Mere Humans

In the space below, list all patents you have received in the past four years:


Nothing? Not even one lousy invention?

And you expect to get into college?

No kidding, my niece, Lesley, came upon this question on the 2007 entrance application to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She left it blank.

“Guys,” she told her parents, “I don’t think I’m going to MIT.”

That moment, Lesley said, was her low point in the long, drawn-out hell that is college admissions. You can get straight A’s, ace your SATs, captain the girls’ water polo team, write like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, but then some wiseacre admissions committee wants to know what have you done for humanity lately. Scratch that: What have you invented for humanity lately?

I don’t know if that question has haunted the MIT application for decades.

But I do know that this year was the single hardest year to get into the college of one’s choice. The Baby Boomers who mated nearly 18 years ago created a demographic bubble, a baby boomlet, that has flooded college admissions offices with piano prodigies, Westinghouse winners and Junior Olympians with 4.5 GPAs.

“I don’t want to be too discouraging,” Judith P. Mackenzie of Mackenzie College Consulting told the Seattle Times, “because many mere humans are admitted each year, but it’s tougher than it’s ever been.”

Lesley’s father attended MIT. “If it’s any comfort,” he told her, “I wouldn’t have gotten in either this year.”

I suspect those words are being repeated in many households around now.

This time of year in L.A., the usual chatter about real estate prices and movie grosses gives way temporarily to unending conversations about schools — and not just colleges.

The angst that marks the college entrance process echoes backward through the grades.

Milken Community High and New Jewish Community High School each faced extraordinarily large pools of qualified applicants for the ninth grade.

A friend of mine with a toddler asked me if I had any pull with a Chabad preschool on the Westside. “I didn’t know you were Jewish,” I said.

“We’re not,” she said, “but we need a backup in case we can’t get her into First Years.”
And so it begins.

I know some parents for whom this process is not such a big deal. They realized early on how the system works. They bought or rented a home based on the local school’s rating, or they carefully racked up magnet school points, all the while tithing their income into a sensible savings plan. I have a word for these parents: grownups.

But I know more parents who, when their infant suddenly walked upright, went into a school-provoked frenzy that doesn’t relent until the last installment on the last college loan is paid, sometime around 2027.

These are the parents I tend to hang out with. Our conversations shuttle from shock to outrage to high anxiety to resignation.

We suddenly awaken to the sorry state of too many of our public schools, far too late in the game to improve them for our kids.

Some of us point fingers at busing, the competitiveness of a global economy, immigrants, incompetent officials, uncaring parents — but still we have to choose now for our kids, knowing we can’t solve any of these problems tomorrow.

For those of us committed to a Jewish education, the choices are, to put it mildly, complex. Our external and internal debates probe the quality, the cost, the convenience. The lack of Jewish high schools on the Westside has led 11 families I know to enroll their soon-to-be ninth graders in New Jew, which is in the West Valley. The kids will get a great education, with a minor in commuting.

And that’s assuming — now that their children have cleared the entrance hurdle — the parents can keep paying for it. A rabbi in town told me his son once asked him when they will ever get a new car. “I get a new car every year,” the rabbi responded. “It’s called a Tuition.”

For parents of special-needs children, this whole process is a thousand times more agonizing, mixed with uncertainty, a public education system that usually has to be litigated into submission and limited and expensive private and Jewish options.

But … summer is almost here. The college admissions frenzy has climaxed, the first tuition installments have come due and parents and children are resigned or elated in their choices for the coming academic year.

As for my niece, she’ll be attending UC Berkeley this fall — patent that, MIT.

She’ll succeed, but I’m sure her future success will have less to do with what schools she did or did not attend and more to do with her ability to attend to herself.

“Go to your bosom,” wrote Shakespeare in “Measure for Measure,” “knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know.”

To raise a child to young adulthood who knows herself, who has a sense of what she loves, an ability to relate to others and a command of the things she needs to learn — that is a gift far beyond the right school and the best scores.

Because let’s not fool ourselves about the most important question our children will have to answer once they’ve finally graduated.

It’s not, “Where did you go to school?”

It’s, “What do you want to do next?”