There’s a lot of talk about college here these days.
I went to a state school. Not a big state university, but a mid-size college in my own state that had a reputation as a great teacher’s college and was driving distance from my parents’ home. I chose it largely because I liked the way the buildings looked in the brochure.
Last night, after working long and hard on his essay supplements for his Early Decision application, The Teenager asked me whether I’d had a good experience at MSU. We happen to live in the same town as my Alma-mater and its reputation here is very different than when I was growing up. It's used as a generic diss that kids hurl at one another at the high school. “If you don’t take any AP classes, you’re going to end up at MSU.” The way I threaten my kids' about their laziness by promising them a life of working at Burger King.
I never considered MSU a bottom of the barrel school – not when I went there, and not afterwards – that is, until I moved back here as an adult. The kids I went to high school with were not well off and many were downright poor. Several of my friends never went to college at all and those who did went mostly to big state schools where the tuition was much more affordable. Even when I worked in Manhattan with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met – all graduates of prestigious private colleges, many of them Ivies – I was not embarrassed and never felt the need to make excuses for my education.
But here, where I live now, I am truly in the minority. Most every one of my peers has at least one degree, many several, from schools that currently boast an acceptance rate of under 20 percent. When it becomes apparent that I need to share where I went to college with a new acquaintance, I often preface it by saying that my dad died when I was a high school senior and I needed to stay close to home, but the truth is, even if he’d survived his cancer, I doubt I would have gone anywhere else.
When I was in high school, I didn’t want to go to college and my grades and behavior reflected that. I wanted to leave home, get an apartment, get a job and be independent. I didn’t care what the job was, only that I wouldn’t need to wear cowl neck sweaters or pumps.
When The Teenager asked about MSU, I began by getting all philosophical. “I believe that the education is up to the kid,” I said. “You can be a go-getter in a mediocre school and if you take advantage of all the opportunities there for you, you’ll get a really good education. Conversely, [I actually use words like that with The Teenager in informal conversation, even after SATs are behind us] you can go to a great school and if you just plod through it and don’t grab what’s available to you, you’ll get an ‘ok’ education, but probably not a great one.”
He was expecting me to tell him what a go-getter I was; I knew that by how surprised he seemed by what I said next. “I didn’t take advantage of much of anything when I was in college. I got an ok education at MSU, but it could have been much, much better. I wasn’t that interested in being a student. I was too concerned with learning how to be a grown up.”
And then, in a voice that was kinder than any he’s used with me since this whole, God-awful college process has started, he said, “Well, you’re a good grown up.”
Although I’m not entirely sure he meant it as a compliment.