Thursday, October 18, 2012

Junior Year Blues

Being a junior in high school is hard work.  PSAT... AP courses... driving a car... so much on the cusp of adulthood yet firmly rooted in childhood, too.  I had a chance to be up close and personal with those living through it last night.

I represented Cornell at the Tucson Unified School District's College Night.  For $200, paid through the generosity of the Cornell Club of Southern Arizona, I was given a table, two chairs, a pen and a bottle of water.  The University provided name tags, flyers filled with information, and colorful bookmarks and postcards with contact information on both sides.  There was no list for interested students to complete, no envelope to collect resumes.  In fact, the University made a specific request that we not accept personal information.  We were to direct the students to the Admissions Office's website, where they could input their own deets.

I love it when a cost saving measure fits neatly into the actor's lifestyle.

Over the last few years, attendance has waned at the Fair.  Five year ago there were busloads of students from Benson and Wilcox and Green Valley, carted in to meet the representatives.  Last night there were no large packs of roving teens, bound together by classroom affiliations.  Those who came, came alone.

Well.... not really alone.  Most had mom or dad in tow.  The parents looked shell-shocked, overwhelmed, tired.  They were old.  The kids were enthusiastic and energized by the possibilities laid out before them.  It made for some interesting interactions.

I stopped counting the number of adults who spoke for their children. By the time he's in high school, I assume a young man is capable of introducing himself without parental assistance.  Apparently, that places me in a small minority of grown ups.  Most of the parents felt the need to speak to the adult manning the table.  Most of the kids were eager to let them take the lead.

I couldn't let that happen.

Over and over, I looked past the parental open mouth and peered into the wide-eyed stare of the student, hoping against hope that she would open her mouth and say something... anything.. to me. Once in a while my look-plus-a-smile was rewarded spontaneously.  More often, the student's eyes darted to the parent. I was incapable of letting it slide.
"Is your Mom applying to Cornell?
"How's your Dad's GPA?"
That often was enough to switch the locus of control back to the student.  Sometimes, stronger methods were required.

I found myself putting the palm of my hand up, like a school crossing guard, to stop the flow of parental bloviation.  I hear myself saying "Shhhh..." to the adults, trying to smile as I raged inside. 

Certainly, mom and dad could extract the information they needed from me in a more efficient manner with pointed questioning.  That wasn't the point.  This is the first of many such settings college students encounter - registration, job fairs, extra curricular round-ups - and it's a good place to practice.  Moms and dads stealing their thunder wasn't helpful at all.

No one grimaced at me; the silenced parents were appropriately abashed and the kids were empowered to speak.  I made sure to mention to the parents that they were starting to enter the part of life where they could no longer protect their children.  The future was not something which could be controlled ... not by the parental units, anyhow.  As members of that P.U. club, we sighed together.  Letting go is hard; it helps to know that others know it, too.

The fun began once I got the kids talking.  I met the musicians and mining engineers and psychologists and biologists of tomorrow.  I encouraged a broad exposure to the liberal arts in conversations that ranged from life on the reservation to animal husbandry. I talked to a young man who speaks four languages and plays the violin and the piano.  I met a stunning African-American girl whose mother wants her to model and go to college in New York. I met a host of kids with 3.8 GPA's who never considered the Ivy League at all.
"Do you have great grades?"
"Do you have high test scores?"
"Are you taking the most difficult courses your school offers?"
It was fun to watch their faces light up as they nodded their "Yes, I do!"'s over and over again.

Suddenly, they were operating in another realm, one where a fabulous education at a good school was something they could consider.  With my explanation of the financial aid programs currently in place, concerns  were allayed and smiles were restored.  The how can I afford it was replaced by can I get in.

It was a lovely transition to watch.

No, you can't learn cosmetology or forensic science at Cornell.  Yes, Ithaca is very cold and very far from Tucson.  Yes, there are choirs and chamber orchestras.  The soccer and football teams have devoted fans.  Movie theaters exist there.  Amidst the nonsense and the angst and the noise and the crowds, I was in a Big Red oasis of brains and natural beauty. 

I hope one or two of them actually apply.


  1. I try to make my children speak to adults just as they would speak to me. I want them to be comfortable around adults and I don't coddle them. I ask them to be polite and look people in the eye. My ten year-old looks off as she's talking to people. Hubby's constantly on her about looking directly at people. It's a work in progress. But I hope by the time she's 16, she will not one of us speaking for her. Probably not though. Both of my girls are very secure and have no issues talking with adults.

    You have given me food for thought too. I need to make sure that I'm not speaking because I'm uncomfortable.

    Hope some of them apply too. Cornell is a great school.

    Megan xxx

  2. In my job, I deal with teenagers daily. I am constantly amazed at how many parents believe that these young people cannot speak for themselves. When I finally am able to speak to the teens on their own, for the most part, they are fairly articulate and able to make their own decisions. It is obvious though, that they have never been given much of an opportunity to do so. It appears that often I am one of the few adults who has spoken with them one on one, and who asks and listens for their own thoughts and opinions. The teens I deal with are usually not Cornell-level students, but I believe it is even more important for them to know how to speak for and think for themselves.
    Overall, I love is exciting to see them discover themselves-even in the very bad situations that I meet them.


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