My mortgage payment in 1981 was $803/month. The year before my take home salary was $778/month. Simple arithmetic suggested that if I were to continue living indoors, I would have to bustle.
So I tutored math–driving to see students from Kendall to Miami Beach. I took over a morning paper route for a week, picked up some shifts at a bookstore, sold sodas in the Orange Bowl at Miami Dolphin games. I got a gig at Miami-Dade Junior College on Saturday morning. Every week, I taught like a rabid dog for three consecutive hours. These students needed to know how to find the area of a rectangle—length times width if I remember–and I was just the person to communicate that information.
I worked pretty much every day for months and was able to make my payments.
To be fair, there was little danger of my being evicted for failing to pay my new mortgage. My parents were an infinitely supportive safety net. I could have asked for some money to tide my over and they would gladly have come through. But I enjoyed living on a strict budget and was pleased to be independent. In September, I had scrapped together the $803 by the 29th of the month. In October, I had the money ready by the 25th. November was a good month for my incipient tutoring practice, and I had amassed $803 by the 19th. I remember being overjoyed early in 1982 when I sent in the mortgage check and still had another $803 ready to go for the payment the following month.
On Saturday after teaching that long class, I treated myself to a sandwich and a soda at a deli in downtown Miami. I also bought myself a hanging flower basket. I mention these details not to recommend Dr. Brown’s cream soda or petunias specifically, but to point out that 40 years has not dimmed the memory of these extravagances, how happy I was every time I came home and saw those bright blossoms.
In my early 20s, I was in no danger of working myself to death. I still managed to train for and run marathons. I was young, tireless, motivated, and excited to make my way in the world. For all the hours I put in working, I didn’t miss any meals. Compare my experience with that of one of my students. Also from a privileged family, Larry was given an allowance equivalent to what I was able to cobble together from working. There was no reason for Larry to have even one part-time job, never mind experience the view from the top of the Orange Bowl having carried three racks of sodas up to the cheap seats. How could Larry experience the delight of finally getting a month ahead on the mortgage? How could Larry appreciate coming home to one bouquet when his parents had gifted him with extensive landscaping?
It may seem counterintuitive, but could it be said that Larry’s parents were guilty of a form of child abuse.
Which brings me to the tide of “we regret to inform you” emails flooding the inboxes of college seniors this month.
Surely no loving parent wants to watch a beloved child be disappointed. Every supportive parent wants their 17-year-old to be admitted to their first-choice college.
But is there another way to frame the experience of being rejected?
If your child were admitted to every school to which they applied, won’t the joy soon abate in favor of a “what if we had applied to an even more competitive institution?” mindset.
“A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” suggested Robert Browning. If a seven-year-old rides in a limo to a birthday party, what do they have to look forward to when they get married? If your kid is admitted to every college, doesn’t it all feel the same? Or as we say in statistics class, if there’s no variance then every score is the same. Winning the Super Bowl every year never gets old because of the extraordinary exertion it takes to get there. Purchasing a Super Bowl ring wouldn’t be the same.
I’m not suggesting that we purposely set up our kids to experience failure just because we know that disappointments are an inescapable part of life. Oh, wait. Dealing with small rejections now to process bigger disappointments later is exactly what I’m saying. At developmentally appropriate times—ages and stages—our kids have to accept that stuff happens. As much as we’d like to protect them from every hurt, every negative feeling, every disappointment.
Because time and tide wait for no one. Your children many have already mourned the loss of grandparents. In the fullness of time, they will be sad about your death as well. It’s not that you want them to practice grief, loss, and disenchantment, but it would be nice if they had some intestinal fortitude, some preparation, some way to deal with the inevitable slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to come. You don’t want your kids to be insensitive, but you don’t want them to have a complete come-apart either when their first-choice college says no.
So how to handle the email that begins, “we regret to inform you that because of all the many qualified applicants we are unable to offer you a spot in the class of…”? My thought is to be some combination of haphazard, dismissive, and brief. You can’t feel the feeling for them so you might try a couple sentences—”you are still the star you were yesterday before you got the rejection” and “oh, sorry to hear that.”
Then let it go. The less invested the parents are in the acceptances and rejections, the easier it will be for your brilliant, motivated student to get over it as well.
Good things are coming for your beloved children—admission to grad school, marriage and children, a deli sandwich, a cold soda, hanging petunias–all kinds of experiences. A few disappointments along the way will only make the subsequent victories that much sweeter.