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On Being Not-College-Bound

Photograph by Getty Images/Hemera

Sarah’s daughter is a freshman at Harvard. Jan’s son is at MIT. My daughter’s former track teammate is at UCLA, another one of her friends started at Boston University this fall, and the guy who took my little girl to the prom is ensconced at Reed College. My daughter graduated last June from the second highest achieving public high school in the state. Going to college is a given for most of these kids—and not just the ones whose parents can (kind of) afford it. A significant subset of kids (or is it their parents?) are seriously obsessed with bagging a prestige school.

All last winter and early spring the parental buzz was about SATs, ACTs and AP subject tests, about college visits and applications and essays, about public versus private, urban versus small town, big versus small, east, west or in the middle. And then it was about which schools were offering what deals. And then it was about choosing. I listened, an outsider, an outlier. My daughter, my talented, funny, smart-but-not-book-smart daughter, was not interested. She was not college-bound.

Gee, my dream for my about-to-be high school graduate might not be her dream for herself.

I had gone to a good university. I had visited campuses with my parents, thrilled at the prospect of going away. I had taken all the tests, polished my resume until it gleamed, agonized over my options, wrote, revised and re-revised my essay and then applied early decision to my top choice. One late fall afternoon in senior year, I got a message from the principal’s office to call home. I called my mother from this little pay phone booth in the main hall. The letter had arrived, she said. Of course I knew what letter. I told her to open it. Silence. Then she let out a whoop. That was a long time ago, but I still have an almost a visceral memory of that moment, that heady mix of elation and relief with an overlay of unabashed ego.

But enough about me.

Isn’t this is about my talented, lovely daughter and how entirely disinterested she was in going to college? Yes. But, in case you haven’t guessed yet, it really is (unfortunately) also about me. About how I had to learn to stop steering the dinner conversation around to college, about how I had to learn to stop sending her website links to great schools I had spent hours researching, about how I had to stop pleading with her older brothers—both in college—to “just talk to your sister.” About how I had to take a deep breath and transcend the envy when yet another friend told me about yet another acceptance letter her daughter or son got in the mail. About how I eventually got it through my thick skull that, gee, my dream for my about-to-be high school graduate might not be her dream for herself. About how I had to let go and let her control her fate.

And what about the part of this story that truly is not about me?

My daughter started a two-year culinary program this fall, and I have never seen her happier.

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