Those Letters

463px-symbol_thumbs_downsvg.png A statement students never hear—our disappointments and not our triumphs make us.

In the next few weeks, some seniors at my school will learn colleges they want do not want them. For a few, it will be the end of desperate hope they tried not to feel. For others— having already seen themselves as part of a school through fandom or family— the rebuff will require redefining themselves. For most, it will be their first serious rejection.

As everyone is away on spring break, the seniors will tend their own wounds, but, even if school were in session, they would have to reconcile themselves. It won’t help to tell them, as my colleagues and I often do, that if we were applying to our alma maters in the current admissions climate, we might not be accepted. It won’t help to blame the system, though colleges’ relentless marketing superheats the process and sets students up for disappointment. We can’t evoke fate and any sort of meant-to-be’s, nor offer stories of how this moment won’t seem so important ten years from now, nor can we cajole them to reject a school that, up until that letter arrived, they’d esteemed highly.

And, frankly, I’m not sure any of those consolations should work. You can convince people how to think, but has anyone ever succeeded entirely at convincing someone how to feel?  You have that argument with yourself, and winning or losing it is far more consequential than any momentary reassurance.

Of course, not all the news will be bad. Some students will see hard work rewarded or unlikely hopes fulfilled. We shake their hands and slap their backs. College decisions, like another stage of a rocket, may blast them into new territory and a new sense of themselves. We know what to say to them. Nothing could be easier.

No one would think of telling them that disappointments and not triumphs make us. Reminding them they will not always be so lucky would be in terribly bad taste, and who, at that moment, wants to be reminded this result is really a new trial, another task at which they can succeed and fail?

But I confess I’m tempted.

I often find myself admiring the rejects more. If I can’t congratulate them, I can at least commune with them. They come to understand what I’d consider reality—that it’s not what we’re given but what we do with it that counts. Everyone my age has experienced disappointment or tragedy, and, speaking for myself, I’ve grown stronger through those experiences. Knowing no setback is final fills me with genuine optimism for seniors who don’t get their first choice. Successes born of discontent are often sweeter than simple good fortune. They can develop resilience, resourcefulness, and a sense of humor their classmates may come to envy.

“There will be little rubs and disappointments everywhere,” Jane Austen said, “and we are all apt to expect too much; but then, if one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another; if the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.”

Though they won’t accept comfort from me, the disappointed seniors may find it in their own hearts, which will ultimately be more valuable than anything I might offer.

We’d all like to choose our paths, but we can’t see the wider world that way. The recipients of bad news would never accept my saying so, but they may be the lucky ones.

I don’t grieve for them—they carry my greatest hopes.

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Filed under College Admissions, Education, Essays, Gratitude, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, Letters, Modern Life, Teaching, Thoughts

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