We had to laugh reading this New Jersey Monthly article by Vicki Riba Koestler that describes her campus tour experiences from the parent's perspective.
GIVE IT THE OLD COLLEGE TOUR
Are you the parent of a high school student who'll soon be applying to colleges? She's going to want to see
them all, you know. And guess who's going along for the ride-or to provide it? Which is why I say welcome, baby
boomers of a certain age, to the wonderful world of college touring! Let me orient you.
First, you should have a realistic idea of how much time is going to be required for this aspect of your and your teen's life together. It's hard to be exact, but let's just say you're going to have to make college touring your second career. See, it's not like back when we were applying to college. Then, you picked a few schools, applied to them, and once you got into one maybe you would go out there and walk around. Now, though, the schools have all got tour guides, they've all got information sessions, you're expected to visit them all before your child applies, and she's thinking of applying to seventeen. Have a fun couple of years doing nothing but visiting colleges during your spare time! You can try segueing your visits into vacations, but if you want anything resembling a real vacation during the major part of your child's high school career, you're going to have to pray that she's interested in the University of Hawaii.
Actually, there's a bigger problem than vacation deprivation during this period. I'm referring to the vow of silence you'll have to take. You see, your child is going to make you promise, before each college visit, not to ask embarrassing questions or say anything stupid. You will, of course, agree. And then it will hit you that since everything you say is embarrassing or stupid to your teenager, you've taken a virtual vow of silence. You're now a voluntary mute!
And do not underestimate how unnatural this is going to feel when you hit the campuses. Consider that for most of us boomers the last time we were on a campus was the 1960s or 70s, when we were just the opposite of mute. "End the war!" "Stop oppression!" "On strike!" Our voices were always raised in protest and demand. Now we've got to keep our mouths shut, and cannot even as much as ask the location of the ladies' room. It's a strain.
I should have seen this vow of silence thing coming before we even toured our first campus, back on College Night. This is when representatives of a lot of different colleges come to the high school gym and sit behind tables piled with informative literature about their schools. High schoolers and their parents cruise the various tables, which are draped with colorful banners emblazoned with their schools' names (except for the Harvard table; they had no banner because they no doubt thought that everybody would figure out which table they were without one, and then converge there in a giant mob, which is in fact what happened). Anyway, at the beginning of College Night my daughter instructed me, "You can pick up the brochures, but don't say anything to the reps."
"Can I ask anything?" I tried.
"Asking is a form of saying. So no."
I had heard of "Don't ask, don't tell." But this was "Don't ask, don't talk." It was a hard policy to accept.
"Can I at least ask something real simple, like how many kids they've got, or what the student/faculty ratio is?"
"They're not kids and-no-all that stuff''s in the booklets. They'll think you're stupid."
"Don't get me started. Just don't say anything!"
"Alright, I'll be mum. But can I at least salute the officer at the Army table?"
"Salute the Army guy and you're disowned."
It turned out that Marina ditched me anyway to visit the popular tables, like the Harvard one, with her friends. I was left to wander the outskirts of the room, a mute vagabond stuffing brochures into the plastic bag I had brought along for the occasion, a bag, by the way, that my daughter had found embarrassing because cool people do not carry plastic bags.
I have to admit that I did talk to some of the college reps, on the sly. It's not that I was dying for any particular bit of information, but some of the reps from the smaller, unheard-of schools looked so lonely and in need of human contact.
"Pssst," I would say, shielding my mouth with my hand and glancing around furtively to make sure my daughter was occupied at some mobbed Ivy League table, "what's your student/faculty ratio?"
When we actually started touring, my daughter really had her work cut out for her. That's because often the whole family was involved and Marina's father was an additional person that had to be shut up. Her brother, of junior high school age, had no problem being laconic, but her father and I are both the type who, on any tour, feel the need to establish ourselves as interested and highly alert people by giving the guide verbal feedback in the form of questions, comments, and appreciative loud laughter. All of that was now unacceptable, as we were constantly made to understand.
For instance, Marina would instruct her father to quit asking about the square footage of the dorm rooms. The student guides never knew the answer, and she thought it embarrassed them.
"But the rooms look like they've shrunk over the years," my husband protested. "And that's when we get to see one. Half the time they don't even show us a dorm room. I think it's a cover-up."
"I do too," I chimed in, "and it's one we should expose right now. I mean, what if you get to college and they stick you in something the size of a closet?"
"I'll deal," she said. "And you," she glowered, now focused on me, "never ask anyone anything about anything ever again!"
I knew why she said that. She thought I was one of those annoying mothers who were obsessed with issues of campus safety. The kind who, after a whole information session spiel on a university's superb academic program, begins the question-and-answer period with "What time do they lock the dorms?"
Actually, I'd never asked that. But there had been that question about munitions that my daughter didn't appreciate.
We'd been on a tour, and the student guide had been telling us about how the college owned an historic old cannon. Only the cannon was never standing where it was supposed to be. It seemed that different campus groups were always stealing it and somehow spiriting it off to various locales around the world. This cannon-stealing was an amusing campus tradition.
My question: "Is it loaded?"
"Loaded?" the tour guide had said.
"Yes-you know-with cannonballs. I was just wondering about the students' safety."
It was at that point that my children had stopped walking near my husband and me as we toured colleges, preferring to hang near the back of the group if we were in front (where we usually were in our attempt to look highly alert). Now we looked like two adults who were planning on entering college after an educational hiatus of many years. And our kids looked like two orphans who had to make their way in the world by themselves.
Speaking of making one's way places, actually getting to the schools was no picnic. When it was just Marina and myself visiting a college, we took the train, and her no-eliciting-information-from-anybody rule started en route. Okay, so I had once asked the conductor that one possibly superfluous question.
"We're only on the most traveled route in the entire country--!" my daughter had ranted at the time, "-in the middle of the mid-Atlantic megalopolis! Why wouldn't a train going from New York to Washington stop in Baltimore?!"
"It could be some sort of express," I'd countered lamely, but she'd only grumbled something about the conductor now thinking we were geographical ignoramuses.
"Well, look on the bright side," I'd suggested. "He probably won't tell the school admissions office. I don't think I mentioned exactly what college we were going to."
Just never talk to a conductor again, okay?"
I'd agreed, but this was hard to do the time we were headed to the Philadelphia suburbs and supposed to catch a train called the R3. We did, but once aboard we realized that there were two R3's. I panicked and thought we were on the wrong one.
"I think we should consult a conductor," I said to Marina. "This could be the one that goes to the airport instead of the school."
"So we'll fly there," she said.
But don't think that college touring doesn't offer some moments of quality family time. It's got loads! For instance, there was that day we decided to crack the dorm-room conspiracy by peering into the windows of a locked dormitory that had been deserted for the summer. Our plan was that my daughter and I would prowl around the edges of the building and do the actual peering, while my husband and son stood watch in front to let us know if anyone was coming.
The plan was working like a well-oiled machine. Marina and I had actually found a room with opened curtains and estimated its square footage. Then, though, we realized it was a broom closet. So I led the way through the bushes in our search for another visible room, but just as I found one, I realized the dorm wasn't deserted after all.
"Cheese it!" I hissed. "There's someone in there!"
We began distancing ourselves from the window and I whispered, "Wouldn't it be ironic if after never getting in trouble during all those 70s protests I was finally arrested on campus for being a peeping Tom?"
"Yeah, whatever," my daughter muttered. "Just don't say anything to the other inmates, okay?"
It was strange, but as we all made our way quickly but nonchalantly from the building, I realized we were having fun.
Vicki Riba Koestler is a Ridgewood, New Jersey-based essayist. A slightly different version of this article was published in New Jersey Monthly.