“We come to this life with our worth, we don’t earn it.”
Try telling that to your kid who has, in her words, “clawed her way into the top 5%” of her class at a competitive public high school and spent every waking minute scrapping it out just to get into a good college. Her mountain of APs and extracurriculars have taken such a toll that grave illnesses like strep and mono hit at the same time, family vacations canceled, and team sports sacrificed just for more hours to study. All that before the relentless monotony of Covid times remote learning, cancellation of every fun senior year activity and months of rescheduled standardized tests. When the boy sitting next to her at the ACT pulls his mask off, requiring her to flag down the proctor so she doesn’t die trying to get her butt into school, you wonder how much more of this she can take. And she’s one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to sit outside McDonald’s to get a WiFi signal for virtual school and at-home AP exams that, for her, went forward despite power outages, barking dogs and the neighbor’s buzz saw.
For a girl who had spent every waking moment curating her academic record to be accepted “early decision,” I had every reason to pick up the golden balloons and order a cake in school colors with Congratulations Jane piped in flowery cursive. Honestly, I didn’t care where she went at this point, I just wanted her not to worry about her future anymore.
At 6:00 pm sharp on December 15th, 2020, the family gathered in front of her computer at the kitchen island, with Oma on Facetime. Standing behind her, I gripped a Party City bag with confetti poppers for each family member to shower her at the big moment. I barely breathed so as not to crinkle the bag and spoil the surprise.
After carefully reviewing your application, we regret to inform you that we cannot offer you admission to the class of 2025.
Silence. Then Jane laughed at the absurdity of it all.
“I killed myself for this?” she asked no one in particular as we stared blankly at the screen.
No one knew what to say. Her younger brothers looked more baffled than anyone. They had had a front row seat to her never ending battle of the high school hunger games. I imagined their thought bubbles predicting future doom now that their perfect sister hadn’t made the cut.
The worst part about watching my kid’s heart break in real time is that her faith in hard work paying off shattered before our eyes. There were tears that night, but her dad and I were pissed. What was wrong with those morons? How did they not drool over her application? And what now? How were we supposed to continue preaching do your best and good things will happen for you? We looked like two of the biggest bullshit artists of all time.
The next morning I went in to check on her. I was surprised to find her up early, cleaning her room.
“I’ve made a list of more schools to apply to,” she said resolutely, loading a grocery bag with clothes to donate.
“Good idea. How do you feel about last night?” I asked.
“It’s funny. When I thought about it, I realized I was more upset about being rejected than not getting to go to that school.”
“Good sign. It wasn’t the right place for you,” I said, silently cursing those jerks in that ridiculous admissions office once more. But I was proud of my girl.
In the weeks that followed, deferments and denials rolled in from schools whose requirements she had met handily. She scrolled through social media, watching from the sidelines as some friends got accepted into the programs of their choice. The ones who didn’t banded together on Facetime to trade battle wounds and make dark jokes about never going anywhere.
As the months dragged on, we learned, however belatedly, that colleges carefully engineer a specific student body. Those schools that rejected her already had a Jane. Or they had determined from her record that they were her “safety school” and the only option would be to formally request reconsideration and then commit to going there. There were lots of machinations we had no idea about as first timers. This was my only experience if you didn’t count my own application to college back in the eighties when SAT prep meant going to a raging Halloween party the night before but still being accepted into the school of my choice.
With a little distance from her initial disappointment, I realized that this was the first major blow to my daughter’s worldview. It was the first time she had worked towards something that felt like life and death importance and not received the intended result. There had been student government elections and honors that had gone sideways, but for the most part, her hard work had paid off. It struck me that my kid’s privilege had insulated her but also set her up for this. She’d been extremely fortunate and had built up the expectations to match. Meanwhile, other students with her same work ethic and smarts had their dreams dashed by racism and economic hardship that had nothing to do with their real potential. Perspective is everything, but I wasn’t about to share any of that with my kid who was breathing fire by then. No one suffering wants to hear how great they have it.
As her parents, we attempted to get her nose over the water line, repeating the mantra, you will end up where you are meant to be. Months of clinging to that empty platitude shook our faith to the core. Trying to stay positive in a year that has thrown the way these things usually go into the shredder has been looking very much like a fool’s errand.
When the external validation of acceptance into college that you have been counting on your entire life doesn’t happen, it slices right through your sense of self. I could tell my kid thought she was the worst garbage person to walk the earth. That her once impressive accomplishments actually meant nothing. How do we set our kids up for this? It was an absolute shit show.
But I did know. Let’s not kid ourselves. I was the same kind of student as Jane. Standardized tests weren’t as big a deal back then but the grades sure were. I believed my report card was the measure of my worth and even though I never spoke those words aloud, my actions told another story. When her math grades slipped in elementary school, I enrolled her in an outside math class that she absolutely hated. She learned some ridiculously accelerated math for her age but what she remembers is that I made her go to class once with the flu. I knew how much she disliked it, so I figured she was putting on an act to stay home. But she suffered through it while her head pounded and her body ached—that memory has stayed with her.
In sixth grade when the language arts teacher economized on time utilizing peer-editing over grading the mountain of essays herself, I hired a writing instructor to teach a supplemental English class at my kitchen table. Jane learned how to write a tight five paragraph essay despite her exhaustion from a full day of classes.
When she got to high school, we hired a private college counselor to advise her on course selection instead of just having her sign up for what she was interested in. She earned the first “B” of her life that year which she still refers to it as her biggest academic regret. I had suggested she switch into a math class with a different teacher. She preferred to deal with it independently so I didn’t step in. She later kicked herself over and over just for wanting to handle it on her own.
There is no mystery as to why Jane believes her academic performance dictates her worth. I have overvalued it since my own childhood and there is no doubt that the expectation has crackled in the air at our house since she was born. For me, it was a way to get the attention I missed out on at home. I believed it was the one way for me to be seen. With my own kids, I have delivered the message that high grades are expected. I don’t check portals or monitor anyone’s daily progress but they are all aware that this is the deal around here.
In the last few years, especially Jane’s junior year which was the most pneumonia, flu, pinkeye, streppiest year of her life, I have cleaned up my act. I set the intention to be done with that toxic “you must do well or else” energy. No one needs the outdated, fear-based messages that linger inside me. I have substantially banished the thoughts that good grades are the only way to be valued as my child. I know my kids will be the most comfortable in their own skin when they feel their parents accept them as they truly are instead of nudging them to be a made-over version of themselves, devoid of complicated feelings and learning experiences that look very much like big mistakes to the rest of the world.
And this is the reason why, at the age of 51, I am sitting here late on a school night writing about this so that one day, I too will believe it reflexively, without the need to convince myself with some long narrative. We don’t come to this planet to earn our worth. We bring it with us. We don’t have to do anything or be anything in particular to be valued. I will have to write that to myself one hundred times on a chalkboard like Bart Simpson.
This is not to say that I endorse a pro-slacker lifestyle, on the contrary. After watching Jane slog her way through school, our new and improved message is that everyone is expected to do their best, not THE best. We want them to take pride in their work and meet their responsibilities. The point of all of it is not to earn love and acceptance from me and the rest of the world, but to gain a sense of competence–the building block of their own self esteem.
And now that we are almost done with Jane’s virtual senior year, I received permission from her to write this story because of the satisfactory outcome. It would have been far too excruciating for any of us to memorialize this experience if it hadn’t worked out in a way that felt fair in light of how hard she had worked. We are all way too fresh from overvaluing external validation.
For years, Jane has expressed the desire to go West, all the way to California, for college. None of the California schools have early decision so she had to wait until now to find out her fate. I asked her to reconsider because of how far away it is. She claimed that my discouragement made the option all the more attractive. I totally had that coming. She’s wanted to be near a big city, to be close to the beach, to have beautiful weather and a vibrant student life. She had her eyes on Los Angeles.
On Friday night, right after she had ordered dinner at her favorite restaurant with two of her best friends, she checked her student portal once again as she had done countless times a day. There it was, acceptance at the number one public university in the country. She screamed and ran around the restaurant like she’d won the lotto. Because she had.
I am so relieved for my girl, not to mention armed to the teeth for when my boys go through it in a few years.
When we reflect on our experience and learn how to love each other better, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.
WRITING PROMPT: What messages are you sending with your actions that you would never say out loud?
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