in which I process Bethany’s growing up.

[picture, Pine Cone, oil & canvas, by Bethany]Bethany and I have always been close. She wore a “Daddy’s Girl” tee shirt to school in her middle school years, and she visits my classroom after school most days in high school, or at least she did until this year. She’s a senior with lots of AP courses and art she’s always having to finish afternoons in the school’s art wing. She still comes by some, mostly to take my money or my food, but I’m fine with that, like most dads of seventeen-year-old girls.

Our relationship is changing, of course, and I haven’t always seen the changes coming. At a recent school dance – I’m expected to chaperone dances – I left my self-appointed post by the snack table to foray onto the dance floor, and Bethany intercepted me immediately and explained that I made her date nervous. Victoria and she have assured me that I won’t be attending this year’s prom, and since my principal, whose oldest daughter is a year older than Bethany, is going through similar life changes, I expect I’m off the hook.

But no single event exposes the changes Bethany and I are facing as much as the the fifteen-month college search that ended a couple of weeks ago. I took a keen interest in this project early on, and I had definite ideas about where Bethany should apply to. I knew all along that her college was her choice, but I guess I wasn’t willing to let her make it.

Years ago, I wasn’t sure Bethany would have so many good college choices. Bethany struggled with elementary school. She was diagnosed with ADD, and she had special accommodations to help her through. I remember visiting her second grade classroom on some parent visit day. All the other students sat at their desks, and there was Bethany, shy as she was, standing up by her desk the entire hour, hard at work.

Bethany is a born artist and would have done well in a less structured setting. School did not play to her strengths, and she hated it for years and often came home crying. One day, though, a middle school guidance counselor visited her elementary school, painted a glowing picture of college, and warned her audience that they wouldn’t get there without applying themselves in middle school and high school.

Bethany took the message to heart. She found ways to accommodate school just at the time the school was taking away its accommodations for her. She was diagnosed with anxiety in eighth or ninth grade, and she’ll have to tell the story herself of how she has struggled with it and has largely overcome it in high school. She worked hard and took more and more challenging courses as the years went on. She learned the game of school and reconciled it with her perfectionism and her need to learn things her own way and at her own speed, which is slow.

Sometimes she had to be pushed. Her parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents confronted her one evening at our annual beach vacation over her choice to eschew honors English during her upcoming ninth grade year. She ended up accepting a $5-a-head bribe to take the course. She’s been in honors English ever since, and for three years in high school she was the top student in her English class. The girl who was placed in the lowest reading circle in elementary school got close to a perfect reading comprehension score on her SAT last fall.

Throughout most of middle and high school, however, art was her safety valve, the course that made most everything else palatable. She got really jazzed about pottery, metalworking and jewelry-making, and she began to understand that small, three-dimensional art of some kind would be part of her life’s work. Most of high school art is of the two-dimensional variety, however, so Bethany put off the idea of developing her main passion until college.

Along the way, she discovered new interests that complement her art. She and I have always read a lot of books and poetry to each other, and her love of literature and writing has grown. She also loves biology and psychology, and she has done well in both of those fields. I love the social sciences and have no skill and little interest in science; literature is where Bethany and I intersect. But she has become interested in and proficient in many more areas of learning than I ever was, and her success contributed to the college-search drama that came to a head late last month.

We have visited a dozen colleges since spring of last year, mostly state colleges that seemed good matches for her interests, her temperament, and our limited teacher incomes. Most schools had something she liked very much, and it was fun to watch her process her experiences and refine what she wanted from a college. She went, for example, from preferring a medium-sized university to preferring a small college with some heritage and beauty to it. But her chief concern never changed – during each visit, she always took a long, hard look at the college’s studio art program.

This past year’s family beach week came in the middle of Bethany’s search. Instead of bribing her as it had done three years earlier, her extended family brainstormed with her about possible colleges. We poured over three catalogs of colleges we had picked up at the Island Bookstore at the beginning of our trip. It got Bethany, Victoria, and me looking beyond Virginia to colleges we couldn’t afford without need-based grants and academic scholarships. My father suggested a strong, small liberal arts college that seemed to fit Bethany very well on paper. Earlier that day I had met a graduate of that school for the first time, a clerk at the bookstore, a young English teacher with whom I had talked shop and from whom I had accepted a recommendation to buy an excellent poetry anthology. I went back to the bookstore and talked with him about the school; he couldn’t have been more informative or enthusiastic about his four years there.

We packed up the car and made the seven-hour drive to that college during a break in school this past November. Most college student bodies seem to develop a personality that can be caricatured; at least, the ones we read about did. This school’s did, too, and it fit Bethany better than any one we had visited. The students there love to talk about what they’re learning, and they learn for learning’s sake with little regard for their eventual careers. They are a little nerdy, but in an endearing way, I suppose, and they are, as a whole, unpretentious. No formal dress and no overriding frat scene. The college has a high professor-to-student ratio, a very well-respected and friendly faculty, a strong writing program (one of the few colleges that has students write across the curriculum, as we pedagogues say), a gorgeous setting, fine facilities, and (this is unusual) good food, from the students’ point of view. It also has fewer students than Bethany’s high school. The students are not cut-throat but supportive of one another despite the school’s academic reputation – a very important factor for Bethany, who withers in a competitive environment over the long run. She felt at home, she said – a feeling she hadn’t had up to that point. But she went away disappointed with the college because its art facilities were nothing like the art college she had visited the previous spring.

The art college’s facilities are unbelievable. Its art program spans seventeen buildings, most of them devoted to studio arts. It has a huge building dedicated to just the BFA studio arts candidates’ first year – the “foundations” year – and it has BFA degree programs for things as specialized as fabrics, jewelry and metals, glass, and ceramics. Bethany seemed so completely in her element when she visited there, and we visited that school three times. She had a long interview with one of the school’s deans and several conversations with professors and an administrator, all of them responsive and friendly. And it is the top art school in the country for one of the fields of art Bethany is most interested in pursuing, and one of the top ten in all of the other fields she’s interested in.

Bethany applied regular decision to six colleges and universities this past December, generally following the usual advice: apply to one or two “stretch” schools, one or two schools that fit your GPA and board scores, and one or two “fallback” schools. She first heard from the art school, which responded in December, long before the April 1 response date most colleges assign themselves. The art achool admitted her into their honors program with a full tuition and fees scholarship. The excitement around here was unbelievable. Although the program wasn’t as strong academically as the other colleges she had applied to, the other schools’ studio arts programs and facilities paled in comparison to this one’s. The honors program would help compensate for the school’s lower academic standards since it had a limited enrollment, small classes, and the school’s best professors teaching the classes. Bethany began to see herself going there, and the steady drumbeat of correspondence from the school raised her interest level even more. I was very impressed with the school and only encouraged Bethany’s interest in the school.

We learned by late March that she was wait-listed by one school but was accepted by the others, including her top three choices besides the art school. The two private colleges she had applied to offered her significant financial aid grants, and one of them – the one we visited in November – offered her a nice scholarship as well.  Now we were really excited. We knew she had done well in school and on her boards, but we didn’t know, particularly in this year when the number of applications to many colleges spiked by five or ten percent or more, how Bethany would fare. She got in some colleges to which some of her friends had submitted strong applications based on prior years’ admission statistics but to which they were ultimately not admitted.

Last month, Bethany essentially narrowed her choice to a decision between the private, liberal arts college we had visited in November and the art college. The differences between the schools were significant, and they represented two large aspects of Bethany. The liberal arts college represented her late-blooming academic success and her newly understood interest in literature and science. The art college represented what she was born to do – to make art.

I was beside myself with joy that she had gotten into the liberal arts college, and I quickly decided that it was where she needed to go. I reasoned that she could always get her MFA metals and jewelry degree after graduating from there. Victoria agreed with me; she believed that, overall, Bethany would be happier in a small college where students loved learning for learning’s sake. So I began implementing a propaganda campaign – subtle, by my standards, and fully in line with her prerogative to choose, I felt – to persuade Bethany to choose the liberal arts college.

Next posts:

Part 2, in which God gets my attention through textual insight

Part 3, in which Bethany selects a college

[Above photo is of Pine Cone, oil and pastel, by Bethany]

In celebration of SoloPoMo (Solo Poem Month), I hope to blog every day in May using Charles Wright’s poem “Images from the Kingdom of Things” from his 2006 volume Scar Tissue.  I’m not sure how many of these posts will explicitly refer to the poem, but I hope there’ll be some connection with the poem each time, if only felt.

Posted May 9, 2010.