My wife and I are blessed with four wonderful children, two of whom are married, and the third a sophomore in college. Our youngest child- a son- is eighteen and a senior in high school. And like his friends, he is living through those weeks of high anxiety when college acceptances- and the other letters- are sent out.
As sad as I am to contemplate the departure of our youngest child and the inevitable creation of our empty nest (it’s been almost twenty-eight years that we’ve had children at home!), I must admit that, at least once or twice a day, I say a silent prayer thanking God that my wife and I won’t have to watch another one of our children go through this process.
If Garrison Keillor is to be believed, we Jews share an important characteristic with the mythical inhabitants of Lake Wobegon: all of our children are above average. It reminds me more than a little of the countless people who have told me how they saw the “top doctor” for treatment of their illness. I’ve never met a person who boasted of going to see an average doctor. They have to believe that the doctor they’ve chosen is the tops in the field. And it leaves me wondering who all those other doctors are caring for. Certainly not for us Jews, because we only see the top people!
Children who survive the grueling schedules of competitive schools- particularly dual-curriculum day schools- are, indeed, a self-selecting group. You have to be academically capable to handle that enormous workload, and the inevitable pressure that comes with it. But the cruelest pressure of all, I think, comes from the mostly but not always subliminal expectation that top-tier colleges and universities are the birthright of Jewish children, because- you guessed it- they are, at the least, above average. And, of course, most of them are brilliant- especially our own children. We can’t say for sure about anyone else’s- they might really be just above average. But our own? For sure!
This is not about my child, nor his college choices, nor any of my children. It is, rather, about all of our children, and the pressure that the culture of our Jewish community places on them by expecting them not to be the best that they can be, but too often better than that.
Four children down the road, I am completely convinced that there is more than one ideal program for every graduating high school senior. That’s not to say that he/she wouldn’t have a program that is a first choice. More often than not, that is the case. But being deferred from an ivy or rejected by another top-flight program is not a statement about a senior’s intrinsic worth as much as it is about the insane level of competition out there. Overwhelming numbers of applicants (a condition we baby-boomers created), demanding AP courses, the need to “pad” one’s application with unusually outstanding accomplishments that are beyond the reach of most normal high school students… it can be more than anyone should have to experience.
Lake Wobegon notwithstanding, as a long-time observer of senior year pressures, I have the definite sense that most of our kids do indeed go to programs that, on the whole, are very far above average for most American colleges. They may not all go to the school of their dreams, or even their first choice, but they tend to go to programs that afford them the chance to thrive, succeed, grow, and- yes- have a great experience in the process.
I hope my son gets in to the colleges that he would like to. Of course I do; he’s my son, and I love him. But I’ll love him- and respect him- just as much if he doesn’t. And it’s my job to make sure he knows that.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation