dude, but it’s time to wake up. College is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. Companies don’t choose to hire from universities because the students have a great time making friends and joining clubs, but for the skills they possess. A college can’t make you happy. You have to do that for yourself.

And it’s time for me to wake up, too. There may not be some magical moment where my son becomes happy with where he is, and I cannot make him happy with it either, through eloquence or persistence.

The best we can do is deal with reality, one step at a time. And if had it to over again, that’s probably what I’d say There is no dream college. Choose a real one instead.

Who’s that girl?

11908585_10206959825821690_7943426081004690238_oJane added 12 photos of you. To add these to your timeline, go to Timeline Review.

Uhm. What?

I’d visited Jane recently, but I couldn’t remember posing for any photos while I was there. It was also my 50-somethingth birthday. My guess was that the photos had to be old. Just how old? Anything stretching back to very was possible.

Jane is a golden friend. She’s been in my heart for a long time, so she has access to the really good stuff. By good, I mean stuff the Dude would find amusing payback for my writing about him for the last ten years.

My high school experience was one of duality. I don’t remember I time when I felt so loved and so unloved at the same time. It all depends on the frame of reference. Thinking about those years can bring forth a cringe and a smile at the same time, sort of like watching The Office, only I’m a smarter Michael Scott.

Jane is firmly planted on the side of the angels, so I poured a glass of wine and plunged into Facebook. There they were, a parade of smiling faces ranging from the age of six to  twenty-six.

Damn, I had a lot of hair. It was the 80’s after all. It was still dark back then. Like my father, I went gray quite young. I’ve been dyeing it so long I’d forgotten the original color. I’m smaller than I remember, too–almost compact. At the time, I felt so inescapably large, like I couldn’t get out of my own way, let alone anyone else’s.

What struck me most, however, is that the Jeannine in the pictures is so happy, so at ease. Nothing like the girl that narrates my flashbacks. I couldn’t look away.What made the difference?

I was seeing myself through someone else’s lens.

Memory theory says that we don’t actually remember events. Our brains rewrite the memory each time it’s accessed, so it’s layered with whatever new information we’ve painted over it, like looking into a mirror of a mirror of a mirror. What we remember is the last time we remembered the event. The truest memory is one that we’ve never retrieved before. I didn’t take these photos, so they had no prior imprint.

We tend to fixate on all of the negative baggage–the idiotic stuff we did–rather than the millions of moments that truly make up the bulk of our very good lives. We play them over and over again, adding more footnotes each time. The versions of ourselves that we remember can often get trapped in a box made by those who knew and loved us least.

Those pictures were the greatest gift. Who knows what those rewritten memories may bring?

So I posted the photos to my own Facebook timeline, even if it screams to the world that I am not a natural blonde. My posture is better, and I will never, ever part my hair down the middle again, but I will try to remember what I tell the Dude all of the time–we are neither as awful or awesome as we remember we are. If you want the truth, ask a friend for an old picture. It might surprise you. It surprised me. Who’s that girl. She’s me.

Hats off to the Class of 2015

IMG_0748The grads all took a bus from school, and we, the parents, would meet with them after the ceremony. If we wanted pre-graduation photos, the Dude would need to be up and dressed at 7:00.


I tried to get the Dude to dress for pictures the day before, but like every other day that week, he was at a graduation party. Clearly, we’d be taking photographs afterwards. Thank goodness he didn’t have to turn in his cap and gown.

“Hey Dude,” I said. “If you really have to throw your cap, make sure you come back with one afterwards.”

“Why would I want to throw my cap?” He got into his friend’s car and they disappeared.

On graduation morning the Dude woke up with barely enough time to take a shower and get the ends of his tie to match up before running out the door.

The Dude’s Dad and I were a little more prepared. In fact, we had a plan. The Dude’s Dad is really good at plans. We had to leave late enough to minimize the amount of time standing on the sidewalk outside the auditorium in 95 degree weather. On the flip side, we had to leave early enough that I-66 was still HOV, so we could bypass the long line of single occupant cars pulled over by the police at 8:45. We’d secured a prepaid parking spot a few blocks from the auditorium and I’d even worn flats.

For once, events followed plan and The Dude’s Dad and I took our seats to watch 500 kids march across the stage and receive a blank folder.

The room was full of celebratory energy, yet held an undertone of sadness. I’d been getting information emails in the weeks leading up to the big day, each one bemoaning the arrival of another “last”.  I’m pretty attached to The Dude, but I was anything but melancholy.

I’ll admit, I teared up a little hearing the orchestra play “Pomp and Circumstance,” but it was partly due to the fact many of them were better players than I am, and I’m petty that way. As the graduates filed in, we scanned heads to see if we could spot the Dude. At 6-foot-4, he’s pretty easy to spot, even if everyone is dressed alike. The Dude scanned the crowd, but couldn’t see us, so I waved, along with 500 other mothers. He’d have to trust we were watching.

The speeches covered the usual territory; assertions that despite high school sucking like an Electrolux, these were the best days of their lives, along with assurances that things would get even better than that. They spoke of hard work, dedication and perseverance, but mostly, a lot about partying, with thinly veiled references to activities they think the parents aren’t aware of. (Every generation of teens think they discovered sex, despite the evidence to the contrary. After all, they exist.)

Given the Dude’s last name starts with “E”, we didn’t have to wait long to see him cross the stage. They’d hired a photographer, which was good, since even with a zoom, the Dude looked like a green ant. He exited, and the Dude’s Dad and I turned towards each other for a high five.

Raising the Dude was a joy. Turning him into an adult was more like a bad Monty Python skit. Equal parts painful than funny, impossible to understand much of the time, and about twice as long as it needed to be. My husband pulled out his IPhone to answer emails, while I pondered my ambivalence with watching my son graduate high school.

Then I got it.

Graduating high school is his right of passage. It isn’t mine. He got himself through high school. Yes, his Dad and I nagged helped, but the work was all his. The memories are his. The triumphs and the tumbles, all his. So I don’t feel sad. I’m happy for him.

And I’m happy for me.

My right of passage will come in August, when I wake up in the morning, on my own schedule, then work through my own agenda until 3:00 when it dawns on me that he won’t be popping through the door to flop on my floor and pretend he isn’t dying to talk about his day. I will miss him terribly, while I’m having the best time of my life. I guess I have more in common with a high school senior than I thought.

After the ceremony was complete, we wove through the crowd looking for the Dude. Or more accurately, I wove through the crowd, while the Dude’s Dad scanned over the top of the crowd to find the only person in the room taller than he is. When the Dude walked over, he was twirling the tassel around his finger, no cap in sight.

“You said you wouldn’t throw your cap.”

He leaned his elbow against my shoulder, accentuating the difference in our height. “I never said that.”

Of course he did. I knew he would. It’s what a graduate does.

And as I feigned annoyance by scowling, just to be sure we had at least one, my husband snapped a picture.

Fast Times at Farmington High

This weekend is my thirtieth high school reunion. I can’t attend, as I’ll be bringing the beloved monster home from camp. Can’t wait to give him a big hug. I just hope he’s showered this week.

As the geek-in-residence of my year (or at least one of the top contenders for the title) reunions evoke memories of my most cringe-worthy self. It was, however, a time when my friends were family and I spent countless hours with some of the most wonderful people I’ll ever know. You know who you are. You also know what I’m up to.  This is for everyone else.

Since I can’t be there in person, let me take a few moments to answer the inevitable questions that arise at occasions like these. It’s just like being there, without the plane fare, the banquet hall food, or having to listen to unnamed people sing. It also allows me to edit.

After high school, I did what most people expected. I went to college and kicked butt.  After that came a whole lot of working and some more school, and then a whole lot more working. Probably sounds familiar. It’s what we all did.  After twenty years of doing what people expected, I decided it was time to do what I wanted. According to LinkedIn, I’m a writer at Self Employed, Inc., where the salary sucks but the benefits are unmatched. Ms. Pieron would be proud. Mrs. Gearhart, not so much. My grammar is still awful and I use passive voice all of the time.

I’ll have you know that I didn’t marry an English professor. My husband’s PhD is in Computer Science. We have a teenage son who is a popular, extroverted, jock-student. I know. It surprises the heck out of me, too.  We have a habit of moving every five years, strategically selecting cities with a high cost of living, perpetual gridlock and an overinflated housing market. At the moment, we live outside of D.C., which elevates gridlock to a whole new level and adds humidity. I don’t have to shovel snow or wear hats in the winter. That makes up for a lot. If only the Nationals didn’t suck.

I still wear glasses, but I’m guessing a lot of you do too. I run miles every day, and not because anyone is chasing me with a snowball. I still play violin.  Adults call this creative expression and view it as a enviable character trait, not a “kick me” sign. But I’m not cynical or anything. Believe it or not, I have very few regrets about things I did in high school (save for powder blue eye shadow, questionable fashion choices and a few idiots I pined over). Most of my regrets are things that I didn’t do, pieces of myself that I hid, thinking they were too fragile to stand up to the scrutiny of others.  I was wrong.

I kept my snarky mouth shut, but filed my best lines in memory. Now, I use them to eviscerate imaginary antagonists.  If by any chance, you read one of my stories where a character meets a gruesome and painful end, any resemblance is purely coincidental.

All in all, I’m sorry to miss the event. There are a few people I’d really love to see, a couple of long-overdue apologies and explanations that will remain unsaid, and a few secrets I’ll take to my grave, because saying so  makes them sound so much more interesting than they really are.  So, to those gathering at El Nibble Nook on Friday, I recommend the Burro Verde. When the guitarist plays “You Belong to my Heart,” it’s from me to you.