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You Never Know When They're Listening

Photograph by Getty Images

I took the girls to the Bay Area to visit family, friends and, for the first time ever, colleges. I had made reservations for a 90-minute walking tour at UC Berkeley six weeks in advance. We checked into the admissions office, and as I saw the blue and gold everywhere, I felt the same butterflies that I did the first time that I visited my alma mater, UCLA.

The girls asked me a few questions: “What time does school start? Are there bells?” We meandered through campus with a student tour guide and I felt awe with each step. A university gives me the rush that malls must give shoppers. In each classroom, someone has something exciting to exchange.

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Twenty minutes into the tour, the girls quieted down. They weren't even joking around with each other. I looked around. My girls zoned out. Maybe I was wrong for bringing them when they were so young—10, 12 and 12.

In front of a science building, the guide pointed out the three parking spots labeled “Nobel Prize Winner.” I got chills and mumbled to Audrey, “Can you believe that?” She shrugged. She was the one who expressed interest in going to Berkeley. I had just lost the one who wanted this whole day to happen.

Now I would be their pushy stepmom who “made” them tour an exceptional university, against their will. Their first memory of a campus would be a chatterbox tour guide and no butterflies. This is not what I was hoping for.

After undergrad, I spent a few years working for UCLA admissions. My job included academic outreach in the inner city. What blew my mind is how little high school students actually knew about college. By the time I reached them, it was usually too late. I could not fix urban public education. So I promised that when I had children, I would bring up higher education early and often.

They did not smile from ear to ear during the tour, so I assumed they just weren't absorbing what I wanted them to.

After the tour was over, we landed at a sushi restaurant off-campus. Even with a lovely lunch surrounded by my girls, I still felt crummy. During lunch, no one—especially not me—mentioned college. Even though I never said they absolutely had to go Cal or any college at all, my girls had disconnected from this dialogue completely.

As soon as we got into our truck to head back to the hotel, this happened:

Audrey: Shauna, is is OK if I go to Idaho?

Me: What’s in Idaho?

Audrey: According to my iPhone, the best pediatrician school in the country.

Me: Yeah, honey, you can go to Idaho. But when did you decide to pursue medicine?

Hailey: Yeah, Audrey, when?

Audrey: According to Shauna, I am really good with kids. And I guess the only career that you make money in, and work with kids, is being a pediatrician.

When we blended our families, Audrey took my son under her wing. All these years later, she is still his second mom. It’s as if she were born with a parenting book in her brain. She says things like, “We are going to go on a family hike. It will be hard for about 15 minutes, but then the rest is fun. If you don’t want to go, I’ll stay with you.”

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Over the years, I learned Audrey has a big heart for all children. Every family function she finds the littlest kids and plays with them for hours. I remember giving her that compliment. I said something like, “Audrey, you have a gift with young people. You could make a career out of that if you want.” She heard that feedback, digested it and researched it all on her own.

They did not smile from ear to ear during the tour, so I assumed they just weren't absorbing what I wanted them to: the importance and excitement of higher education. Audrey is not only thinking about colleges, but also careers. I guess sometimes, when you least expect it, they are listening.

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