[This is the eighth post in a series. For a little background on the thinking behind this, please read this.]
When I started writing about college admissions, I did not think the topic would spawn three separate posts. If you have heard too much about this sliver of life, then let me assure you this is the last one I contemplate writing for the foreseeable future, so you will soon be safe. I learned via Facebook that my college counselor read my last two posts, so here is a hello to him if he make his way here a third time. I promise to leave your profession alone soon enough, Don.
I ended my last post with the promise (threat?) of one further story about college admissions, and that is what this is, on its surface. Like so many stories in life, this is also a vignette about perception and historiography, and a reminder of the differences between hearing and listening.
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One of the many schools I visited as a prospective student was Haverford College, in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Founded by Quakers in 1833, this school of about twelve hundred students provided me with a wonderful tour (no sparkling sidewalks here) and a very positive interview that both contributed to a great deal of interest on my part. It would be too strong to say I had my heart set on Haverford, but I was genuinely excited about the school, I admired its character, and I loved the campus. It very closely fit the picture I had in my head of what college should look like and, more importantly, feel like.
My interview was conducted with a gentleman named Dana Swan. If you google this man today, the first thing you learn is that he passed away in June 2008, and that he was a highly regarded football and lacrosse coach. By all accounts he was a wonderful coach, but I met him seven years into his career as a wonderful Associate Director of Admissions, a position he filled for twenty years. When I spoke with admissions people at various colleges, I made an effort always to sound positive about the school I was visiting, but I also made a real effort never to feign more enthusiasm than I really felt. Since I was deeply impressed with Haverford the day I visited, I suspect I gushed on the topic while speaking with Mr. Swan, and I have no idea how much he believed me when I expressed how much I had liked the school, the students, the campus, and the whole environment while I was there. I guess I made my point, as Mr. Swan spent the last ten minutes of the interview telling me how much he liked my record and my comments during the interview. While I cannot vouch for the exact words he used, I know the closing sentiment was along the lines of “I am sure there’s a place for you here at Haverford.” If you had asked me that day if he had promised me a spot, I would have said no, but I am certain in retrospect that he was substantially more encouraging than any other college representative I ever spoke with before or afterwards, excepting a few deep safety schools.
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It will not surprise you, discerning reader, to learn that when the college letters came out that spring, a thin envelope arrived from Haverford telling me how they wished me every success in my future endeavors, but that in their efforts to craft the perfect class of incoming students, they had seen fit not to extend me an offer of admission. I was terribly surprised by this, and it took the wind out of my sails for a spell. Fortunately my story has a happy ending, as several other schools sent me thick envelopes, including the wonderful school where I wound up, and spent four very happy years. Thus I relate this story with no regret or rancor, as I am confident that the endless, mercurial, and arbitrary college admissions process actually matched me to a great place.
Having said all that, I did nurse a dull, lukewarm grudge towards Mr. Swan for a time after the rejection. He had been so encouraging, so welcoming, and so assuring that I had permitted myself to imagine myself as a student at his school, and I was offended at how he could have offered such hope to a kid so adrift in the college search mælstrom. Still, I would never have remembered his name were it not for one additional development.
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During my Sophomore year, I lived in a mouldering pit on the edge of campus called Park Place (any wizards out there eager to guess the name of the neighboring dump?). My three roommates and I had enjoyed such a sumptuous room Freshman year that our lottery number did not secure us any place to live, and we managed to sneak off of the waiting list and into this room just a week or two before the start of school. It was fine for what it was, and let me assure you it had all sorts of stories waiting to be told about it (remote control pranks, crazed Freshman co-eds clambering at the windows, pet fungi, the appearance of future spouses, and the mystery neighbor among them). One of my roommates was a fellow known to us all as Lurch, and I very much enjoyed his company. Easy going, contemplative, full of warmth and humor, and not a mean bone in his body. He introduced me that year to Daniel Lanois‘s magnificent album Acadie, and we would sit in the common room early in the year and listen to music and chat and ignore our work as Sophomores are prone to doing.
One afternoon while we were working our way through Acadie, The Caution Horses, and Rust Never Sleeps, Lurch and I meandered onto the topic of college admissions. He and I were both enjoying our time at college, and so we could address the topic without any anguish. Still it was interesting to compare notes about how he had navigated the process that brought him to that moment. We talked about various schools and visits, and about where we had applied and that led us to talk about other places we had considered attending. Soon we realized we had both been interested in Haverford, and we laughed to think about an alternate universe where he and I might be hanging out in Pennsylvania, listening to music, and discussing our former thoughts about Connecticut schools. Then Lurch mentioned how he had met with a kind, enthusiastic gentleman at Haverford who had raved about his chances and all but promised him admission, and he recalled how disappointed he had been when his letter had arrived in all its thinness. So I asked him if he’d spoken to Mr. Swan since then, and Lurch looked at me funny, and I related how I had had a nearly identical experience as him.
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Please believe me when I say I am not telling this story to criticize Mr. Swan. I only met him that one time, and his long tenure in his position speaks volumes to the care and credibility he brought to his work. I am sure when he spoke with me and with Lurch that he chose his words carefully, that he offered encouragements carefully calibrated to our records, and that he meant every word he said. While I will not presume to speak for Lurch, for my part I am confident he spoke a sequence of words which promised nothing and obligated him and his school to nothing. I am also sure that the college admissions process for me was so bleak, so endless, and so fraught with failure and oblivion that when one of the very few kind people I met in the process offered warmth and support that I latched onto it and magnified it all out of proportion. I suspect admissions is like so many jobs where one deals with people in bulk, and it is difficult for most people to treat masses of humanity as individuals, to meet with them in an interview where formulaic replies must surely be the norm, and still manage to hear enough of the actual person inside to reply to that kid with such immediacy that they know right away that their words and ideas had really been heard. The sadness is that while I was listening to his words, I was hearing them through a filter of hope and anxiety that apparently stripped them of their qualifiers and left me with a memory of assurance. Learning always to listen accurately to what I am hearing is a skill I am still attempting to master.
[One final aside – one thousand internets to the first person to explain the illustration above and its relevance to this rambling account.]