grace saw shimmering trails of light, even when she shut her eyes. The scores of bulbs illuminating the enormous wrought-iron chandelier chained to the rafters of the converted barn had imprinted themselves on her brain, and bursts of white danced inside her head like the tails of rogue comets. Her head throbbed, and she wished she could slip out of the middle of the row in the packed auditorium without causing a small commotion, embarrassing her son.
As a single mother, Grace couldn’t afford to actually get sick. Sick days were used to compensate for the spousal void in her family life, and she had just cashed in a week of them to accompany Harry on a spring-break road trip to tour college campuses. Surely she was just worn out from the long drive the previous day, followed by a night spent tossing and turning on a soggy, flea-ridden mattress at the bed-and-breakfast. The guidebook had advertised the Yates Inn as “quaint,” but she guessed that description was nearly as old as the place itself, a nineteenth-century moss green clapboard house that had lost its charm somewhere along the way, possibly a couple of decades ago, when it appeared to have last been painted.
She and Harry had raced to this 9:00 a.m. information session and campus tour, forgoing the inn’s complimentary pancake breakfast after learning it would take at least half an hour to reach the school by car. Dinner the previous night had been an inedible sandwich from a sketchy-looking diner in Scranton, Pennsylvania, that smelled like eggs, so it was possible that her current distress was really just hunger. Nevertheless, she felt her symptoms redouble as the preppy, boyish admissions officer at the podium responded to questions from anxious parents.
“Can you tell us what percentage of the class is accepted early decision, and how much of an advantage does an early applicant have?” A female inquisitor, whom Grace couldn’t actually see from where she sat, asked her question with an urgency that made her sound slightly hys-
“This year, 55 percent of the class was admitted early decision,” said the young man, who had earlier identified himself as Soren. “So clearly, if Yates is your first choice, there’s an advantage to applying early. That said, all applications are considered on an individual basis. There is no magical formula for admittance.”
“What about the SAT?” another parent asked. “Is there a cutoff for scholarship eligibility? How much weight can you give to these numbers if they can’t even score the tests correctly?”
“Yes, of course that’s on everyone’s mind. But please don’t worry. We look at the application as a whole. The SATs are only one small piece of the puzzle.” This answer elicited a few audible groans.
“How many applied overall last year? What is the acceptance rate? And what about the wait list?” asked a voice in the back of the room.
“This year, we’ve had 4,601 applications. We ultimately accepted
35 percent of those. We have a wait list of approximately 300. It varies year to year, but last spring three moved off the list.”
A few people coughed and rearranged themselves in the creaky folding chairs that had been set up to accommodate the overflow crowd, causing sounds of discomfort to ricochet around the acoustically challenged room. This was an alarmingly high rate of rejection for an obscure liberal arts college tucked in the middle of nowhere, requiring more than an hour’s drive off the main highway, along sixty-five miles of winding roads that snaked through fields of cornstalks and grazing cows.
Grace’s heart began racing. She took a deep breath. This had to be a really bad place to get sick—were there any doctors in this tiny town? They were at least two hours from anything even resembling a city. Looking around, Grace observed that a couple of other parents looked vaguely unwell, too. Perhaps there was not enough oxygen in the stifling auditorium, which was packed so tight it had surely exceeded its fire code capacity. Or maybe they were all just having garden-variety anxiety attacks, the result of absorbing this slow trickle of disconcerting information about college admissions.
The woman in front of her, who had earlier asked which undergraduate majors helped forge a path to the most prestigious MBA programs, took off her blue blazer and rolled up her sleeves. Grace noticed that the husband also wore a blue blazer and that the two boys sitting between them were clad in identical, brightly striped, Ralph Lauren polo shirts. It had not occurred to Grace to dress up for the occasion. She had thrown on a denim skirt and a favorite Gap sweater, and her long hair, secured in a ponytail, was still damp from the shower.
Soren fielded another question having to do with recommendation letters and whether a school’s music teacher counted as an academic reference. “Recommendations are just one piece of the puzzle,” he replied wearily, not actually responding to the subtleties of the question. “There is no secret formula for admittance,” he repeated. “We look at the applicant as a whole.”
Soren raked his fingers through a shock of unruly thick blond hair that looked deliberately, even expensively, mussed, as he tackled the next question. Grace thought he didn’t look like a man of much gravitas, but he did have the suggestive subliminal appeal of an Abercrombie & Fitch model. In fact, Grace had observed that the Yates University view book itself bore an uncanny resemblance to the controversial clothing catalogue, which, even in its cleaned-up, less overtly pornographic state, still featured pictures of scantily clad coeds who looked as if they’d just stumbled out of a frat party. She wondered if these images might have had something to do with Harry’s reluctant agreement to visit the campus, even though he had rejected all of his mother’s other non–Ivy League suggestions. But then, there was probably some other way to explain his compliance, since he was not the sort of boy who typically responded
to the advertising stimuli so aggressively lobbed at his age group. Harry didn’t even own an iPod.
“Mom, are you all right?” Harry whispered in her ear. “You look kind of funny.”
“I’m great,” Grace replied, managing to pat him reassuringly on the knee.
Another parent asked a question about the importance of grades versus standardized test scores, and then wondered aloud about how much weight would be given to her son’s fluency in three languages and his forthcoming summer internship at NASA. “Think of the application as a jigsaw puzzle,” Soren said. “Grades are one piece, scores are another.” He sounded bored with his own answer, as though he uttered these same words several times a day, which he no doubt did. He had been asked some version of this same question at least six times in the last thirty minutes, and the schedule indicated that there were four separate information sessions being offered that day. The interrogator in this instance—
a squat, wild-haired woman in her mid-fifties who resembled one of
several hermit-like, mentally unbalanced chemists in Grace’s office—was not this easily put off. She wanted numbers, percentile groups, statistics, solid granules of information to record in the red, three-ring binder balanced on her lap. Specifically, she wanted to know whether her son, the skinny, meek-looking youth sitting next to her with the same unfortunate hair DNA, was going to be able to use Yates University as his safety school. There was a murmur in the room, as the rest of the audience absorbed and remarked on the arrogance of this question. Her poor son slumped in his chair.
Soren winced and stabbed at his chest with an invisible knife, pretending to be wounded. A few people laughed nervously. He smiled and fiddled with his hair before saying he was sure that after touring the campus in a few moments and getting to know a bit more about the place, her son would no longer regard Yates as his safety school. He then reviewed the mechanics of his jigsaw puzzle analogy.
Grace looked around the room and noticed for the first time that it was not just the obnoxious wild-haired woman who had a notebook, but that many of the parents, and several of the students, too, were recording Soren’s words. Harry also produced a small pad from his pocket and jotted something down.
Even if many of the parents in the room seemed too tightly wound, Grace still felt comforted by the sight of the kids themselves, the incoming freshmen of wherever it was they might wind up. Despite all the hand-wringing in the media about the moral decline of today’s youth—a phenomenon variously blamed on violent video games, instant messaging, text messaging, indecent MySpace postings, MTV, Internet pornography, and the supposedly widespread practice of “hooking up”—Grace observed that these kids seemed pretty similar in both dress and demeanor to her own peers some thirty years ago. Flare-bottomed jeans and tie-dyed T-shirts seemed to be back in style, and there was even a smattering of turquoise jewelry. At least on the surface, these kids all seemed to be polite and focused and frankly more conservative than she and her friends had been at their age.
Grace had little opportunity to make these sorts of observations at home. Her own son, Harry, was a teenaged anomaly who went off to high school each day as if he were on his way to a job as the CEO of a For-tune 500 company. He wore khaki pants with a starched shirt and blazer and carried a briefcase as well as a backpack. This might have seemed a recipe for social disaster, but no one dared mock Harry. During freshman year, when he was one of only three ninth-graders taking an Advanced Placement history class, he was assigned the nickname “AP Harry.” The teachers and the principal also knew him by this name. AP Harry had served as his junior class president and was currently campaigning to head the student body for the forthcoming school year. He was not an especially social creature, opting to spend most of his free time studying, but from what Grace could tell, he was not disliked. His classmates seemed to understand that he was golden, a mini–master of the universe at nearly seventeen; even if they didn’t want to be his friend, they didn’t want to get in his way.
Grace, too, understood that her son was an aberration. According to the child-rearing textbooks, Harry ought to be holding up liquor stores by now rather than apprenticing for a future in politics. Grace and her husband, Lou, had divorced when Harry was in second grade. And it was not the sort of quiet, amicable split one might expect from highly educated people living in the affluent suburbs, where parents went to family counselors and read books about how to protect the children from the emotional fallout of divorce. Rather, this was the sort of separation that involved the police, child services, teams of attorneys, the garnisheeing of Lou’s salary for failure to pay alimony and child support, a kidnapping attempt, the brandishing of a gun on their leafy street, and an eventual restraining order. As a consequence, Grace’s plans to stay home and be a full-time mother quickly fizzled. She worked long hours as a malaria researcher at the nearby National Institutes of Health, and Harry endured years of mediocre after-school day care. As if this were all some endless test from God, just when Grace felt things were under control a couple of years after Lou had ceased showing up drunk, in his pajamas, banging on her door in the middle of the night, the director of the afternoon child care program at Harry’s elementary school was arrested on charges of
Against all odds, Harry had not dropped out of high school or joined a gang: he was a student leader, the principal clarinetist in the school band, a boy who kept his room tidy and helped his mother uncomplainingly with chores. Grace was proud, but she found Harry’s drive alarming. She wished he would tone things down a notch and just be a kid.
Harry was extremely smart, but his transcript had a glitch, which was a piece of information he kept to himself, his secret shame. Until the fall of his junior year, he had never received anything other than an A. Then he took AP English Language, where despite herculean efforts he landed a humiliating B, a grade largely attributable to the emphasis on writing, with weekly in-class essays that factored heavily into the final grade. Harry claimed that the real problem was not with his writing skills, but with the teacher, Mr. Joyce, who he sensed didn’t like him. Harry perceived the B as the beginning of a downward spiral exacerbated by his first two stabs at the SAT. While his math score was a perfect 800, despite relentless cramming and expensive private tutoring sessions they could not really afford, he could not pump his critical reading score up over a 720, and his writing score was the same. Grace’s insistence that these numbers were, objectively, extremely impressive only seemed to exacerbate his frustration.
Grace couldn’t have cared less about any of this. Her chief ambition for her son was that he turn out to be a nice, decent human being, as unlike his own father as possible, and on this front she was watching worriedly. In temperament he was still the same sweet kid he’d always been, but his great march forward was sometimes disheartening to watch. She was confident that his drive would get him anywhere, with one possible exception. AP Harry was probably not going to get into Harvard. He was a strong candidate, but Grace could do the math: with a 9 percent acceptance rate, according to the last numbers she had seen, a middle-class white kid without a legacy did not have the odds in his favor. Yet Harry had his heart set on Harvard, and the word rejection was evidently not in his 720 vocabulary.
grace wondered if this session would ever end. She was beginning to perspire. The blue-blazered father in front of her folded the Yates brochure about freshman seminars into a makeshift fan. Campus tours were supposed to have already begun; they were twenty minutes off schedule, and the male model at the podium was having a hard time stemming the flow of increasingly frantic questions—every one of them from parents, she couldn’t help but observe.
A hand two rows in front shot up, and Grace thought she must have been hallucinating when she spied the distinctive chunky diamond ring of her across-the-street neighbor. Nina Rockefeller’s arm flailed crazily, like she was hailing a cab in a drenching rush hour storm. How unlikely was this? Grace had been going out of her way to avoid Nina for about two years, sneaking out of her house at odd hours to minimize the chances of running into her. Now she had driven more than four hundred miles to one of the most isolated college campuses in the northeastern United States, and there Nina was, just a few feet away.
For years they had been close friends, thrown together by the circumstances of geography and parenting. Harry and Nina’s daughter, Taylor, were both only children, and their birthdays were just two months apart. It was at first a natural, easy friendship even if they had little in common besides the kids. They spent years of languid weekend afternoons parked in lawn chairs sipping iced tea, watching the children run from yard to yard, their miniature plastic ride-on cars giving way to sophisticated water guns and, later, walkie-talkies, baseball bats, and Frisbees as the summers ticked by.
As the kids grew older, however, Nina seemed to grow weirdly competitive, and Grace began to dread their exchanges. Plus, Nina was a talker, and just bumping into her outside their homes could cost as much as half an hour. There were mornings when Grace even put off retrieving the newspaper from her driveway if she spied Nina on her porch, watering her plants. Grace assuaged her guilt by telling herself she simply
didn’t have time for idle morning chatter or she’d be late for work. Lately, though, her efforts at avoidance had become more deliberate as Nina was edging toward insufferable, never veering far off the topic of the bright future of her remarkable daughter, Taylor.
Grace thought her neighbor was joking when she raised the topic
of college the summer before the kids began eighth grade. Hoping to change the subject, Grace naively quipped that it didn’t yet matter; until they entered high school, she said, they could at least enjoy life without stressing out about test scores and grades. Nina was quick to set her straight. Any high school–level classes the kids took in middle school would show up on their final transcripts, she reported. Nina explained that the county had recently changed the policy of letting students erase these grades from their records in an attempt to curb grade inflation. An A in an honors class carried a higher-weighted value than an A in a regular class, but in Verona County there were no honors classes offered in middle school. This was just wordplay, however, since the students had been tracked and then grouped according to their abilities since around the time they learned to tie their shoes, and a certain sliver of kids were working at an accelerated level regardless of the name slapped on the course. Nina’s point was evidently that a straightforward, old-fashioned A, even in a mind-numbingly difficult class, could technically bring down a student’s overall GPA. Grace couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. She understood the mathematical principle involved, but still, wasn’t an A an A? But she nodded her head, pretending to acknowledge this grave injustice.
Grace knew it was absurd to let these sorts of conversations make her anxious. Harry was so driven that she didn’t need to keep an eye on his performance; if anything she worried that he would drive himself insane trying to manipulate his already solid record. Still, sometimes Nina made her feel like she wasn’t doing enough. Not only had Nina signed Taylor up for SAT prep three years ahead of the normal schedule, but she also put on retainer what she said was the best private college counseling service in the country, recently profiled in The Wall Street Journal. Undaunted by the fact that the consultancy was based in New York, or that their fee for two years of advice was more than $30,000, Nina opined that it would reduce family tension to have an outside party be in charge of guiding Taylor through the touchy process.
In an effort to avoid these harrowing conversations, Grace had begun to set her alarm half an hour early on weekday mornings so that she could walk her dog before Nina set out in one of her several bright pink sweat suits, yanking her overweight schnauzer along on a Burberry leash. Grace’s dog, a gentle giant of a mutt that appeared to be at least part Saint Bernard, must have had some sixth sense about the Rockefeller’s pet because her hair stood on end whenever he approached, which added a second layer of tension to their walks. But even a willingness to sacrifice precious minutes of sleep offered no respite; just last week Nina had spied Grace two long blocks ahead and had run to catch up, shouting for her to wait.
“Terrific news,” she had said, remarkably well-put-together with makeup and jewelry at 7:00 a.m. Grace assumed she was going to deliver some encouraging update on the house next door to her and catty-corner to Nina, an eyesore that had been on the market for an entire month. Instead, she announced breathlessly, “Taylor just got straight A’s.”
Grace feigned enthusiasm but inwardly recoiled. Didn’t grades fall into the zone of private information, along with age and weight and financial net worth? She could not imagine ever talking about Harry’s grades with anyone other than his teachers or his guidance counselor. Or possibly Harry’s father, although that was purely hypothetical because they were not actually on speaking terms.
Grace reminded herself that she had resolved not to get sucked into this snakepit of parental competition. Study after study showed that there was no correlation between where a person went to college and his or her future happiness, or even earning power. She knew plenty of people who had underachieved in their youth and had gone on to do great things. And she could cite many examples of the reverse—kids who burned out by the time they got to college or simply couldn’t cope without their parents micromanaging their lives; she had heard of some parents who even called their college kids to wake them up for morning classes. But it was hard to step back when everyone at Harry’s high school, students and parents alike, spoke of little else, and the kids were all jockeying to get into the same handful of schools. At a recent junior parents’ meeting, the head of guidance had rattled off a series of sobering statistics, including the fact that from this year’s class of 496 graduating seniors, 53 had applied to Cornell, 57 to Northwestern, and 59 to the University of Pennsylvania. All of them had GPAs over 3.8. About ten kids were admitted to each school, and five were accepted to all three. As Grace pondered these numbers, she couldn’t help but think that ironically, this would make a good math problem on the SAT. On the subject of identifying the right safety school, the guidance counselor had referenced the terrifying, widely gossiped about, and evidently true story of the National Merit finalist who applied to twelve schools and didn’t get into a single one.
Sometimes when she heard these anxiety-inducing anecdotes, Grace wondered whether she had been smart to remain in the area after her
divorce. She had stretched herself financially, heavily mortgaging their house, because this was arguably one of the best public school systems not just in the state, but in the country. But lately she had begun to think she had done Harry a disservice by staying. Perhaps he would be driving himself less hard, and would have a better sense of perspective, if she had relocated to some small town in the Midwest. And even if she was wrong about that—if this college mania had reached into the most remote pockets of America—at least a community of less means might have other sorts of benefits, like fewer kids with credit cards, or a lower percentage of luxury cars in the student parking lot.
Still, Grace tried hard not to let Harry’s preoccupation become her own. She knew there were hundreds of good colleges out there, some of which she had never even heard of before, like Yates. She had done just fine going to the University of Maryland, which had been the only school her parents could afford. It had never occurred to her to feel short-changed. She always felt she’d received a perfectly decent education and had not suffered, apart from the unfortunate fact that she had met Lou in an anatomy class and made the mistake of marrying him.
As it was, Harry was most definitely part of the problem, if not the most extreme version of it around. He had memorized the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the top fifty liberal arts colleges as well as
the separate list of universities—those offering both doctorates and masters—and he frequently asked Grace to quiz him to see if he had his numbers straight. At first Grace had played along, not fully grasping the point of the exercise. But once she realized the pathos of what he was doing—obsessing about whether Pomona ranked 7 or 8 and how many points that was above, say, Oberlin (14)—she refused to play, even when Harry insisted that he was just sharpening his memory retention skills. (Yates had entered the list for the first time ever last year, coming in at number 50.) Even without her help, he had lately progressed to the point where he could provide subcategories, such as a school’s selectivity rank and average rate of alumni giving.
The last time Grace bumped into Nina—another morning encounter in which Grace pretended unsuccessfully that her headphones prevented her from hearing her neighbor’s noisy, chipper approach—Nina told
her she was doing some reading to learn where various well-connected American women had gone to college and where they had met their spouses. Grace laughed out loud, certain she was kidding, but the hurt look on Nina’s face assured her this was not a joke.
After that conversation, Grace had made an even more radical change to her schedule. She began to set her alarm a full hour early and would sneak out in the dark to walk the dog. All of these efforts had failed her spectacularly, however, because here was Nina, just two rows away. As Grace leaned forward to stretch the muscles in her back while the admissions counselor repeated his clichés, the ostentatious diamond in Nina’s ring caught a streak of sunlight, refracting it into even more bouncing specks in Grace’s pounding head.
Taylor sat beside her mother, looking sullen. She seemed to be in
distress. Regardless of whether Taylor was as brilliant as her mother claimed, she was no longer the happy, freckle-faced little girl who used to play roller hockey in the street with Harry and all of the neighborhood kids. Sometime in the last year, she had become transformed into a pale, haunted-looking teenager. Her once luminous black hair was now tinged with purple and hung in greasy, unkempt strands. Grace wondered if perhaps the girl was using drugs. But that didn’t seem quite right, given that Taylor had become a complete loner and, while hardly fat, didn’t have that heroin-chic, skin-and-bones physique one tended to equate with a serious drug habit. Grace wasn’t an expert on these things, but she did assume that at least part of the allure of the drug culture was the instant camaraderie. Yet Harry reported that Taylor sat alone at lunch each day, declining his occasional invitations to join him. He also said she fled school after the final bell rang and on the few occasions that he left at the same time, she seemed to deliberately sprint ahead to avoid him.
From her slightly elevated position, Grace could see that Nina’s roots were growing in darker than the rest of her blond hair. Her hand continued to wave frantically, but so many other hands competed that young Soren kept passing her over. Nina actually began to blurt out her question unsolicited, but at that precise moment Soren finally found the wherewithal to declare the information session over, instructing them to break into small groups for the campus tours. They were trying something new this year, he explained. Students would go on one set of tours, parents on another. He told them where to gather, accordingly.
“Are you all right?” Harry asked his mother again, shaking her gently on the shoulder. “You look kind of pale, Mom . . . pale, sallow, pallid, wan . . .”
Grace forced a smile and blotted her forehead with a piece of used tissue she found in her pocket. “Ashen?” she asked.
“Very good, Mom,” Harry said, smiling adorably.
The synonym game was something else he liked to play, something he had read about in an SAT prep book. Grace feigned more enthusiasm than she really felt for the game, but she played along on the ground that at least it was not as obnoxious as the U.S. News game. Plus, she felt it was the least she could do, given his frustration with his score.
“You really look awful, Mom,” he said as they filed out of the row.
“Thanks, Harry . . . Just what I wanted to hear. But if you don’t mind, I am feeling kind of . . .”
“Yes. Well put. Peaked. So I think I’ll skip the tour. You go ahead. I’ll wait here . . .”
She pointed toward a set of armchairs in the outer room of the barn flanked by a table with two alluring pots of coffee and a platter of doughnuts. But then she saw Nina Rockefeller coming straight toward her. “Or maybe I’ll find a nice bench, outside.”
Excerpted from Acceptance: A Novel by Susan Coll. Copyright © 2007 by Susan Coll. Published in March 2007 by Sarah Crichton Books, a division of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.