The Elk Sheds its Horns

December 27–31, Brunswick, ME USA
Seasonal Memoir #47

Author’s screenshot

I like watching golf… on TV, and I won’t apologize for it. It’s a good background to whatever else you are doing, like putting on The Weather Channel, even though it plays the same loop over and over all day; it’s an investment in ambiance. Golf is a devilish game, a paradoxical exercise where it seems that the more you try at it, the more frustrating it can be. “A good walk spoiled”, which Mark Twain didn’t say, but gets credit for. (See this skit by Robin Williams to know what I mean. Warning: bad words, and don’t hurt yourself laughing!)

The golf professionals are about to start the new year in Hawaii: first at Kapalua, and then to Waialae. While I do appreciate the craftsmanship on display, I watch mostly just to take in the surroundings of the venue (like I sometimes do with cycling races). In the winter months, I can live vicariously through their travels: Hawaii → California → Arizona → Florida. What a life!

The Richards family of four took advantage of Zach’s break from public school to drive up to Maine for two days, ostensibly to visit Bowdoin and Colby Colleges, but really to just get out of the house. He is up against application deadlines, and it’s been a slow process for him to decide on school type and geography:

This process has also, for Tina and me, confirmed what we felt all along, that there are really no significant differences between the top 100 (200?) colleges and universities, and that the whole college process is madness. This belief is even more evident when you try to compare and contrast New England’s liberal arts colleges. They all have beautiful campuses. They all have strong programs and notable faculty and alums. They all have facilities that are over-the-top (thank you, endowments!). They all have interesting and diverse student bodies (which is what’s most important).

So what can a kid do except to fall back into the cliché, but useful algorithm: a couple of “reaches”, a couple of “good chances”, and one or two “safeties”, all considered good “fits”. Easier said than done, of course, especially when you could easily add a half dozen schools close to New England that tick the boxes. But again, to what point? We pushed the message of “it really matters what you do at college, not where you go, and by the way, we want you to be happy and have some fun while you’re there”. Why? Because it’s true, and because we’re not looking for Zach to do any social climbing, which is the dirty little secret of some. In fact, we’re wary of the privilege he might be stepping into.

And poor Zach. The supplemental essays, which mostly all schools require (because the applicants are so nearly identical in profile), offered topics that ranged from the mundane (the value of diversity) to thought-provoking (what might you do if you held the keys to the world’s libraries?) to absurd (make us laugh). He labored through each essay the best he could, and we were left wondering how in the world these schools would get to know Zach — and his love of books, history, law, and contemporary issues — if they devoted only minutes to his dossier. We simply shrugged our shoulders as he pressed submit.

We’re proud of him, just as we are with his sister, who was a different type of student and pursued state universities. She made it easy for us. Zach didn’t play the game, meaning he didn’t take a dozen APs, fill up his time with clubs he hardly engaged in, or partake in self-serving service activities. He did some of that, and when he did, he excelled (his grades, SAT, and AP scores are top notch). He also didn’t benefit from an expensive private college counselor, who would have molded his profile into a glossy avatar of himself — in the schools we work in, not hiring a private counselor is viewed by some parents as child neglect. He chose instead to spend his time reading (a lot), working at the local supermarket, being sporty, and dabbling in curating a YouTube channel. We just hope he feels good however this turns out. I suspect we’ll look back at this post in 20 years and smirk.

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Paul Richards

Having some fun blogging, taking the writing seriously, but not myself.