Once upon a gentler time before "Kill the Ref!" became the norm, parents used to chat amicably on the sidelines while their little ones imitated hordes of lemmings on the soccer pitch. Adorable seven-year-olds would flock gleefully around a careening ball. Comfortably ensconced on lawn chairs, moms and dads would occasionally glance up to ensure that their progeny had not wandered off and seamlessly joined another team on an adjoining field.
There are those who suggest that we are currently living in less gracious times. "Country club sports--tennis, golf, and swimming--are the worst," one of my running buddies suggests, "but soccer also brings out the dark side in parents." If by "worst" we mean adults screaming psychotically at the seven-year-old children of their neighbors, I would agree.
When I was applying to college, there was a different--a simpler--zeitgeist. Kids knew that their lives would be staggeringly similar where ever they were admitted, matriculated, studied. My parents--supportive people in every meaningful regard--didn't know which applications I had filled out. They didn't know that college applications required essay questions let alone what I had written about. I feel certain that my parents were aware that I had eventually toddled off somewhere--the grocery budget having decreased significantly--but I'm not sure they could have found Wisconsin on a map. There was no stress on their part or on mine. Under no circumstances was anybody concerned about whether or not my friends and I won a neighborhood soccer game. Whereas a scant half century later, I know those parents watching their little ones running and kicking are thinking, if my child has ball skills she's more likely to be accepted at a good college. Seriously. Soccer, trombone, student council elections, nominations to the Nuke a Gay Whale for Christ Club. It's all about credentialing and concomitant anxiety.
Why are parents in this generation intimately acquainted with where, why, and how their kids are applying? Because the world is more complicated, less friendly, riskier? Because there is more competition for scarce resources in Covid infused 2020? Is the world less safe? I remember threats to the physical and emotional well-being of kids when I was young. Fentanyl wasn't available, but I lost classmates to good old-fashioned heroin overdoses just the same, thank you very much. There is danger to our beloved children now; there was reason for concern in my generation as well.
The difference is that parents lately think that where their kids go to college matters, that the future happiness of the children depends on the choice of undergraduate institution. Graduates of selective colleges are more content that their counterparts at no-name institutions read no reputable journal article ever.
Speaking of contentment, I have been asking families what they want out of the college process for some 36 years now. I don't need Richard Dawson or Steve Harvey to corroborate. Happiness is the number one answer. Indeed, I never hear I want Percy to get skills so he can take over the family business or I want Sybil to be able to discuss Pride and Prejudice at cocktail parties. Happy is the number one answer. There is no number two answer.
So if happy is the goal, why are we obsessed with bumper stickers? Happy kiddos come from families where parents love, respect, and connect with their children whether or not the kids matriculate at schools with single-digit acceptance rates or at North Cornstalk State College or University.
If you'll forgive a simplistic analogy, I might admire the ten-million dollar twelve-thousand square foot house on the hill, but I'm not sure I want to live there unless you can promise me that the family in the fancy home is also having raucous family game night replete with cursing, snacks, and food coming out my nose because I'm laughing so hard at the explanation my daughter invented for why one of her ridiculous made-up words should score points in Boggle although--as it turns out--both "warre," meaning "countable and uncountable" and "hist," meaning "used to attract attention" are actual words so who am I to say?
At my dad's 85th birthday celebration, he and the other members of his poetry group, got up to recite Sonnet 29. The 60 guests were quiet as one of the members distributed a copy of the 14 lines. My dad returned the paper saying politely, "I don't need this" in much the same way that you might respond to someone offering you a heavy jacket on a warm day. He wasn't peeved. He just knew Sonnet 29 the way you know the names of your children.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
Shakespeare "got it" half a century before the first college was founded in this country. Envying art, influence, or undergraduate institution doesn't compare to connecting with another. You can be sad about what you don't have. You can bemoan--or beweep if you prefer--your denial at Highly Selective U. Or you can revel in your connection with your kids. You pays your money and you takes yer choice.
Was Shakespeare saying to enjoy watching your kids play soccer rather than focusing on the score? Was he suggesting that how your adolescent enjoys college is more important than where she matriculates? I can't speak for the poet, but I would certainly emphasize that for happiness--let alone larks singing hymns at heaven's gate--human connection beats bumper stickers any day.