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Life Notes: April is the Cruelest Month
The hardest time to be a high-school senior

It is the best of times. It is the worst of times. Nature escapes from the icy clutch of winter, buds push through the earth and daylight lasts longer.

I speak, of course, of April, the month of nature’s awakening, and the same month of college acceptance or rejection, when so many young people face the fact that life is good or cruel. I find it semi-ironic that college notifications arrive in the same season we shell out for income tax. The two seem inextricably linked on the stress scale.

One never forgets the anxious waiting, the terrible fears that Johnnie or Susie won’t get the news that spells bliss because it means he/she was chosen. Nor can one quickly shed the awful moment when a kid you love learns that he is not loved back by this or that institution of higher learning. And there’s no way to convince a heartbroken 17-year-old that the fate of the free world does not hinge on the fact that Princeton said “no.”

The pressures are so mighty these days when the economy is so daunting, but college applications show no signs of letting up. The college roulette wheel pits kid against kid, and leaves parents on limited budgets feeling ragged and helpless as the well-off families start prepping their kids for the great college crap shoot in sixth grade with special enrichment summers and “how-to” classes.

I remember as if it were yesterday carrying the “fat” envelope that usually meant a “yes!” to our daughter Amy at school and getting permission from officialdom to get her out of her Latin class for a moment to open it. Now, of course, she would have found out instantly on the Internet through a secret ID number.

At the mere sight of me, poor Amy burst into anxious tears, assuming the worst. When she learned in the next instant that the news was good – that she had gotten into her dream school – I thought this daughter might have to be physically restrained, so boundless was her joy.

Amy was lucky. And so were her sisters. Nobody got devastating news on those heart-stopping April days. In fact Nancy, our youngest daughter, and therefore a veteran of the sweepstakes game by osmosis, had the good sense to file an early application. Her tension broke in December – she was home free in a non-binding acceptance, the best of all possible worlds.

In the end, she didn’t attend that welcoming university, but chose another. To me, it felt almost morally wrong – had Nancy prevented another student who yearned for that school to miss his chance? Was it somehow her fault that some poor kid in Kansas or Michigan or Wyoming had a broken heart? We’ll never know.

Still, the tension, pain and unpredictability of it all makes you wonder about the college sweepstakes. In Israel, nobody goes to college at 17 or 18. There’s military service, then a year or two of travel to “ripen” the candidate.

Then it’s off to college – or a trade – or whatever else is the choice. But in this country, we’ve just about made college a mandate. And mandates just don’t work for everyone.

Every year, there’s the case of the deserving kid with the high SATs, the astounding grades, the stellar activities, the wonderful personality, who doesn’t get into any of the colleges he wanted. And just as surely, there’s the astonishment of the goofy kid who applied to Yale on a lark – and got in.

Sensible parents struggle to be philosophical, reasonable and practical as they wait for the news. Sleep at night is elusive when there’s the feeling that a daughter or son may have reached too high and is in for a crash. As parents, we share the joy – or the pain.

T.S. Eliot said it decades ago: “April is the cruelest month…” I’m positive he wasn’t talking about college acceptance. But given the high stakes game it all has become, Mr. Eliot may as well have been. And what a pity that is.

April 2013
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