It’s that time again. College decisions are about to arrive. Some seniors will get into their dream schools. They will post videos of their ecstatic reactions. Countless others will face shattered dreams. Their pain will go unshared as they grapple with rejection offline.
I hold my breath for the seniors, this year more than ever. The world is shaky and scary and we are unwell. Bad news will be harder than ever to bear.
I want to tell the seniors something I heard, long ago, when I was their age; when I thought getting into college was the beginning and the end of my entire life. One morning back then, a very good teacher stopped her literature class, looked me in the eye, and said:
There will be higher highs and lower lows than this.
My student was accepted by MIT
It’s Thursday, December 13, 2017. I’m sitting at my desk. Moctar, a senior, stands beside me. He is the best person I know. He is kind without exception. He is curious about everything. He is diligent and conscientious and dedicated to his single mother.
At 6pm, he will hear back from MIT, his dream school. Many of his classmates have stayed to support him, lingering in my office. We are all rooting for him. No one deserves this more. We want it for Moctar, and in a way, we need it for ourselves, to believe that the universe is just. Moctar is the kind of person you watch closely, to see if the world will do right by him.
Six o’clock arrives. Moctar slides into my chair and logs on to the MIT admissions portal. A few seconds pass. Then, animated confetti and balloons pop up on the screen. “Come on!” he shouts, and my office erupts in jubilant chords. We hug. I’m sobbing.
Through my tears, over Moctar’s shoulder, I see his best friend Miguel, jumping up and down, all smiles, trying to get through the crowd. Everyone is packed in, eager to congratulate Moctar on this epic and deserved accomplishment. Moctar sees his friends and accepts their hugs. I wipe away my tears. I take stock of the scene. I am a proud principal.
But after a minute, my elation shifts. I’ve become anxious, which is surprising. I imagine what this moment could have been, had MIT decided differently. Which they easily might have: their acceptance rate is impossibly low in recent years. I know there are a lot of special kids like Moctar out there who’ve just had their hearts broken.
I’m anxious visualizing Moctar among the broken-hearted. How might he have responded, had he not gotten in, with the whole school watching? What meaning might he have drawn from such a moment?
It’s a scary thought. I do not want Moctar to doubt, not ever, not even for an instant, how remarkable he is. He should not need MIT to know that, and he should never let MIT or anyone call that into question.
I don’t want my students to doubt for one minute that they are worthy of acceptance
I feel the same for his fellow seniors, all of whom I am close to. They are a small group, the charter network’s founding cohort. For three years, we have built their high school from scratch, together, alongside their wonderful teachers. It has been a tough gig, full of insufficiencies and mistakes that I take to bed each night and wake up with each morning. But it has been wonderful, too, largely because of them, these smart and spunky and sweeter-than-they-let-on teens.
That week they get in everywhere. Crowds gather, emails open, cheers erupt, we celebrate. Barnard, Emory, Tufts. In, In, In. My joy and pride are real. But my anxiety and regret are real too. I’ve made another mistake, I think.
I remember something an English teacher once said to me: There will be higher highs and lower lows than this. I’ve held on to this sentence for a long time. Finally, I think I understand.
What my acceptance from Harvard felt like
It’s Thursday, December 11, 2003. I’m sitting at my friend Amanda’s wooden dining table. 5pm arrives. As promised, an e-mail from Harvard appears in my inbox.
I take a deep breath, squeeze Amanda’s hand, and click. I see the word delighted. I cry. The feeling is beyond intense. It’s a flood: part joy, mostly relief. The years of working and wanting have ended as I had hoped they might. I got in!
After the initial rush, I allow for pride. I’ve done it. While the rich kids hired SAT tutors and flew to fancy summer programs, I rolled up my sleeves in the one-bedroom apartment my mother and I shared and outworked them all.
Later on, I will better understand the web of privileges that were still in place, the many advantages that helped me succeed. But on that day, in the glow of that email, I cling to this accomplishment as my own. I draw meaning – confidence, optimism, merit – from this lofty dream turned real.
The dreaminess lingers and I’m still feeling it when Ms. Pellett, my AP literature teacher, walks into our third period class and slams the door behind her. She tosses her copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles on her desk. We snap to attention. This is unlike Ms. Pellett, who is usually very put together. To date, we have seen nothing come between her and a close reading of Hardy.
“You guys, listen up,” she says. “We need to talk.”
She’s exasperated. There is worry in her eyes.
“We need to talk for a second about all this college stuff. I want to keep it real with you guys, okay?”
This college stuff. Ah. It is a very tense time at our school. Every December is, as the early decision letters come in. March will be again, when regular decisions arrive. This town, this school: the college game is its lifeblood. We are obsessed.
Our teacher assures us that acceptances and rejections are simply not the most important thing in the world
Whatever triggered her, Ms. Pellett is on the brink. She takes a breath.
“I know, to you, these colleges, these decision letters…they seem like the most important thing in the whole world right now. Like your life depends on them.”
“But I promise you, these colleges, they are not the most important thing. They’re just not.”
She scans the room.
“I promise you. Each of you. There will be higher highs and lower lows than this.”
“Now, back to Tess and Sorrow.”
We flip through our thick copies of Hardy but my mind goes elsewhere. Ms. Pellett’s words linger.
There will be higher highs and lower lows than this.
Something about this sentence is very important. I can tell. It strikes me as wise and a bit foreboding. I tuck the sentence away, somewhere safe. Maybe I’ll come back to it someday.
Months later, I think of Ms. Pellett, as I sit crying on my extra-long twin bed.
I’m a Harvard freshman now. The dream has become my reality, ID card and all. It is shopping week, we get to visit classes, to “shop” for our professors and their lectures, before we make any semester-long commitments.
The class I am most excited to shop is Social Anthropology. I found it flipping through the enormous print copy of the course catalog. The class sounds fascinating; examine how different societies organize themselves and make meaning. Anthro 1600 is the first class I shop. I arrive early, grab a syllabus, and slide into a lefty desk.
I begin to read. The books look interesting. The lecture titles sound great. Then, I come across the paper topics sprinkled throughout the syllabus. They ask about the ethical and moral implications of the act of observation. They ask about the problems and opportunities of studying a “society.” They use terms like cultural imperialism, ethnocentrism, historical particularism, and political ecology.
The essay prompts leave me curious but scared. I am not sure that I can write these papers. The professor begins his lecture. I hope to find some confidence. Instead, I grow shakier. I leave the lecture hall in knots.
Later that morning, I shop Psychology 1, which has a single textbook and no heady paper topics. Just three midterms and a final, all multiple choice. When I get back to my dorm room, I take out my course registration card and cry. I cry because my books are too expensive, because I miss home, but mostly, because I am disappointed in myself, for wanting to take Psychology 1. For wanting to do what feels safe, instead of what feels right.
I cry because I feel like I am starting over again. Getting into Harvard was supposed to be the ultimate validation, but here I am again, feeling that I’m not enough. Instead, I’m intimidated by scary phrases on a syllabus and the idea of not getting an A. I’m retreating, like a coward, toward something safe. Toward something I am more certain I can achieve.
Getting into the school of your “dreams” is only the beginning of the journey
As I cry, I think of Ms. Pellett and her earnest message from months before. This cowardice: this was what she had feared for me and for my friends. She saw us wrapping our self-worth in all the wrong places. In Ivy. She understood the shakiness of such foundations. She feared we might not hold up.
I untuck Ms. Pellett’s sentence. There will be higher highs and lower lows than this.
I try to listen to her. In life’s grand scheme, there are no real risks here. No real consequences. Take the class you want to take. Trust yourself. I want to. I know she is right.
But there are many ways of knowing. There are words that make sense from teachers you trust. But there are other forces and feelings, too. Achievement, approval, failure, rejection. Complicated companions that are hard to shake.
I enroll in Psych 1.
As a teacher myself I finally understand what my teacher was telling me back then
Fourteen years later, I come back to Ms. Pellett’s words again, as I watch Moctar and the cheering crowd. The memory turns visceral. Her message catches my chest, courses through my veins.
Now that I have students of my own, I understand. I want to tell my students exactly what Ms. Pellett told us that morning. There will be higher highs and lower lows than this.
I look out at my students, and I worry, as Ms. Pellett once did. I am proud that they are getting into college but I hope they know I would be as proud, and I would love them as fully, even if they weren’t. Have I made that known to them? Beyond all doubt?
I have spent hours with them, building lists and revising personal statements and practicing interviews, crying and cheering at their acceptances. Now, I want to teach them something different, that while college is important, it’s in no way as important as I thought it was, at their age.
Some will say I forget: college may even be more important to my students, because they are black from Harlem, and I am white from Long Island. They need it more; it will mean more to their families.
But I don’t forget. I remember. I remember what Harvard was, and more importantly, what Harvard was not. I know that I am white and Harvard was built for me. And I remember how I struggled anyway: to feel comfortable there, to locate confidence there, to find value there, to take risks there. To keep the highs and lows in perspective. To feel that I was enough.
I want my students to know that wherever they do or don’t get in, they are enough
Beyond a college degree: I want my students to know that they are enough. I want them to feel the love and the confidence that I feel for them. They will go to college, but once there, will their love and confidence flourish? Will they keep the highs and lows in perspective? I want their education to have fortified themselves against any institution or individual, who might make them doubt themselves? But I’m not sure it has.
Still, I spend the spring semester trying to make up for that. We talk about the classes and clubs and roommates awaiting them. I remind them: college isn’t perfect. Through the highs and lows they will always be wonderful and deserving. I tell them that their degrees, whatever they might be in, wherever they might be from, could never possibly define them. I beg them to please not forget that.
I know this lesson is way bigger than me. It’s not something I can teach or unteach by myself. But I have to try.
On the first of each month, a calendar invite pops up on my phone. “Text the seniors,” it says, though they have not been seniors for some time. I carve out half an hour, and I message each of them. How are you? How’s the semester?
I text my students every month to check in
They are good, fine, stressed, excited, bored, hungry. They have good news, no news, bad news. They are navigating their highs and lows, in ways that make me very proud and a little bit relieved.
These kids don’t need my monthly texts. Still, I send them. I send them to show that college matters, but not so much. I send them to say: to me, you are a person first. You don’t leave my mind or my care, just because you’re there now.
I text them because I’m trying to be a better educator and a better person. I’m trying to understand, even more fully, for my students and myself, the long-ago words of my English teacher: There will be higher highs and lower lows than this.