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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?
Chesney Nutmilk. College.
What's wrong with this picture?
Chesney is sitting at the desk in his room. His Mac G4 is slowly downloading a copy of "Mambo No. 5" via Macster, and he imagines that if he were in college and plugged into some sort of network, his connection to the world of free music would be immeasurably more graceful. He doesn't exactly crave "Mambo No. 5," but when faced with the need to imagine some song worth downloading, it was the only one he could think of. Well, almost the only one. He could also think of Britney Spears, or more to the point, Britney Ellipsis Spears, but the thought was driven by some perversity that he cannot control, and not by any desire to ever hear any of Ms. Spears music. Not ever. Not no how.
"Mambo No. 5" it is.
And, for that matter, college it is. Some college. Somewhere.
As the shadows of the year lengthen into the twilight of autumn, Chesney is forced to finally decide which schools to apply to. The deadline looms close, just on the other side of Thanksgiving. He has talked to every conceivable person who might have advice on what school would be best for him. He has visited more campuses than, well, Macster. Or Britney Spears. He has listened to his mother, who always wished she had gone to a better college than Syracuse, and his father, who always wished he had gone to Harvard instead of Princeton because, as he put it, he felt as out of place in New Jersey as a cabbage in a chocolate factory. "It's all who you are," the elder male Nutmilk readily points out, while his former spouse immediately begins bemoaning winters that begin in August and end roughly on the Fourth of July, not to mention that fact that the sun never shines and everyone lives life like a sort of mobile spirochete.
Which leaves Chesney no closer to a decision than when he started out, except that he has no desire to be either a cabbage or a bacterium.
And "Mambo" is now approximately 27% downloaded. After almost twenty minutes.
Chesney has a drawer of his desk filled with catalogues and applications. He has spent some time sorting them according to his own categories. Based on his grades and SATs, combined with a father who's a Princeton graduate and a mother who's the editor of Metro New York, he could conceivably get into almost anywhere. Except, of course, there are no sure things, especially now that he no longer attends Lodestone. One thing about a magnet school, they very clearly sort out who ought to go where, and the colleges accept the credentials of the magnetic as de facto bona fides. Attending Bisonette Technical, on the other hand, seems as if it could barely guarantee entry into barber college. It's not that the school has no intelligent students so much as it has no intelligent reputation. College admission boards expect a flood of matriculants from the magnets, because they get a flood of matriculants from the magnets every year. Nobody expects even a trickle of applicants from Bisonette, much less any matriculants.
But it doesn't matter all that much, because Chesney does not have his heart set on any particular school. Far from it.
The information is arranged in his desk drawer as follows. First, there's schools where he knows somebody and he likes that person. In here there's a handful of Ivies and second tier universities covering much of the northeast. Next, there's schools where there's somebody he doesn't like (keeping in mind that if a school has someone he likes and also someone he doesn't like, he has weighed the like versus the dislike and adjudicated the situation accordingly), which also covers much of the northeast, but to a lesser extant. There are schools he's visited and didn't hate, and schools he hasn't visited and probably would hate. There's schools that are not too small, and schools that are not too big. There's a pile of schools that the size is not too average. There are schools that have debate programs, not that he particularly wishes to pursue college debate, and schools that have no debate programs, which would not be desirable if he did decide to pursue college debate. There's schools he'd have to fly to, and schools where he could conceivably live at home, either with his mother in the sticks or his father in the city, not that he has any desire to live with either of them. Altogether, he probably has about 200 different schools to choose from.
And he hasn't a clue where to start.
And only a couple of weeks to finish.
He looks at the computer screen. 42% downloaded. Does he really care all that much about Lou Bega? On the other hand, it's not as if his mother really pays any attention to either the telephone or the ISP bills.
Chesney sighs. A year from now this will all be over, and he'll be somewhere. Somehow.
Received wisdom is that early college applications give a student a leg up by demonstrating a desire to really really really go there, and that as a result an early application to a stretch school might actually get you in whereas regular application will just make you one of the crowd of also-rans. The thinking goes, if you do have a first choice, especially a difficult-to-get-into first choice, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by applying early, even if it means turning over your eventual firstborn (or if you prefer to think of a university as an educational bowl of porridge, giving over your birthright). Much of the angst of college application is the belief that going to the right school can make your life, with the attendant belief that going to the wrong school can unmake your life. A guidance counselor's job is disabusing students of this belief -- it is a well-known fact that many people have not gone to X, and managed nonetheless to somehow scrape together an existence with some paltry meaning -- but few guidance counselors ever succeed at it. The best a counselor can do is steer students toward schools that match their ability, and hope for the best. Which, for that matter, is all that most students can do, i.e., hope for the best.
Not everyone in the college mode is particularly worried about getting in, however. As a matter of fact, some people apply early merely to get it out of the way, secure that the likelihood of not getting in is simply nonexistent. Haircut Puente, as we have seen, has already been accepted into MIT without any need to apply to the university at all; his website was application enough. Of course he did have to do some paperwork, at the behest of the bureaucracy at the college, but science prodigies like Haircut don't come along every day, not even to the MITs of life, and the MITs of life want to get them when they can, as quickly as they can.
Another case is Griot Goldbaum. Griot, who has not been accepted anywhere yet, has an early application in to Harvard, and doubts very much if he will not get in. To begin with, he is the Nighten Day valedictorian, and he has 1600 board scores. But in today's applicant pool, that barely makes him average. He is a top national debater, which helps identify him as having more to his resume than just the drudgery of working for grades, but that too just barely makes him average. There are students in the applicant pool who have the grades and the extracurricular activities, both athletic and intellectual, plus enough service projects to make the Pope think that Mother Teresa can wait a while on this fast-track sainthood business and that maybe it's time to canonize the first person that's still living. Griot doesn't quite measure up in this arena, but that doesn't worry him because he has something that cannot be taken away from him and that doesn't wash off at night and that is as good as a golden key. In a word, how many full-blooded Inuits do you think apply to Harvard every year? Especially valedictorian, 1600 Board Inuits? In an Ivy League applicant pool where ethnicity, once considered an insurmountable obstacle, is now an Open Sesame, Griot is a shoo-in. Thirty years ago the WASPs began losing their hold on the old-boy network, and now the WASPier you are, the less likely you are to be allowed to even take the tour, for fear that you'll scare away the real contenders. And if being an Inuit is not enough on the uniqueness scale, Griot's father is a golf course greens-keeper, a profession that notoriously takes care of its own by providing more scholarships than the Ford Foundation, not to mention the fact that the few WASPs who are left in the Ivies inevitably play golf, and the last people they wish to offend are the managers of their eighteen hole universes.
Griot is as good as in.
Cartier Diamond is also as good as in.
Cartier is not the valedictorian, although she is in the top 20 of her class. Cartier does not have 1600 SAT scores, but she is impressively close to the magic number of 1400, presumed by many to be the difference between getting into your college of choice and choosing a different college. Cartier is not an Inuit, nor for that matter a member of any group that could conceivably be regarded as a minority. She is a WASP through and through, on both sides of her family, including Mrs. Bridges, the cook. So why is she as sure as Griot that she will be attending (in her case) Yale come the next school year?
In the changing social environment of many schools, the American nobility has given way to the aristocracy of the able, the sort of people John Adams and Thomas Jefferson imagined would some day be running the country. Our second and third Presidents, given the America they lived in, might have been surprised to learn that the cream that rises to the top two hundred years after their tenures in office are as often as not Asian and African, but one wants to credit them with satisfaction at the thought, once they would overcome the novelty. The changing face of the American immigrant sooner or later always results in a changed face of Americans, and at the upper echelons of academe, that changed face is already quite apparent.
But universities, big and small, regardless of how elite, even though their product might be brains, are fueled ultimately by money. And money comes from a number of sources -- business and government, for example, often with strings attached -- but one major source is former graduates. In the Ivy League, this is often former graduates who, regardless of their grades at the time, were able to make or maintain excellent connections that stood them in good enough stead to make them rich and powerful today. These are the Old Boys, members of a virtual society that shares the wealth laterally with each other, and vertically with their scions. There is no point being American nobility if your offspring cannot inherent the title.
Cartier's father went to Yale.
And Cartier is going to Yale.
Or at least she assumes she is going. She hasn't received the official letter yet, but she has been able to utter the magic word that overcomes WASPishness and merely adequate credentials, the same magic word that made George W. Bush a graduate over thirty years ago.
Ssssshhhhhh! You can hear it now, blowing in the winds of privilege, rustling the sheaves of lineage.
Say the word. If you dare.
There are those, of course, who are not particularly blest by nature nor nurture. Had Fleece, for example, achieved 1600 SATs as a junior, is the captain of one of the most powerful and successful debate teams in the country, has as many track and field trophies as he has debate trophies plus a closetful of letter sweaters, he ranks in the top three of his very large school, has more service projects on this curriculum vitae than Mother Teresa and Jimmy Carter combined, and is well liked by virtually every person he has ever met in his life.
Had has applied for early admission at Princeton.
Had is the member of no minority.
Neither of his parents attended the university.
He doesn't have a letter from Albert Einstein anointing him as the famous professor's chosen successor.
He doesn't even own a bowtie.
The idea that Had Fleece will get into Princeton early, or any Ivy League school late, is a stretch at best. It could happen, but there is no certainty. Far from it. While Cartier and Griot bask in their presumptions, Had is already hard at word, like Chesney, on wondering where else he should apply.
For that is the double whammy of early admissions. Early decisions are great when the decision is yes, but when acceptance is deferred (it's hardly ever completely denied -- even the crème de l'Ivy like to keep their options open), it means that the early work on applying has been wasted, and you get to go through the whole thing again, but this time with the stigma of having already failed.
The envelopes will be arriving in a few weeks. There is a chance that Had will get in.
There is also a chance that Congress will pass a Constitutional amendment to repeal the term limits that keep Bill Clinton from being President in perpetuity.
Don't count on either of them.
Will Chesney ever pick a school?
Will Griot get into Harvard early?
Will Cartier carry on her father's tradition of all Cs in New Haven?
Will Had get into Toulouse-Lautrec Community College
Will Rick Lazio ever be heard from again?
Black beans and rice will make you regular in our next episode: "How Many Sheens Can Wednesday TV Take, or, Emilio, We Hardly Kney Ye."
Go to the next episode due October 25, 2000.