Letting go, part 3

in which Bethany chooses a college.

[Victoria and Bethany, age 1]

In early April, after the college acceptance packages had come in, Victoria asked Bethany, “Which way are you leaning?”

Bethany wasn’t completely sure yet – she wanted to visit the schools again – but she was pretty sure she wanted to go to the art college. The liberal arts college we had visited in November (hereinafter, “the liberal arts college”) was in second place, and another liberal arts college was in third place. She would visit them all in April, and a fourth college, too – the other out-of-state college – if her mind wasn’t made up after visiting her top three colleges for the second time.

I started my campaign – a limited campaign, just a few remarks here and there – to push the liberal arts college despite my new insight into James’ letter. I just couldn’t help myself. When we visited the art college open house in April, Victoria and I found an opportunity to tell Bethany that she was too bright for the school. (Based on her grades and board scores, I had an argument, snotty and as flatteringly manipulative as it was.) But the rest of the time I wasn’t disparaging; I simply highlighted the virtues I found in the almost-daily mailers the liberal arts college sent her or sent Victoria and me. Sometimes, when I said things, I knew I had gone too far. Sometimes, it felt fine. But my heart wasn’t where I wanted it to be – solidly in favor of any decision Bethany would make. She needed to decide what college to go to, obviously: if she ended up hating the college and felt that I pushed her there, it would hurt our relationship for a long time. And it’s her life. Right?

Victoria, who has a better read on Bethany than I do often, said that Bethany didn’t feel pressured. “She just thinks you’re being you,” she said. She meant that I was always advocating something. That made me feel better. Maybe she could stand up to me. But that made me feel worse.  What if she stood up to me and made the wrong decision? When I’d go on about all of this, Victoria would always tell me, “She’ll figure it out,” meaning that she would figure out the right thing to do. Yeah, I thought, but what if the right thing to do isn’t what I think the right thing to do is?

Around this time, and for the only time this year, our principal stumbled into my classroom. We were all reading silently. I came up to see what he wanted, and he asked me how Bethany’s college search was going. I told him about her options and her upcoming campus visits. “She’ll figure it out,” he whispered, and left the room. You would think I would have gotten the message.

I emailed my siblings about how I thought Bethany was going to make a terrible decision. I called my mother and told her about a plan I had hatched to have the entire family sign a congratulatory card with a new bribe in it that she could accept if she would go to the liberal arts college. (My entire family was in favor of the liberal arts college over the art college, too.) My mother wisely suggested that I drop the idea. There wasn’t anything subtle or even funny about it, of course.

I talked with my close friend Michael a few weeks ago about Bethany’s decision. Years ago, Michael tearfully told a few of us the story of how he tried to stand in the way of his own artistic daughter’s career. He realized it in time to end up supporting her decision to go to a fashion school, and she’s done very well. Michael, as usual, gave me some good perspective. “You’ll make lots of mistakes, and she’ll turn out fine,” is Michael’s general outlook, and he’s been accurate on both counts over the years.

º º º

Having ceded more than three months to the art college by accepting her in April instead of December, the liberal arts college began to make up for lost time. It offered an overnight visit and not just an accepted students’ day that the other schools offered. It offered to fly its candidates to its campus at its expense and to feed them in its dining hall. The candidates even got luxury accommodations in sleeping bags on dorm-room floors.

[Bethany, age 17]

But the college’s travel agent I had to book the flight through to get the flight reimbursement was hopeless. By the time she called me back, the rates had gone up beyond what the school was willing to pay, and we ended up three airports from here, an hour and twenty minutes’ drive one way. During the five days I was dealing with the agent, I was cursing the agency that threatened to spoil the conspiracy I had formed with the liberal arts college to persuade Bethany to select it. Then I thought to myself, “Remember, you are not in control!”

Victoria heard me fuming about the travel agency and said, “Remember, you are not in control!”

Some of Victoria’s and my conversations with Bethany involved how a BA studio arts degree from a liberal arts college might affect her ability to go from college into an MFA program at a studio art school. These days, most young professional artists get, or want to get, a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree; the field is exceptionally competitive. Bethany was understandably concerned that the MFA jewelry and metalworking programs would require a BFA – an undergraduate professional degree – in jewelry and metalworking, something that no small, liberal arts school that I could find offered, so I emailed the liberal arts college’s sculpture professor and the head of its studio arts department and told them about Bethany’s dilemma. Both responded with long, thoughtful emails describing the advantages of small studio art programs at liberal arts colleges and assuring us that Bethany would be at no competitive disadvantage in four years if she wished to pursue an MFA program in jewelry, metals, or anything else. The sculpture professor had a daughter who had gone from a program similar to the liberal arts college’s into a specialized studio arts MFA program, and the department chair herself had done so.

I read the letters out loud to Bethany. I also pointed out that half of the art college professors in its jewelry and metalworking program had gotten BA’s in studio arts and not BFA’s before getting their MFA’s.

But just to confirm things, I also emailed the MFA jewelry and metalworking programs that U.S. News had ranked as the top ten in the nation, and I explained Bethany’s dilemma to them. Would they accept students with BA degrees from studio arts programs, or would they accept only students with BFA degrees in jewelry and metalworking? Most of their web sites were not clear on this point.

I sent those out on Saturday, the day before I put Bethany on the plane in Baltimore.

By the time I took her to the airport, the first response had come in:

Wow I’ve never seen a letter like this before — helicopter parent? (wonder where he went to school?)

This professor, I hope, thought she was responding to the other professor in her department whom I had addressed the email to, and not to me. (As far as the parenthetical query goes, I guess I did come off a little condescending about the art college. I didn’t stop to think about how my attitude toward the art college might come across to professors at other art colleges.)

Bethany and I laughed about it on the way to the airport, and we theorized about how I might respond to the inadvertent email.

By the next morning, substantive responses to my emails were coming in. Here’s the first:

First of all, this email should have come from your daughter. If she is mature enough to start college in the Fall, she should be asking these questions herself.

[Art college] is an outstanding university with an outstanding art department and an outstanding metals program. If she wants to do graduate work in metalworking, I would recommend Bethany attend [Art college]. We would not accept her into the MFA program in Metals without a metalworking portfolio. We prefer that applicants have the BFA degree, but if the portfolio is strong enough, we will consider the BA degree.

I hope this answers your questions.

If its any consolation, thirty five years ago I was a student much like your daughter. I was accepted into several Ivy League schools and even offered a full scholarship to attend Harvard as a math major (I got a perfect SAT score in math–very rare at the time). To my parent’s chagrin, I attended a  much lesser ranked school because it had a good program in metals. (I had taken one summer class). It is a decision I have never regretted and one that served me well in my ensuing career.

Hope this advice helps

Professor X

I tried reading the letter to Victoria, but I couldn’t because I was crying so hard. The letter felt like a direct hit, a much stronger version of what I felt God was trying to point out to me with the insight from James’ epistle that had intrigued me earlier in the month. It showed me as being everything I feared – a helicopter parent (as the first professor had pointed out), and one who would let his pride in having his daughter accepted at some fine liberal arts colleges stand in the way of his daughter’s decision. A father trying to shape his daughter in his own image and standing between his daughter and her God-given calling.

Three other letters came in while Bethany was visiting the liberal arts college. While none were as confrontational, all said the same thing about what kind of coursework and degree they would accept from prospective MFA candidates: only a BFA in jewelry and metalworking. They all suggested that Bethany go to the art college.

Perhaps things had changed since the liberal arts college department head and its sculpture professor’s daughter had gone to graduate school, I figured.

But I realized that I was now where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to stand in Bethany’s way. Really, after those letters, I could honestly say that I would be happy with any decision Bethany made. And Victoria, who has a great deal of insight into how Bethany’s mind works, told me that she felt Bethany would have a decision when I met her at the airport.

After we picked up her bag and sleeping bag, I asked Bethany to sit down with me for a minute in some chairs by the baggage claim. I told her that I was sorry for pushing her towards the liberal arts college, and I reiterated, much more forcefully (and sincerely) this time, that she had a wonderful decision to make, one that her hard work and perseverance had presented to her, and that I would be thrilled and excited about any decision she made.

“Did Mom put you up to this?”

No, I assured her.

“Well, as it turns out . . .” Her voice trailed off.

Then she began what seemed like a minute-to-minute account of her two days at the liberal arts college. (She gets the need to provide every detail from me, of course.) Suddenly, I was thankful for the travel agent because the long ride back would give Bethany a chance to unwind her decision to me the way she wanted to before she had to face Victoria, who can be very to the point.

Bethany was obviously excited. She loved her hosts, and she described their different personalities as if she had been to summer camp with them for three weeks. They played some kind of game in the dorm hall that Bethany ended up winning. (I withheld my cynicism; the college selected these hosts, after all.) The kids were talking about the kind of things that Bethany loves talking about. At some point, the boyfriend of one of the girls came in, a philosophy major. He and the girlfriend, a sociology major, described to the group a paper they had written together the night before for the hell of it regarding some insight that involved both of their disciplines. It was the perfect thing for Bethany to hear. She loves doing things best when they’re not assigned – well, who doesn’t? – but it was the first time she has been with a lot of other kids that share the same approach to learning that she has.

I even got lost driving for about a half hour – I’ve lived in this area for only a quarter century – because I got so enthralled with Bethany’s nonstop account of her trip. So the ride back took almost two hours.

Just before we got home, she told me that she thought she wanted to go to the liberal arts college (to “my [name of school],” as she began calling it that night).

When we got home to Victoria, Bethany gave her an abbreviated version of her experiences. We told Bethany about the four letters, but Bethany wasn’t too concerned. She agreed with us: how could a BA degree in studio arts prevent someone from getting an MFA degree in jewelry and metalworking? She could approach those programs in four years and say, “Here’s what I’ve done. What more do I need to do to get in?” Someone or something somewhere – an additional year at an art school, an apprenticeship, some summer programs, a job – would give her the experience she needed and the opportunity to build up her portfolio with jewelry and metalwork.

I asked Bethany not to act on her decision for a few days since she was in no danger of missing a deadline. I thought she should live with her decision, she how well it wore, before sharing it with the colleges.

After Bethany made her decision, four more MFA jewelry and metalworking programs responded to my helicopter-parent emails. They all came to exactly the opposite conclusion than the first four did, honest to God. Bethany should go where she wants to go, they said. A response typical of these four letters: “The only thing that we stipulate is the student must hold a Bachelor’s Degree.  We do not mandate that it be a BS, BA, BFA, etc.”

Bethany accepted the offer of admission from the liberal arts college a few days later.

The night she and I got back from the airport, Bethany told Victoria and me, “Whenever I picture myself at the liberal arts college missing the art college, I think of all that cool metalworking and jewelry-making equipment on the third floor. But whenever I picture myself at the art college missing the liberal arts college, I think of the kids, the dorms, the classes, the food, the buildings, the trees, the countryside . . . the whole thing.”

“Bethany, you’re describing the art college kind of like I describe my law school when I look back on it. And you’re describing the liberal arts college like I describe what made my undergraduate years special. It sounds to me as if you’re saying you aren’t ready to get a professional degree yet. It sounds like you want to go to college first.”

It was the wisest thing I had said in weeks.

Previous posts:

Part 1, in which I process Bethany’s growing up

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

[The first photo above is of Victoria and Bethany when the latter was one year old. The second photo above is of Bethany a few months ago.  The photo below is of Bethany, age two, and me.

Warning!  Bethany becomes an adult this week, graduates from high school next month, and leaves home in August.  It may stay a bit lachrymose around here for a while.]

[Peter and Bethany, age 2]

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 11, 2010.

Categorized as People