Woog’s World / Easy in Westport to judge young people’s worth by the decals on their cars
The other day, I saw a great play at Lincoln Center. “Admissions,” which examines the mental and emotional gyrations an open-minded, accepting and liberal white family goes through when their son’s application is rejected by Yale University, but his half-black best friend is admitted, is superbly written, well-acted and spurs plenty of reflection into so many issues roiling society. It runs through May 6, and is well worth the, um, price of admission.
I saw it a few days before the final round of acceptance (and rejection) letters were sent to Staples High School students. In the old days, seniors waited anxiously by the mailbox. A fat letter was supposed to signify good news; a slim envelope meant “sorry.” Now, decisions pop up online, with the click of a mouse.
In the old days too, most students learned the news on April 15. Now — with early admissions (I and II), rolling admissions, teenagers applying to 20 or 30 schools, and colleges fighting over all of them — many Staples students know where they’re going by Christmas.
But not all. For them, the last month has been fraught with anxiety. Their future, they believed, was inextricably linked with words they would read on their laptops the moment they logged in. “We are pleased to inform you …” would indicate four years of fun, followed by a lifetime of success. Their parents would be proud, pleased and plaster a decal on the back of every car. “We regret …” would doom these 17-year-olds to a less-than-worthy Plan B. That in turn would lead to misery, gloom and a life of failure. Their parents would be angry, upset — perhaps even mortified.
Many lines in “Admissions” resonated with the Lincoln Center audience — one intimately familiar with the college process, in places very similar to Westport. We laughed as we saw ourselves reflected in the hypocrisy of the parents, cringed as the son spewed forth a mixture of confusion and fear that we know lies just beneath the surface of the well-meaning values we’ve tried to instill in our youth.
But some parts drew a particularly strong reaction. Chuckles turned to gasps when the parents pull strings to get their son into Middlebury, yet he decides to go to community college. The boy throws his father’s “there’s a college for everyone” line back at him. The father replies that community college is not the place for his son.
“Admissions,” both the play and the process, got me thinking. I too use that “there’s a college for everyone” line with the teenagers I give advice to (in my case, it’s the players in the Staples boys soccer program, of which I’m the head coach). I (and the other coaches on our staff) work diligently to make sure that the boys who want to play soccer in college apply to the most appropriate schools. That’s not necessarily the biggest names, or the schools with the best soccer teams; it’s the places where they’ll find an appropriate balance between sports and academics; be challenged intellectually; feel comfortable yet discover the real world, and make friendships and relationships they’ll value for the rest of their lives.
It’s not an easy task for us as coaches, or them as student-athletes. The ones who take it to heart often flourish, wherever they end up. The ones who don’t sometimes do fine too. And sometimes those who start out somewhere they didn’t think they’d go to — or that was their top choice — transfer.
The point is: We don’t always know what college (or what factors or experiences) will turn a teenager into a “success” or “failure” (however you define that term) at 25, or 35 or 75. But I’m becoming more and more convinced that the school someone attends from age 18 to 22 should not command the intense focus it gets in a town like Westport. Nor should the focus begin, as it so often does, at the age of about 5.
I feel this way because I’ve seen so many former players be happy at schools they never thought they’d end up at. And so many be miserable at schools they thought they’d love. I’ve seen them take gap years to travel the world, work on projects across the globe, gain real-life experience. I’ve seen them join the workforce, and join the military.
It’s easy in Westport to judge young people’s worth by the decals on their cars. We tend to judge entire families that way too.
But there’s a lot more to life than admission to one college. Acceptance or rejection is not a zero-sum game. And you can learn that lesson anywhere.
Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his “Woog's World” appears each Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His personal blog is danwoog06880.com.