BY SUSAN ESTRICH
I will never forget the day. I stood just inside the door with the thin pile of envelopes. I opened them one by one. Radcliffe [Harvard] said no. Yale said no. Princeton said no. Pembroke [Brown] said no. The top male schools were opening their doors to the brightest women in America.
And none of them wanted me.
I had never – I mean never – gotten a grade lower than A. I did splits in the mud at football games and was the president of the largest region of B’nai B’rith Girls in the world. I’d been working since I was 15, a real job as a waitress who took over for the cook when he was downstairs boffing the other 15-year-old.
None of it mattered. SAT prep courses? I didn’t even know there were books. I took the tests. I did OK.
My parents did not help me write my applications. No one did. Correction: My mother, a lifelong secretary, offered to type the application for the one college I did not want to apply to, the one place I was determined not to go.
Wellesley College. All girls. A place where an insecure girl like me who had never had a boyfriend wasn’t likely to find one.
Worse, it gave me money, a very generous scholarship and loan package. My parents were thrilled. I cried.
I learned the lesson of rejection. I learned that no matter how hard you try, life is what it is, which is to say what you make of it.
I never had a boyfriend at Wellesley. On the other hand, no one ever told me that there was anything – anything – I couldn’t do. Hillary Clinton was five years ahead of me. Madeleine Albright was 10 years ahead of her. At Wellesley, women did everything. By the time I got to Dartmouth for my junior year “abroad,” I was widely known around campus as the “cohog who f—– the curve” [too many citations!]. I didn’t find a boyfriend, but I learned how to hold my ground even if I was the only woman in the room.
The next year, I was accepted at every law school in America.
I tell this story whenever I give a graduation speech at a high school, not for the kids who got into their top choices but for the kids who didn’t.
Growing up is all about acceptance and humility, compassion and empathy. You don’t learn that from winning every game. You don’t learn that when Mommy and Daddy pay for someone to take your tests for you. And of course, it wasn’t just the parents. A kid with no learning issues gets permission to take an untimed test in a distant test center and they don’t ask why? That’s proof they should have been rejected. Your test scores go up 400 points based on no work and you say, “Lucky me”? Too dumb for any school I know. I signed every one of my applications. Kids today do it digitally. The only thing less attractive than parents paying the cheaters are the kids who are attacking their parents, as if they have no idea why mediocre and less than mediocre students [them] would be accepted at a highly selective college where they don’t even belong.
We all want to help our children. I took my kids to interviews and checked out who I knew on the faculty. Lots of people try the school donation route, the problem being that almost none of them are rich enough to make a dent.
But there is a line between trying and lying, between submitting a truthful application and submitting a fraudulent one. The most important thing about college is not where you go but what you learn, especially about yourself.
When my life was truly falling apart – my father had died suddenly; I was still in law school; I had three issues of the law review to get out; I had not set foot in a class; my best friend’s husband had committed suicide; and both my mother and my sister had finally left their abusive husbands – the infirmary insisted I see a psychiatrist. I laughed. Did I mention that I didn’t have a dime?
I was charging everything to my bursar’s card, which is to say that my loans got bigger every day. Dr. Hermine Makman insisted that I read a book about a cohort of Harvard students who had been followed for life. The conclusion was simple: The happiest and most successful class members were not those who were dealt the best hand but those who played the hands they were dealt best. Adaptation to Lifeit was called. Lessons cheaters will never learn. Dr. Makman saved my life and never sent a bill. When I came back as a professor, I paid every dime I owed her.
– Susan Estrich’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer