I have completed for the last time the most honored of all parental rituals: the college visit. In mid-August I joined countless other parents who had been seduced by the siren song of college counselors mandating campus visits as necessary perquisites to attaining the holiest of Holy Grails, admission to the "right" college. Periodically I, like they, mistakenly believe the success of parenting can be guaged by the college or university which our children attend. We display the decals of these schools on the windows of our vehicles like trophies, badges of our success.
In my saner moments I know better. Credentials don't correlate to ability or accomplishment or, more importantly, to character or satisfaction. We all know one Rhodes scholar, graduate of a prestigious law school, who couldn't find right from wrong if it was mapped out on the driveway of his new home in Chappaqua.
Nevertheless, when any of my children approaches senior year, the insidious combination of parental guilt and ego propels me first to Barnes and Noble for a college guide and then to AAA for roadmaps and discount coupons for motels in every college town reachable by Buick station wagon.
So this August my last child fell prey to the ritual. She is seventeen. She will apply to college in the fall. She has no idea where she wants--- or, more properly, where her parents want her---to go to college. But the ritual must be honored. We must visit countless student-empty campuses to absorb by osmosis the unique qualities of schools to which she may apply.
Over the last fifteen years I'm sure I've visited more campuses, seen more computer labs, entered more vacant dorm rooms, perused more bookstores, endured more orientation sessions and taken more walking tours than Henry Lee has examined crime scenes. There's Wittenburg, Dennison, Tufts, Wooster, Ohio Wesleyan, Lehigh, Lafayette, Purdue, Indiana, Notre Dame, Northwestern, Chicago, Syracuse, Vermont, Williams, UMass, Amherst, BC, PC, UVA, Villanova, Haverford, Union, Skidmore, Penn, Princeton, Georgetown, GW, American, Brown, Michigan, Colby, Bowdoin, Bates, UConn, Trinity, Wesleyan, Xavier, Holy Cross, Miami of Ohio, Wake Forest, Gettysburg, Franklin and Marshall, Conn College, St. Michael's, Ohio University and, I think, several more. They all blend together.
Some visits, though, stand out. I once endured a 5 and ½ hour drive to Burlington in complete silence with a son who insisted that a 5-minute drive through the UVM campus was sufficient. The silence of the return trip was punctuated by the sound of my grinding teeth. At Dennison, another son and I mistakenly entered a classroom and surprised a woman about my age and in no better shape who was posing nude before a studio art class. Shortly thereafter that same son asked our guide, after she had touted the opportunity to pre-register for freshman classes, whether the school also provided pre-registration for academic probation. At still another school he asked whether it was possible to purchase fake foto id's on campus or whether matriculating freshmen should bring their own from home.
The parents on college tours can also make things interesting. On my most recent trip a concerned mother, one of those people who just thinks too much about everything, interrupted our guide's discourse on campus dining halls to challenge the wisdom of including St. Thomas Aquinas in the core curriculum. And while most of us worry whether our child can safely operate a salt shaker outside the home, inevitably at least one parent asks about honors classes, graduating in less than three years or admission of freshman to Phi Beta Kappa.
But now, God willing, I have come near the end of the road. No more will I have to trail in a small group behind some 19 year-old sophomore whose most outstanding skills appear to be an ability to walk backwards for miles [I saw a guide at Colby who could actually walk up long flights of stairs backwards], to recite statistics about professor-student ratios, library books, computer terminals and to relate apocryphal tales about the accidental discovery of Grover Cleveland's diary by an inebriated freshman under a medicine ball in the old, now-demolished gymnasium. Never again must I listen to one of these guides, only recently graduated from acne medicine to shaving cream, propound a philosophy of a liberal arts education which I, anxious to gain any edge in the admissions race, mindlessly ingest and adopt as my own as if it came from Mt. Olympus.
No, from this point forward I will concentrate on dealing with the stark consequences of successful completion of the college admissions race: tuition payments. In doing so I will follow the teachings of a more seasoned philosopher, the legendary Ray Ganim, sage of Stratford, who succinctly capsulized the economics of the kind of practice of law with which I am most familiar:
"Listen. If it's Friday afternoon and the secretary hasn't been paid; and you walk into my office with a murder charge and a hundred dollars cash--- well, my friend, you got yourself a lawyer."
Those decals can run into money.