To (All) The Students Who Believe They Are Entitled To An Acceptance Letter

4 Apr

Here’s the open letter high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss wrote to “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” as reproduced in the Wall Street Journal on 4/29/13 and subtitled: “If only I had a tiger mom or started a fake charity”  (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324000704578390340064578654.html).

Like me, millions of high-school seniors with sour grapes are asking themselves this week how they failed to get into the colleges of their dreams. It’s simple: For years, they—we—were lied to.

Colleges tell you, “Just be yourself.” That is great advice, as long as yourself has nine extracurriculars, six leadership positions, three varsity sports, killer SAT scores and two moms. Then by all means, be yourself! If you work at a local pizza shop and are the slowest person on the cross-country team, consider taking your business elsewhere.

What could I have done differently over the past years?

For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would’ve happily come out of it. “Diversity!” I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would’ve been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.

I also probably should have started a fake charity. Providing veterinary services for homeless people’s pets. Collecting donations for the underprivileged chimpanzees of the Congo. Raising awareness for Chapped-Lips-in-the-Winter Syndrome. Fun-runs, dance-a-thons, bake sales—as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden.

Having a tiger mom helps, too. As the youngest of four daughters, I noticed long ago that my parents gave up on parenting me. It has been great in certain ways: Instead of “Be home by 11,” it’s “Don’t wake us up when you come through the door, we’re trying to sleep.” But my parents also left me with a dearth of hobbies that make admissions committees salivate. I’ve never sat down at a piano, never plucked a violin. Karate lasted about a week and the swim team didn’t last past the first lap. Why couldn’t Amy Chua have adopted me as one of her cubs?

Then there was summer camp. I should’ve done what I knew was best—go to Africa, scoop up some suffering child, take a few pictures, and write my essays about how spending that afternoon with Kinto changed my life. Because everyone knows that if you don’t have anything difficult going on in your own life, you should just hop on a plane so you’re able to talk about what other people have to deal with.

Or at least hop to an internship. Get a precocious-sounding title to put on your resume. “Assistant Director of Mail Services.” “Chairwoman of Coffee Logistics.” I could have been a gopher in the office of someone I was related to. Work experience!

To those kids who by age 14 got their doctorate, cured a disease, or discovered a guilt-free brownie recipe: My parents make me watch your “60 Minutes” segments, and they’ve clipped your newspaper articles for me to read before bed. You make us mere mortals look bad. (Also, I am desperately jealous and willing to pay a lot to learn your secrets.)

To those claiming that I am bitter—you bet I am! An underachieving selfish teenager making excuses for her own failures? That too! To those of you disgusted by this, shocked that I take for granted the wonderful gifts I have been afforded, I say shhhh—”The Real Housewives” is on.

OK. Then. Let’s talk, shall we?

Here, I will address “student” instead of Suzy because I believe (as Suzy does) that she is the voice of many others.

  • Student, you claim that “we [students applying to college]—were lied to.” I would love to know what you were told. Were you promised that college admissions and life in general is a formula, like 2 + 2 = 4? If so, then yes, you were lied to. Let me tell you the truth: in life, there are no guarantees. People are not fair, life is not fair. That’s why you get to be published in The WSJ and hordes of other people don’t. Because the idea that anyone can have their letter printed is… a lie. The truth is that there are all sorts of factors that influence access to resources and opportunities, including those you didn’t earn.
  • Are you seriously equating having two moms with nine extracurriculars? Do you hear yourself? Are you suggesting that people like yourself are at a disadvantage because you don’t have two moms? This is entirely possible, depending on the two moms you’re talking about. But as a general statement, your assertion conveniently overlooks the micro and macro prejudice and discrimination that lesbians and their children face on a daily basis.
  • “I would have gladly worn a headdress to school.” Way to cheapen other people’s actual clothing and culture. It’s not all costumes, student. Or, rather, everything is a costume… to someone else. Perhaps if you did wear a headdress, you could relate to the billions of us who dress up every day to participate in mainstream society. Every day, I wear my version of a headdress (see: Eileen Fisher top and Ann Taylor slacks), eat my version of ethnic food (see: salads and sandwiches) and observe other people’s holidays (see: Christmas, when the whole nation shuts down). I’ve walked a mile in your flats.
  • “I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker.” Student, there is no diversity without a majority. Let me be clear: “diversity” does not mean “minority.” “Diversity” refers to the differences within a group–including majority and normative identities and cultures–that matter because they impact the social experiences, status, access to resources and opportunities of entire groups of people.
  • “I would’ve been any of the diversities.” See previous bullet. And, if by this you mean that the sum total of “being” a minority is checking a box on a form, you clearly aren’t paying attention, not just in school, but on this planet. Being a minority is rich and complex (just like being a majority is). It is by no means all perks or all disadvantages. So when you flippantly suggest that you’d just sign up for the experience, I shudder. Not just at the hatred you might have to experience, but at the learning everything all over from scratch it will require, and for the you you’ll have to give up. Because being (as you put it) “any of the diversities” isn’t just checking a box. It’s creating a whole new self, whole new pathways in the world and whole new understandings about your experiences and the world. And actually, as I write this, it doesn’t sound that bad. I would be excited for you in your willingness to be “a diversity,” but it’s unfathomable to me that  you would suggest that racism, homophobia and sexism are no biggies: you’d love to give them a whirl. I would never wish even a brief experience of these hateful humiliations, indignities and inhumanities on anyone. Trust me, you don’t want to go there.
  • News flash, student: identity has always mattered in college admissions. Consider when girls weren’t allowed to apply. Consider when people of color weren’t. Consider how many schools want to “balance” the numbers of boys and girls. Consider how legacy, siblings and wealth have always greased the wheels of admissions. Consider how access to the technology to submit an application thins the pool of applicants. By no means is or has any selection process been fair in the history of humankind. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make them more equitable. Now, the way to do that is not to suggest that people with two moms or dark skin have all the advantages. The way to do that is to put all the unearned advantages on the table, along with all the earned advantages (most of which are related in some way to a privilege we didn’t earn: take three varsity sports as an example. Perhaps I train and play hard, but I didn’t earn the body I was born into). When we acknowledge all the biases that inform our choices in a selection process, then we can discern which are bona fide and which aren’t, and we can move towards criteria that reflect values we can stand by. At least for now. (Because equity isn’t a destination; it’s a continuous quest.)
  • “I also probably should have started a fake charity… as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden.” You do give me pause, here, student. I agree that there’s an inherently self-serving aspect to the entire movement of “service learning” (which is, by definition about students learning, and so there is a vested interest in what the students get out of service, all too frequently and unnecessarily at the expense of those who are supposedly served). Yet it’s hard to take you seriously when you’re lashing out with such gross generalizations. Your stereotype of any attempt to provide a service or even strive for social justice is depressing and hard for me to sympathize with because your self-interest is as blatant as the one you critique.
  • “Having a tiger mom helps, too.” Please don’t throw around cheap jargon like this, student. Do more than read the headlines to understand the language you’re using.
  • “To those claiming that I am bitter—you bet I am!” Actually, student, I think you are entitled. And I wonder if the entitlement that you’ve written so openly into this letter had leaked out in your college essays and interviews. Perhaps a whiff of your bitter righteousness and homophobic, racist worldview contributed to your rejection letters? I must say that the permission you give yourself to “other” people you’ve never met didn’t do much to convince me that the schools should reconsider you.

And if I may now turn my attention to myself, I have to say that reading the self-justified racism and homophobia in this letter caused me panic. Suzy made me wonder, as I have before, how, as a former teacher, I have been complicit in other students building their own fortresses of defensible racism and heterosexism. How I may have failed to intervene when, during the overwhelming and definitely unfair process of college applications, their understandable frustration might easily have tipped over into conveniently racist, homophobic finger pointing and self-victimization. And I mean that regarding my white students, my students of color, my multiheritage students, my gay students, my questioning students and my heterosexual students. The idea that admissions is tipped in favor of minorities (with no consideration for the systemic hurdles that still actively and subtly but stunningly work against us) hurts all students.

So I ask you: if Suzy’s letter scares, angers or outrages you, what are you doing to help the Suzys around you deal with their anxieties in a way that cultivates self-awareness and holds them accountable for the things they claim to believe in: diversity, equity, inclusion? Because this is when it matters. Not after they get the fat envelope.

* Thanks to my colleague JE for the link.

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