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Home » Chalk Talk – A Senior’s Brave New World

A Senior’s Brave New World

August, 2008

As new 12th graders get inaugurated across the country and begin their last year of primary education, parents are challenged not only by pushing that last year to count, but by the very challenging (and usually foreign) process of choosing a college. The one most important and life-changing issue that affects almost every one of us is nearly absent from the election stage. And yet, it consumes the kitchens and board rooms like no other. Chalk Talk brings a reality-TV point of view to the issue for back to school, 2008.###

“Teddy, did you finish your book??”

Oh gosh it has to be the 235th time I’ve asked him this summer.

“Teddyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy! Put the guitar down and finish your book. You only have three weeks left, two more books to go, and you still have to write a report.”

“One book. I’ve already read ‘Night.’ And the report will take less than a day, Mom.”

Theodore Joseph Allen already has a big dose of senioritis. So does his Mom.

My second oldest son, on the verge of graduating from a very rigorous high school, happens to be our resident brainiac. As his older brother has often told him, he has a natural proclivity to learn things easily. “It’s so easy for you, Teddy,” John will tell him. “I have to work at it. You just have to look at a book and you get it!”

That’s probably why Teddy can compose and sing a new song, and make it better each day… without reading music very well. It’s probably why he can pick up a popular song and strum it quickly on the guitar he taught himself to play; without really thinking about it.

And it’s probably why we’re having such a hard time finishing ‘Brave New World’. It’s not that it’s hard for him to read (though he does find Huxley’s composition a bit bizarre). It’s just that there are so many other very important things to do. Like play the guitar, or piano, or write a song.

They are really good songs. That’s not just a mother talking. He’s actually quite gifted. Which could be why our brainiac has senioritis. What’s the point of academics when you’re a budding composer?

Like most rising seniors, Teddy is eager for his next challenge, though, whether he finishes that book or not. We saw that clearly on our College Road Trip this summer, when we set out to conquer schools in the northeast, his choice destination. From Philly to New York to points through New England, I struggled through each tour to get a sense of what place I’d like best for boy #2. What course of study would really turn this guy on enough to make a general college track as important as his music?

There is no rule book that works for helping your child pick a school. (True story. I picked Dickinson College because A) It had a great pre-law program and B) I loved the logo – red was my favorite color. And it turned out to be great for me. Challenging on so many levels. Formative. Fit like a glove. PS: I never pursued the law – well, not as a lawyer.) Choosing schools depends on the child first and foremost. It also depends on parents (and students) knowing what to ask and how to discern the hype from the substance.

American parents admittedly are not great at doing that, mainly because college is often the first school they ever get to choose for their child. Parental choice is only an option for a limited pool of parents. Parents in states with good, strong charter school laws. Parents in communities that have strong choice programs. That leaves the vast majority of parents having had little choice in their child’s schooling, which puts them on a crash course shortly before their child enters their junior year in high school. For them, the high school guidance counselor is a savior.

For me, even though I “do” choice every day at home and work, it’s still nerve-wracking and quite a challenge.

I was impressed with the way my son observed the schools we visited. I watched Teddy, wondering if I needed to do more for him than seek his favorite color – or favorite poster for the upcoming bands on campus.

But he is smarter than I am. During each campus tour, he was working to get the feel of the campus. He studied the people talking. He looked around. (He was always very kinetic as a child. He could build the best lego skyscrapers if he just held the pieces long enough.) Where would he fit in? What would he like?

About one of his top choices he stated one concern aloud after the tour: “But it’s NCAA Division 1. That’s a problem.”

“Why is that a problem,” I groused, having loved this particular school for him.

“It means that sports are way over the top here,” he said.

Ohhhh. Lots of jocks, I concluded.

“Well, you’ll have great games to watch at least,” someone else from the family chimed in.

Of course, that’s assuming he’ll get in and that we can afford it. Despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s statements that her Congress has made college more affordable, the average price tag we saw wherever we went was $50,000, after you include books and fees. The middle class is apparently not very middle anymore, so most of us don’t qualify for more than a small loan here or there.

So after we beg and plead and boast on applications for the chance to pay $50,000, we’re still not sure what lies ahead. And that’s assuming that boys taught at private, liberal arts, independent Catholic Schools who already know quite a bit of Latin but ultimately spent more time doing music than homework and have only an above average GPA will even be in line at a college of choice so we parents can pay the 50 grand!

Oh, we could save a few thousand dollars a year. The slightly less expensive colleges are much bigger. They have slightly less prestigious names. They have slightly fewer treadmills in their gym and usually only 3 places to eat rather than 7 or even 10. The slightly more competitive colleges have better libraries, usually a few strong performing arts opportunities, and good sports. They are also slightly harder to get into.

I was struck on all our tours by how much food and fitness continue to be a selling point for colleges these days. For 50,000 dollars, food and fitness just don’t top my list of priorities. I want to know what the political science professor is like; are they of the Jeffersonian school or are they, like his friend Madison, fans of a strong national government? Is the English class devoted to a canon of classics or to modern feel-good novels? Do they have a strong music program that would make a minor in music worth pursuing?

News Flash: Every school today tells you their class size is about 22 to 1 and their programs provide lots of personal attention. ( I should hope so at those prices.) It became a joke the 8th time we heard it.

And every school we visited seems to think that a GPA of at least 3.5 and a combined SAT of 1300-1500 was the key to entrance. Some of the schools weigh the GPAs depending on the rigor of the students’ high schools. Some do not take into account at all what we know is rampant in public (although not exclusively) education – grade inflation.

At Teddy’s high school, moral theology and Latin literature II are a bit more strenuous than the history and English courses being offered at our zoned public school. But for most bastions of higher education, that doesn’t seem to matter.

So let me get this straight. I paid for a better education that many admissions offices ignore? Great.

“Teddy, you need to read your book! You need to get straight A’s this semester. You know you can do that. You’re really, really smart.”

“Yes, Mom.” (As the guitar strums an original composition in the background.)


Postscript: Within a few days of writing this piece, Teddy did finish both ‘Brave New World’ and another book, and nearly completed the first draft of his summer essay. On to college applications…