Pondering That College Question
I know a lot about how students want to live in the moment and hang out with their friends during their senior year. They are growing in all the ways that will help them prepare for the next chapter. As a head of school and a parent to a senior this year, I’m seeing all this and something else firsthand. With maternal antennae up, I’ve become more aware of how often and relentlessly people—from complete strangers to neighbors and family—constantly ask where seniors want to go to college. When someone asks my son, I go into Mama Bear mode, ready to pounce and protect my cub. I might jump in and respond, “Whatsamatta University—and why are you asking this question to a kid who just wants to mindfully be a senior?”
Before I had my own senior, I knew the pokiness of the question, but now that I have my own senior, the common practice is increasingly concerning me. We might ask out of curiosity or for possible connection, but I started to realize all the ways in which it’s such a loaded question. The notion of college placement is fraught for many students in different ways—the rejection, the financial burden, the anxiety of a “good” school. Maybe my own senior feels the pressure of what others think because of my position as head of school. Asking where students are headed next puts the focus on “leaving” rather than absorbing the final chapter in our schools. Senior year is a time for students to continue building on their learning and experiences—cultivating all the tools and connections they’ll take with them.
As we move through the pandemic and consider what the landscape will look like and what opportunities we can harness, I wonder, what does this mean for my senior and his peers? And how will they ultimately respond to the question of where they’re going after senior year?
Creating Their Own Paths
Children do not want to disappoint their parents, teachers, or coaches, and it is my belief that engineering their road trip through school adds hurry, worry, and helplessness to what we want to be a journey of resilience building and agency cultivation. My husband and I are both educators and believe in learning communities and the power of education. We’ve worked hard to save for our children’s post-secondary education if that should be the path, but we did not design our kids’ childhoods for college admission. Neither child spent weekends taking test prep at a young age, working with tutors, joining club sports, playing a musical instrument in their playpens, or performing service for résumé building. Instead, we had regular family dinners, standard debates, chores, and a lot of eight-to-10-hour nights of sleep.
We have worked hard to have boundaries and let our children’s journeys be their own. Maybe it’s because I have seen so many kinds of children and families struggle to individuate. Instead, we stand back and watch the growth that comes from mistakes and the joy from successes. They are creating their own individual pathways and finding their stride. We go to games and performances and clap and cheer when they want us to, but we’re not on the field, stages, or tracks with them. This is their high school experience. Just as their next step will be their decision.
Truth be told, I often wonder if I have strayed too far and should have had more of a hands-on approach to their course selections, teacher assignments, studies, and extracurricular activities; we’ve been outliers and our hands are very off. But we embrace the possibilities of who they will become through experiences and encourage them to live in the moment. We even introduced them to sleepaway camp; places to create and relish in their own secret worlds. I hope they will look back on their childhoods with appreciation, knowing it wasn’t all to get them into college.
Experiences for the sake of process and not product have virtue built in and building a résumé where one does not remember the journey with fondness might just lead to burnout and a lack of thriving once the next chapter begins. No matter one's school or next destination, lifelong learning suggests that we, as independent schools, are not the last stop.
Instead of asking about the destination, maybe we can start asking questions that open a dialogue for seniors to feel comfortable and confident sharing more about their authentic selves. Where do you want to spend time after graduation from high school, and how do you want to spend it? What challenges do you seek, and what opportunities do you want to explore? What might you miss the most, and what are you looking forward to being different? These questions are just my own noodling, and might we all spend time in this curious place in order to help our seniors look forward to our questions and the opportunities to wonder and ideate?
I hope we can do better and listen to kids; after all, it is their journey, not ours. In the meantime, this Mama Bear is holding tight to the notion that some questions are meant for pondering, not asking.