Thursday, July 12, 2012

Reeling in the Years

 The weekend at the college
Didn’t turn out as you planned
The things that passed for knowledge
I can’t understand

          - Reeling in the Years Steeley Dan

The clock has started. The college admission race is on and it seems we are running with the bulls.

We are visiting colleges this week.  I initially resisted this whole process of college shopping but I have girls who have perfected the art of whining, threatening and general needling to get what they want.  They have a good teacher.  They have witnessed similar sessions with my own late Dad but on other subjects.  It’s surprising what lessons are picked up from previous generations, both good and bad.

 I have endured endless conversations since last January that usually started with “M is flying to Stanford over Spring Break” and “M and J” are driving up to Providence this long weekend,” “Do you know that J has visited 20 colleges so far this year and we haven’t been to one… “ 

She wore me down.  I relented.  But not to waste an opportunity, I insisted my middle daughter come along.  She needs the inspiration just like I did when at age 14 I was sent to Boston to spend a weekend with my sister.

It was my first plane ride.  I was surprised it was even suggested by my provincial parents but I had few opportunities to escape so I went for it.  The Newark to Boston flight was short on Eastern Airlines, but it didn’t matter.  It was thrilling anyway. This was before the days of minimal age for flying alone, extensive airport screenings and the nickel and diming of passengers on everything from bags packed to $5.00 peanuts.

It was a great weekend. Conservative Catholic girl meets the Big Bang Theory.  Crazy dorm antics stood out the most which included a dorm hallway that was painted entirely black with overhead red lights, creative living arrangements of student couples, all night “philosophy” sessions and later than average mornings and the lounge blackboards filled with hieroglyphic equations. Some would say these things don’t necessarily pass for knowledge on the MIT campus, but that depends on the eye of the beholder.

It was just the inspiration needed to do well in high school and try to see the world beyond my city limits.

Speeding ahead to 2012 on the same Boston streets but a mere 36 years later:

My calves hurt from the near constant climbing of stairs on both Campus N and Campus B.  My recent exercise regimen had come to a grinding halt when the temps soared to over 100ºF anyway.  It was usually without such inclines and I felt it. We picked the right colleges to have a wide variety of experiences.  From College U where academics was knitted into the fabric of a rich urban campus to College E whose approach bordered on a trade school then onto to College B whose student panel answers shone through my blunt devil’s advocate questions. 

I also took my girls to MIT too.  We have already visited a college that morning and had the afternoon to waste.  Besides they wanted to see Harvard and I wanted to go back to MIT.  I have had minimal use for Harvard since I got a thin envelope back in 1979.  The MIT campus, like all things 36 years later was barely recognizable: saplings were now magnificent trees and many new buildings distorted the old familiar map in my head. I found my sister’s old dorm, East Campus.  Same buildings and same lack of security since the entry doors were wide open.  Some things never change. Despite the protests of my law abiding children, (I think I have done a good job) I entered the dorm.  I knew my sister would appreciate some pictures.  The black halls were still there but red lights were replaced by an ugly dropped ceiling.  The lounge blackboard, which once had the scribbles of some undecipherable math problem, was replaced by a large screen TV.  The smell was the same.  Illegal adjoining rooms were now nailed shut. The creative door paintings were the same.  The oak banisters in the dimly lit industrial stairwells five flights up felt the same too.

My iPhone came in handy for many pictures that were immediately texted to my sister.  I needed my older companion down this road of memory lane.

There was a noticeable attitude shift in my girls after that visit.  I could feel the swirling fog of college promotional crap lift.  This trip, like mine so many years ago, personalized and grounded the whole college experience.  The stories I told them about dormitories suddenly became real. It was no longer dry academics.  Maybe Mom does know what she’s talking about after all?  Although clearly sometimes not.

I should book a trip to Chicago too.

Anytime spent with a focused activity with your child is certainly not time wasted. Let it be camping, canoeing, horseback riding, discussing theology driving through relentless urban traffic with infinitely fallible GPS or climbing endless steps of a college that sits on a hill.  My eldest experienced the different academic gestalts.  My middle daughter I think got the inspiration she needed.

Both weekends at the colleges didn’t turn out as planned. 

They were better.  Far better.

Knowledge doesn’t necessarily come from books, online sites or dry lectures. Sometimes it has to be seen, smelled, touched, heard and tasted to be fully understood. Sometimes felt in aching calves, too.

I learn so much from the girls.

That includes you too, Sis.

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