“How long is this going to take? If we’re not there for weights in twenty Coach Brenner’s gonna rip our balls off.”
“I told your dumb ass we should’ve come in during free period, but you insisted on playing me that nonsense for forty minutes. That dude was trash anyway, whatever the fuck his name was. Mackie-Mall?”
“It’s Macklemore, asshole, and that guy’s gonna be the next big thing, I guarantee it.”
“A white boy from Seattle in a fur coat is the next big rapper? OK, Joey Boy, whatever you say.”
We saw one of our classmates exit the counselor’s office. Since we were running late and Joey’s poor taste in music was to blame, I took it upon myself to go first and get the ordeal over with. With a million more important things on my mind, from the season opener against St. Augustine’s to the party at Krissy Fanatucci’s house on Saturday, nothing seemed quite as insignificant in that moment as my appointment, but I resolved to take it with a modicum of seriousness.
We’d been instructed to have our back-to-school catch ups with the college counselor by the end of the month. Ms. O’Hannigan had been a proud servant of Ignatian Prep for over thirty years, working tirelessly to help the school justify its absurdly high tuition by keeping us on the path to the highest echelons of university education. She was one of those rare older ladies with all the graceful charm of a matriarch but without any of the pretense, preferring simple slices of wisdom to grandstanding moralizations. Her office decorations–upbeat motivational posters—clashed rather fiercely against my freshly budding cynicism; that being said, I was particularly fond of the “Power of Persistence”, mostly because the adorably dumb-looking dog in the picture looked like my neighbor’s. The damn thing bit me once, but still, pretty cute.
A Solid Start
I hadn’t had much interaction with Mrs. H in my first few years at Ignatian, my focus being more on keeping my grades high enough to maintain my eligibility for sports (this was by my parents’ criteria, of course–their rule could be summarized as “No ‘A’, No Play”). I had met with her briefly the year before to discuss the Subpar Aptitude Tracker, known more commonly as the SAT. Now, some people out there would have you believe that the SATs are an outdated, unneeded, and unwanted institution that accomplishes nothing but turn the already absurd world of college admissions into even more of a pressure cooker. Those are all valid/entirely accurate points, but, personally, I’m a big fan of standardized academia. Instead of being challenged to come up with independent ideas and practice critical thinking skills like a chump, a significant amount of my schooling had been spent memorizing one-time-usage test strategies and coasting off high results. Shit, in grade school the tests were so important that half the time we didn’t even bother with the textbook, and when we did, the focus was on test-relevant material. If they didn’t need it to boost the school’s score ranking, they didn’t bother teaching it. Getting to skip a ton of material in exchange for not failing a useless exam; what more could an overworked child ask for?
I’d have to say that the 2250/2400 that I managed to cobble together was a fair reflection of my efforts. It had all started with that most inane of exercises, the Pretentiously Subpar Aptitude Tracker, the PSATs. I got a 186 out of 240, putting me around the 90th percentile and earning me a spot in the National Achievement Scholarship race. Most parents would be ecstatic over a good start with room for improvement, but as any child of immigrants knows all too well, “room for improvement” is less a cause for celebration and more a doomsday warning. Within a matter of days my post-homework free hours became prep courses, my weekends turned into practice test marathons, and my joie de vivre mutated into perpetual terror. As weeks turned to months, my practice scores improved, especially once I learned to shut down that pesky little voice in my head that liked to engage in useless monologues concerning my own misery. There’s no time for introspection on the path to success.
By the time the big day rolled around I was locked and loaded, ready to fill in those bubbles like they owed me money. Four hours and an infinite number of opportunities to ruin my future later, I emerged, bent, but not broken. I was treated to a feast fit for a king, the occasion only dampened by the fact that it would take three months to see if I deserved it. That was the real fucking hell of it all–the waiting. The day my scores finally arrived, two weeks before the end of the school year and three days after I’d begun to consider escape options in the case of an under-sixteen-hundred turn, was a wave of sweet relief, a wave that was immediately transformed into a tsunami of realization.
This was the easy part.
I really wasn’t much good at putting things in perspective.
The next step in my heroic journey to societal validation was my senior summer internship, a three-month stint of unpaid, unappreciated, unnecessary labor. My mom knew a man from our local parish, an old-timey attorney with a passion for charity and bad facial hair (think Yosemite Sam, but asymmetrical and much too long). Upon learning of my misfortune of having the entire summer free to enjoy my waning youth, he took it upon himself to do our family a kindness and hook me up with a position at a soup kitchen/wayward shelter. It wasn’t the setting I had an issue with—even administrative work in a place of charity ultimately helps those in need. No, my issue was strictly with the work, particularly with the fact that eighty percent of my time was spent on tasks that could have been accomplished by a ten year old with a basic understanding of spreadsheets. Having evidently missed the memo that the rest of the world got in 2002, everything from received applications to invoices to patient files was all on paper. I was given ninety days and the promise of an almighty recommendation letter to get everything onto a hard drive. It may come off a bit full of myself to complain about not being worked hard enough, as if my sixteen year old self could have turned the place upside down if I’d just been given more responsibility, but at some point mind-numbing boredom becomes more of a curse than a blessing. Besides, two hours of work a day and six hours of resigned stagnation gave me plenty of time to work on that other oh-so important piece of the acceptance puzzle, the essay.
Oh, how do I love thee, college essay? Let me count the ways.
I love thee for your torturously vague prompts designed to evoke hours of panic-induced reflection on such benign topics as that time you “discovered something new” or “dealt with a challenge.” I love thee for the seven different drafts I wrote only to immediately discard as utter garbage, so I could draft another eight just to give myself one extra chance to fuck it up. I love thee for blurring the line between advanced vocabulary and vulgarly verbose tripe, forcing me to make frequent use of such words as “rhapsodize,” “prognosticate,” and “egregious.” Most of all, oh college essay, I love thee for teaching that it’s never truly the contents of your story that matter, the life you’ve lived and the things you’ve lived through, but rather it’s the way you tell it, the framework and method you use to turn the raw materials of your self-being into a marketable product eager to be consumed by discerning buyers.
Why did I just use Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s renowned poem from 1850 to rip on the college essay? Because I wrote my essay about that poem and turned it into a contemplation on the difficulty and necessity of love in the human condition. In other words, I did that to show you exactly how much of an asshole I was during all of this.
“So yeah, my internship was fantastic, I really like my essays, and I feel good about my current results, don’t think I’ll be taking the redo on the exam.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful dear,” she remarked, employing that lovely tone used to soften a coming blow, “For the SATs, though, maybe you want to put some more thought into that. You did amazing, no question, and being in the ninety-ninth percentile puts you in the running for some top schools, but there’s still some room for improvement.”
There’s that goddamned word again. I explained that I wanted to focus my energies on other activities. The truth of the matter was that not having to retake SATs was the single, solitary concession that I’d managed to pry from the unrelenting grip of my parents, and I refused to hand it over in the name of practicality. Another two months of prep just for the chance of gnawing off a few of those remaining points, all done with the comforting knowledge that perfect scorers get rejected from top schools all the goddamn time. It sounded about as fun as a root canal performed with a pickaxe.
“OK, dear, I understand–especially given your extracurricular record.
Captain of the football team this year, correct? How impressive!”
“Yeah,” I replied, a faux-sheepish chuckle complimented by a perfectly timed hand-rub-on-head, “I’m really excited about the season, and I can’t wait to start leading the guys out on the field.”
In the second game of the year I broke my fibula in half, and after two weeks of post-surgery bedrest, was reduced to hobbling around the building with a minimum four-month crutch sentence. We also went three-and-nine, which, y’know, “room for improvement.” Friday Night Lights, that year was not.
“That’s wonderful, dear, just wonderful. What about the Diversity Club, how’s that going?”
Wow, I literally forgot I was the vice-president until right this moment.
“We have a lot of really exciting events planned and I think we’re going to keep making strides in promoting a more tolerant, diverse learning environment.”
If I had a dollar for every time the word “faggot” was used with impunity on school grounds *I would be rich. *
“And how are you doing with your community service hours?”
“Eighty all-time, hoping to hit twenty more by the early admissions deadline, and then by regulars I’ll be well over the mark. I think that should give me a strong footing on the volunteer aspect.”
Oh, I’m sorry, does the idea of treating hours spent performing acts of human kindness like poker chips at Caesar’s Palace bother you? Join the club, pal. Once the charm of the all-too-lovable children that I was tasked with mentoring wore off, all that was left was another box that needed checking, another task that needed completion. There was a brief but wonderful time, freshman and sophomore year, when I truly enjoyed service, and embraced the chance to do something good for the sake of it. That is, until the day I was told that my odds at a Top 30 school would crash through the floor if I wasn’t hovering around a hundred hours at time of submission. It all kind of lost its luster after that.
But hey, who’s counting, right?
We ended on a discussion on what for many is the most difficult part of the entire affair but which was, for me, merely an exercise in formalities: the colleges. Let me set the stage: in the United States of America, there are approximately 4,620 degree-granting institutions of higher learning. Of those, around 3000 are four-year enrollments. Of those 3000, there are a few hundred that the average American would be able to recognize from either a storied sports legacy, high academic standing, a major historical element, or just because they live twenty minutes from it: think Kent State University à la the Massacre or the local community college I held in such low regard during my self-unaware, objectively awful phase. Of those remaining notable names, there are a few dozen where the much-adored and oft-abhorrent “elite” performers (if I insult my former self enough times, the hypocritical, self-righteous tone goes away, right?) were expected to make our temporary homes. Now, even out of just those remaining few schools, there’s real opportunity to explore your options and find your perfect, unique fit… thankfully, I was spared that agony of choice with a much simpler mantra, inculcated by my parents from childhood: HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Shame).
“You’re applying to all eight Ivies? So ambitious! Well if anyone’s got a shot, I’d put my money on you, dear.”
Oh hush, you, I bet you say that to all the pretty honors students.
“Yeah, all the Ivies, Stanford, Georgetown, Duke, and then some safeties to round it all out. I’m starting off with Harvard for early admission — I figured I’d just take my shot on that as soon as possible.”
“Well you are absolutely on the right track, young man. I just know that you’ll make the Prep proud, wherever you end up going. Well, as long as it’s a school worthy of your talents, that is!”
To this day, that’s still the kindest way that I’ve ever been told to not fuck it all up. Mrs. O’Hannigan, what a lady indeed.
I knew something annoying was going to come out of Joey’s mouth the second I saw him, but I was determined to keep focus. Mr. Shapiro’s Honors Calculus class was an odd enjoyment of mine, mostly due to the man himself. Eighty years of age had not diminished his mania for academics, and although he walked with a cane, he still had energy to spare for us young punks. The first day that I showed up on crutches, he looked me dead in the eye and, in front of the whole room, declared: “With the five extra minutes it’ll take ya to get in and out, you might finally learn what a chain rule is.”
I still miss that man.
It was during a frantic preparation for class that Joey arrived, US News & World Report College Rankings in hand and brow furrowed.
“Do we really have to talk about this now? Mr. Shapiro said this quiz can bump our quarter grades up five percent if we ace it.”
“I’m spiraling over here. Just help me out real quick and I’ll let you get back to your calc.”
On the inside I was screaming, but I contained myself to a mere sigh as I grabbed my crutches and hobbled over to the desktop station. Joey, laboring under the burdens of free will, was finding it more difficult to narrow down his choices than I had.
“OK, let’s see . . . West Virginia, Penn State, Miami… what’s wrong with this list? You got the reaches, targets, and safeties all here.”
“Yeah but are they the right ones? I’ve been working on this for weeks but I still can’t figure it out. I’ve done research, looked up reviews, looked at majors—”
“All right, I get it, you’re stressing. Look I’ll help you out. Have you thought about location?”
“Well I definitely want to get the hell out of New York. Somewhere refreshing, y’know, with lots of trees and shit. What about you, what kind of locations you looking at?”
Somewhere with a mental facility for my inevitable pre-burnout breakdown.
“Same shit I guess, trees would be good. Size?”
“Big school, man, lots of people. Why go all the way to college if you’re only going to see the same hundred people over and over again?”
To get away from the same hundred people I see over and over again here; it’s about time someone new gets a chance to earn my disappointment.
“Eh, I don’t know, smaller schools have their charm. OK, what about your grades and shit? What caliber of schools are in your range?”
It was meant to be just another in an automated string of questions, but the strain on Joey’s face reminded me we were touching a sensitive subject. Ignatian had Honors and regular classes, and due to some differences in our study habits and work ethic, we’d never managed to be in the same class once in four years. It never stopped the friendship, obviously, but the farther along we got, the more relevant it became.
That twenty-two-fifty SAT score I had slaved for still rankled that small, aggressively narcissistic voice in my head which asked why I couldn’t pull off a perfect exam. Joey, on the other hand, would have probably given an arm and a nut just to get close the bi-millennial ceiling. While I was envisioning Harvard Crimson and indulging in ivy-draped fantasies, he was imagining much less pleasant, emptier possibilities. I decided to change course.
“Look, end of the day, you just gotta pick some schools, man. Early decisions come back in a few weeks and then it’s only a couple more until regular apps are due. Tick tock, friend, tick tock.”
“HEY! The bell rang, Isaiah, what the fuck are you doing? Shapiro’s not gonna pause just because you’re a cripple.”
“Go fuck yourself, Ramon, I’m on my way,” I replied, half-annoyed and half relieved by my profanity-laden escape route, “Joey Boy, I gotta bounce but I’ll catch you later.”
I hobbled off and he took a seat to agonize over his list a little while longer.
School, homework, application, dinner, application, homework, application, sleep.
School, homework, application, dinner, application, homework, application, sleep.
School, homework, application, dinner, application, homework, application, sleep.
And they say routine can’t be fun.
There was an odd bit of TV here, staying behind to hang out with friends there, but the variations were few and far between. Train rides were short reprieves providing an hour of serenity to explore fresh thoughts.
The rest were spent hunched over my laptop, carefully constructing concise statements of desperation, framed as humility intended to disguise arrogance.
On one level, college was simply the next step on a road to some pre-ordained, worthwhile future. There would be classes to attend, friends to make, memories to be had, and challenges to be conquered.
Four years on some campus (hopefully) far away and upon my emergence, a chance to join the oft-fabled world of the real adults. It was all real, and all within grasp, and yet…
OK, remember that old Willy Wonka movie? Not that Johnny Depp, cash grab bullshit; the one from ’71 with Gene Wilder. I used to watch it all the time when I was a kid—it was one of my favorite VHS tapes, back before the modern age kicked in. The Chocolate Factory has all the best scenes, those colorful moments and songs filling my mind even as I write this; but my favorite scene is the golden ticket. This kid with nothing but hope finds access into a place full of inconceivable things, sights and sounds and ends up embarking on his great adventure. The golden ticket changes every single aspect of his life, allowing him to embrace a world of endless possibility, and yet, at the end of the day, all he did was get lucky. All he did was get lucky that out of billions of candy bars, he found one that gave him everything he never even knew he wanted.
Ten or twenty people in a room, in some office on some campus. Eighteen years of my life, neatly organized into checkboxes and overdone sentences. One name in a pile of thousands, examined and scrutinized for every fault until there were none left to see. The first round, then the second, the third and then the fourth, however long or little they decided to take, until finally, somewhere in a pretty little spreadsheet, I stood among the victors.
A name on a spreadsheet; that’s all I would be, and that’s all it would take. A golden ticket, stamped with a seal of selective approval.
Whisked away by the postman and brought to my doorstep, into my impatient hands. My value confirmed, my opportunity delivered, my mind settled at last.
I submitted my last application at 3:47 AM, Thursday, January 3rd, 2013.
Exit stage left.
A Mid-Spring Night’s Drama
No one ever told me what Krissy Fanatucci’s parents did for a living, but it must’ve been very lucrative and very time-intensive. Her folks seemed to take off for weeks at a time, and her house looked like something out a generic mid-2000s rap video. I couldn’t even understand how three people could live in a place like that, let alone one. It had space and splendor enough for a few hundred guests, but even for a girl as popular as Krissy, a hundred-fifty was about all she could manage.
After four unbearable, uninteresting months of minimal social activity, I had finally received the go-ahead from Dr. Faruq to ditch my crutches.
Finally, I could look for entertainment beyond the joys of my PlayStation; casual nights at a friend’s place couldn’t quite replace the thrill of adolescent debauchery. I’ve never been one to think of myself as a party animal, but that lovely spring night demanded proper libations.
Joey and I arrived fashionably late and proceeded to partake of our hostess’s generosity. After a few embarrassingly poor showings of beer pong and an even more embarrassing display of dancing skill set to some LMFAO jams (it was a different time, a worse time), we found a spot on the porch and posted up for some casual consumption.
“I told you we shouldn’t have gone two out of three with Ramon and Tamir. I’m rusty and you’re garbage. Bad combo.”
“Slow down there, friend,” he replied, pausing to take another sip of his Jack Daniels, “you’re the one who suggested the first game, I just wanted to avenge our loss. It was a matter of fuckin’ honor.”
“Mmm, goddamn man I didn’t even know they could make rum this good.
Makes me wish I was a pirate.”
“Wait, I thought you were Nigerian, not Somalian?”
“All right, first off, that’s another dollar in the racist jar, and second, I meant like Jack Sparrow, ‘yo-ho-ho,’ that kind of shit. I’m not one for the water or boats or casual homicide, I suppose, but aside from those small details, seems like a fun time.”
“You know those guys, like, all had syphilis right?”
“OK, fine, seems like a decent time then, whatever.”
“Well, I wish you the best of luck on your sea bound adventures, Captain Jack Swallows.”
“I’ll just have to see if they offer swashbuckling class wherever I go next year. That reminds me, how’d all of your shit go, end up sticking to the list?”
“Yeah, yeah they went OK… just applications, weren’t hard.”
“Uh huh,” I responded, suspicions awakened, “It’s kind of crazy, right?
In a year we’ll probably be on our first real spring break, or at least in the middle of midterms getting ready for it. Everything’s going to be so different, who knows, maybe we’ll even stop being a couple of assholes.”
I kept one eye on him during my musings and noticed a deepening droop in his face.
“Something you want to tell me, man?”
“Look, I’m fine, just a little drunk is all.”
“Cut the shit, Joey. What’s wrong? Was it a rejection?”
“I’m not getting any rejections, Isaiah, from anybody.”
“Huh, well, either you’re looking sad as hell from the pain of carrying those giant, ego-inflating balls around, or you just said that you didn’t apply for college, at all.”
It’s astounding how much silence can say, especially when words just aren’t enough.
“You dumb motherfucker…”
“Hey, look, Zay it’s not—”
“ARE YOU INSANE? What the hell were you thinking, man?”
A few girls happened to be walking by as I began my yelling, confused and worried looks signaling that my potential hook-up status, whatever it may have been before, had vanished. Both of us eager to avoid any more missed possibilities, we removed ourselves to a more secluded location.
“Look, Isaiah, you don’t get it, OK? I’m not like you–I’m not smart or good at any of this shit. The only reason I don’t have any Fs is senioritis pity, and Cs and Ds aren’t that much better. We both know I’m not the greatest student, why bother trying to pretend otherwise.”
“What the fuck does that have to with anything? I’m pretty sure some of the guys on the team just learned how to read, and they all applied to school. Just because you don’t have the scores for a top place you decide to not fucking go anywhere? And you are smart, and you goddamn know it, and everyone else would know it too if you gave a shit about showing them.”
“You don’t understand, OK?”
“Is it about the money, then? There are loans, there’s work study, there’s scholarships for shit outside the classroom. You were the one who told me about that community service one, and you lied to my goddamn face when you said you would apply.”
“I didn’t lie about shit, and don’t you fucking stand there and judge me! I made my choice and I own it. You wanna know why I didn’t apply?
Because I’m done with the bullshit, that’s why! I’m done with everyone and everything telling me how goddamned unworthy I am, or what I should aspire to. I’m done letting other people determine my value and waiting for someone else to validate me. Even if I managed to get in somewhere, what the fuck would it be for? Get to spend four years losing my mind only for the prayer of a career to waste my soul in.”
“Oh, bravo, real fucking inspirational. What’s next, you gonna get on the next bus to LA and see your name in flashing lights? Start some garage band or something? Enlighten me, Joey–please enlighten me to your world-shaking plans.”
It was needless and petty, I know, but tension mixed with liquor never equals anything pleasant. He scowled.
“You think this is a joke.”
“You throw away your future out of fear of rejection and then you try to pass it off as bucking the system? You’re a rebel without a clue. You say it’s messed up? Yeah, no shit, it’s messed up, but that’s the way it is. Finish high school, finish college, get a job, wife, house, kids, retire then die, that’s it Joey, that’s what it all comes to. This shit’s already been planned out for us, and your little temper tantrum isn’t going to change anything.”
“You always make everything sound so easy, don’tcha? You know what I think, Mr. Answers? I think you’re a self-righteous asshole who would rather lecture people than listen to them. I think you’re an arrogant, narcissistic prick hiding behind his clever little jokes about how you’re not that impressive, and you’ve gotten away with your act for so long that you even managed to convince yourself”
“Arrogant about what? Trying? That’s all I did, Joey, and that’s all you had to do, too. Read when they tell you to read, think what they tell you to think, show up and every once in a while you write it all down on a piece of paper. You’re not the first kid to hate school, moron, get over yourself. Apply for mid-year enrollment and pray to God somewhere decent takes you. Hell, or don’t, pick a union trade and get that soul sucking adulthood started early, that way at least you’ll make more some actual damn money. Point is, college, no college, no matter what you do, the world will move on. And let’s be very, very clear here, I’m not mad because I’m disappointed in you, I’m mad because I know that you’re disappointed in your goddamn self, but you’re just too much of a coward to admit it.”
I turned to make a somber leave, but Joey, equally as intoxicated and likely more incensed, decided that an additional comment was necessary.
“I hope you burn out and flunk your first year. I hope you have to come crawling back to the city with your tail between your legs.”
Back turned, mood soured, and years of friendship floating away in front of me. A wind blew by and broke the silence. I followed suit.
“At least I’ll get to find out.”
Simply Look Around and View It
I’d been to D.C. a couple of times before, once for pure tourism and the other as a victim of a classic “sightseeing tour disguised as an esteemed educational program” scheme that I can’t directly name for legal reasons. This time was a little bit different. More excitement in the air, but also more terror. The prospect of new beginnings mixing with the fear of possible endings. All of this energy confined to the family SUV, the whole gang in tow and only two hours late, a household record. That first trip was something special.
The road to it was less thrilling, I have to admit. Harvard had taught me a cruel lesson with their early admission rejection, but it always takes more than one attempt to properly absorb the material. Luckily, I did not want for any repetition in that subject. Columbia stung a little bit more, can’t lie, but I quickly reminded myself that I had wanted to leave the city anyway. My parents would have never allowed me a moment’s rest had I lived only twenty minutes away. Princeton and Yale–expected as well–but still a wound to the psyche. It wasn’t ideal, but I still had plenty of options left.
Or so I thought.
Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, UPenn, Stanford, Duke.
No golden tickets.
Like those first few raindrops in the storm, they came faster than expected but each one had a distinct hit to it. As the raindrops gathered, the fog followed, the sunshine of spring doing nothing to break through the stale air of my self-imposed bedrest.
Depression is far too strong a word, not to mention insulting to the afflicted. No, I wouldn’t go that far, not quite. Sad? Definitely.
Afraid? No doubt. Complete lack of desire to leave my bed? Only the normal amount, but with an acutely somber spirit to it.
It wasn’t all gloom, of course, the safeties coming back with attempts to soothe me. I would still be going somewhere, even if the lofty heights I’d seen myself on were fading from view. My little talk with Joey would find occasion to replay in my more reflective moments. We didn’t talk for a while after that, a while being the polite way to say things never got better. Nothing to dwell on, of course, just another high school friendship lost by the wayside. Something ugly to be quickly forgotten, in the wake of a momentous turn.
A momentous turn indeed.
My mother called me into the kitchen and handed me the envelope. I turned away to find myself a quiet corner. Screaming or silence was about to follow, equally deafening to any witnesses.
That better me, the brave one, had opened the envelope before I even knew what was happening. By the time the first words were being registered, I was just regaining control of my thoughts, only to feel my body react against my will. She said that I yelled like a wild hound, but I like to imagine it was slightly more sophisticated.
After all, a Georgetown man should be all class.
Prom season bloomed, graduation passed, summer faded.
Classmates and brothers gone from sight, soon to follow from memory.
Shopping to be done, roommates to be picked (and subsequently regretted).
Preparations to be made.
New days to imagine.
All that change, all that excitement, all that possibility. It was all real, all true, and yet, that pesky little voice, long-silenced, just had to make one last inquiry.