My sixth-grade English teacher was a badass. In the best possible way. Many of the things she taught me have stuck but the phrase that comes to mind often is, “Don’t over-engineer it.”
She advised thus when I would try to make my writing too flowery, too dramatic. “It doesn’t ring true because it’s not your voice. Don’t over-engineer it, kiddo.”
As many of my friends’ children reach college age, I am tempted to use this phrase multiple times each week.
Because I think they may have lost their flippin’ minds.
But when you see your perfectly sane, well-adjusted friends talking in the royal “we” about the dorms, sororities, potential roommates and classes their children could end up with, you begin to worry. As in: “We’re really bullish on Dartmouth because we really loved the campus and the Appalachian Trail is right there for our early morning runs.”
I had to ask this dear, sweet friend if she was planning on setting up a cot in her daughter’s room so they could take “their” run each morning. I had visions of how the death threats Harvard’s admissions officer says he has received come to be. Don’t deny parents “their” runs, “their” study abroad opportunities, “their” chance to be somebody.
Perhaps I am stymied because of my humble Midwestern roots. My parents were bullish on a private, Catholic education. They paid for private schooling through twelfth grade. Six girls, six tuitions, small ranch home. You do the math. Our money went toward education but the pot did not extend beyond high school.
I was the first and only of my siblings to be able to go away to college. My sisters went to the local commuter school.
You would think this would have made me extremely appreciative. Nope. I went to school with girls who were traveling the country, visiting college after college. I assumed I should have the same privilege.
My parents allowed me to apply to some very expensive, tough schools. The problem was, I got into most. But financial aid and scholarships did not flow then as they do now.
I was told, in no uncertain terms, which in-state schools I could consider. No out-of-state—no Cornell or Vanderbilt. We simply didn’t have the money. I did earn a partial scholarship to the local Jesuit school based on my admission test scores, but it was too close to home in my mind. So I lobbied for what I considered the crown jewel schools.
As I wailed and moaned, my mother reminded me that even if they could squeak together the money for a school such as Cornell (they couldn’t), I would be surrounded by kids with far more money. She pointed out the mean grade point average of admitted students, attesting I would go from being a top-drawer student in a class of 250 to being one of roughly 20,000 top-drawer students.
“While they’re taking ski weekends, you’ll have to sit out because you won’t have the pocket money. When you spend days on a paper, they may have spent weeks. You’ll be a very small fish in a very exclusive pond.”
Mom was not a fan.
Oh, and remember, we didn’t have the money. So there was no over-engineering to be done.
Fast forward 30 years. I’ve done ok.
I graduated from a state school that probably would have graduated monkeys, but I earned decent grades and made some great friends. Landed a job. And then another one. And another one. Built a network. Went to a top graduate school. And somewhere in there, had a life in which, beyond my first job interview, a rare few ever asked where I went as an undergrad.
Reread that last sentence. This fact is one most of my friends forget, whether they went to Yale or Schenectady County Community College. The Yalies realize, at some point, that the only people who really care that they went to Yale for undergrad are other Yalies. And that talking about that experience at age 50 is really pushing it (yawn). And the community college graduates generally got pragmatic really fast. Most never looked back; they earned that degree and just used it to start small and humble. Many have gone far beyond small and humble in their careers.
I understand many of us want green rolling hills and Georgian architecture for our children. We want opportunity and a network and—goddammit—the Appalachian Trail.
Yep. I get it. I wanted ski weekends with pocket money and professors who made my brain snap, crackle and pop.
I got those in grad school. And if I never had, I would still be ok. Truly.
As I watch my friends try to map out every little step, account for every eventuality of their child’s possible college experience, I find myself glad I was able to cut the whirring rotor. My helicopter was grounded years ago. I’m keeping it simple. They will do and be and grow because of who they are. And if I’ve done my job right, they will make the most of the opportunities they are provided. Success comes to the persistent usually and to the privileged only sometimes.
And I’m sure Mrs. Haffner would smile if she could read that.
Nothing over-engineered in this corner, Mrs. H. At least not today.