My senior year of high school I knew two things:

  • All good kids go to college.
  • College admissions is a competitive sport among brainy kids and I was a top player.

For me, high school was all about getting good grades. I wasn’t interested in sports (something to do with thick eyeglasses, perhaps). I played in the band, went to music and art events, and I loved working behind the scenes with the theater club. I may have sung in the chorus. I excelled in standardized testing, making poster projects, and being on committees.

On Saturday afternoons in the fall, I marched with the band at football games. We jostled each other in our uncomfortable uniforms, cheeks pink from the fall wind, blowing into our instruments to keep them warm as we waited for halftime. The performance was always a challenge, to I read music from a tiny book clamped to the middle of my clarinet, walk the steps to each formation with the other players in the corner of my eye, making sure I was going the right way. Back in the band room clattering instruments, the click of cases closing, and the hum of voices played the coda to our day. Later, there were chances to meet up with other kids for illicit beer drinking. A bit like our antics at the lake, we never got caught.

I learned to drive on our green Ford Falcon with a stick shift on the column. It was the suburbs, everyone got their drivers license as soon as possible after turning 16. Dad taught me to drive in the parking lot of the high school. It was all going well until I got confused about shifting and turning at the same time and almost drove down the steep embankment onto the football field. I believe he chose a different site for our subsequent practice.

Senior year, I was able to use the car on some weekend nights, often to go to basketball games, where I met up with friends, and often went out afterward to eat pizza, or ice cream, anything to stay out just a bit later. There were no cell phones, I just had to be back home by ten, or eleven, or risk not going out the next weekend. One night, when our team had won and I was returning home in an enthusiastic mood. I drove down the driveway and swung the car around to go into the garage under the house. Rather than do a three point turn, it looked like I could do a tight U right into the garage, and so I did–scraping the door handle right off the side of the car. Ouch! I got a memorable lecture for that.

I was Vice President of the student council and loved being able to leave school for regional meetings. Toward the end of the school year, our class president and I were riding with the principal to an event when he asked how much marijuana was circulating at the school, in an “off the record” sort of voice. I began to say that I hadn’t seen any, when our class president gave me a withering look and regaled us both of stories about how many students cut classes or slipped outside during study hall or even between classes to smoke weed. Later, friends of my younger brother and sisters described cutting classes to get drunk and stoned in the woods just beyond the school. This was a different world. Mine was not scented with marijuana, but smelled faintly of chalk, pencils, paint, and lunchroom pizza. I liked to read, and could disappear into a book anywhere, any time.

Senior year, I was always happy to find official reasons to be away from school to avoid my mother. It’s not that she was mean, or even unreasonable, it was that she was underfoot. Mom trained to be a gym teacher back when teaching physical education meant knowing how to play every sport, all the rules to every game, dance every step from waltz to square dance, lead a 30 minute exercise class, and every aspect of primitive camping. My mom knew everything, and when I was in high school, my youngest sister started first grade and mom was liberated to be a substitute teacher, often for gym classes at my school. I was mortified.

Rather than being proud of her remarkable range of skills, or her gift of being able to talk to anyone (and I mean anyone, anywhere, anytime), I was comprehensively embarrassed. There was my mom, in the hallways, talking to students I didn’t know in the slightest, and worst of all, sometimes leading MY gym class. If that wasn’t profoundly disturbing for a teenager, add to it that my mother often came in for the dreaded square dance unit, when we had to pair off with random boys, sometimes while wearing our gym clothes. Mom knew everyone’s name, too, from church, from the pool, the library, PTA, her previous subbing, and mom-radar in general. I was ready to hide in the locker room for the rest of the year.

The gym teachers didn’t help. They loved my mom and her enthusiasm. One day Mrs. McBain, the newer gym teacher, asked me why I couldn’t be as interested in gym as my mom and my older sister (Paula graduated the year before me, on swim team at the local pool, and very good on the uneven parallel bars). That was enough to alienate me from physical activity for a long time. Try asking someone why they aren’t more like the sibling closest in age to them.

Dad grumbled a bit about college applications. When he was young, you went to the college closest to your home, period. He was fortunate, as he lived bicycling distance from Syracuse University. Mom told her parents she wanted to be a violinist, and though she played, they couldn’t imagine such a thing and told her so. Later, she said she wanted to go to college. Her father asked why she couldn’t become a nurse like her older sisters. She applied to the State Teachers College in Cortland, NY, and was turned down for inability to pay. A couple of months later, she somehow heard that a new dean of admissions was in place and her older sister Catherine and her husband Ralph drove her to the campus for an interview with the new dean. She was admitted, and the dean helped her get a job near campus as a nanny. She worked part time during the school year and full time in the summers to pay for it all. Cortland is where she learned her many physical education skills, even spending a summer as a camp counselor in Maine to fulfill one of her requirements.

I spent a lot of the fall of my senior year working on college applications. My guidance counselor was no help, she suggested the State College at Albany, and suggested I was getting above myself to apply to a bunch of private schools. I ignored her. Dad might have begrudged some of the admission fees, but he was a firm believer that if you don’t apply, you can’t get accepted and that we should always try for one step beyond what we expected to get.

Everything was on paper, in piles between big manila envelopes. I can’t even remember where I sat to write the essays that made the most of my summer jobs, my travels, and my grades. There must have been a desk in the room I shared with Paula, now off at college, but I only remember beds and a piano. We did a lot of homework on the dining room table, but that meant clearing up my mess before dinner every night. I applied to five schools and tried to get dad to fill out the Parents Confidential Statement (PCS), the ancestor of FAFSA. His response was that the form required too much private family information, and besides, we would never qualify.

By January, they were all submitted. My last semester of high school chugged along. I started checking the mail every day starting April 15. The anticipation made me even more restless than normal for senior year. I took to standing outside the garage door in the early evening when the sky was that deep blue that comes just before dark. Looking at the earliest stars, I’d try to imagine my future that was so utterly unimaginable.

The letters came. I was admitted to four of my five schools[1], most importantly Radcliffe, the women’s arm of Harvard. I had no idea what I was going to college for, or what I would do afterward, but I knew that I won the prize of my dreams and would spend the next four years at the center of the universe.

[1] The only school I applied to and didn’t get in was the first class of women at Yale. From what I heard later that was just as well.