Writing my college essay, thirty years later

By Francie Arenson Dickman
@FrancieArenson

Several weeks ago, I herniated a disc. In yoga, ironically, where I was “de-stressing” in attempt to cure my colitis. But I’m not writing to discuss my colon, my herniated disc or the pain of the pinched nerve, the inability to bear weight on my left leg, the epidurals, not even the spot that showed up on the MRI taken to diagnose the herniation—as if a test was necessary, as if the pain didn’t speak for itself—nor the subsequent ultra-sound, MRI with contrast followed by another MRI with more contrast because the first didn’t produce clear enough images to conclusively determine that the spot on the liver was nothing.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t be writing at all. I’d be talking on the phone. But my friend from college, the one who is a doctor (a pediatrician—rather than something more relevant like an oncologist or orthopedic surgeon—but a doctor nonetheless) and who guides me and the other college friends through our medical issues, is unable to tend to this crisis in her usual fashion because she lives in Houston. Need I say more? Her husband’s wading waist deep in water on their lawn while her garage collapses on her cars and her neighbors are being rescued by the army national guard.

In her stead, I might summon the ear of our other friend from college, the house manager of our sorority. Only the house manager’s other ear is tied up. She’s listening to her divorce attorney explain that he was unable to reach settlement with her ex-husband who lives across the country so not only can she not date because she never has a free weekend, but she can’t go anywhere because her 17-year-old daughter always needs her car. Her negotiations are collapsing at the same time as my knee is giving out and our Houston friend’s neighborhood is caving in.

Of our other college friends, one lost her sister to cancer a few months ago, the other lost her father and her apartment a few weeks ago.

*

So I do what I can do. As a writer, I can work from home, from my couch, even, with my computer on my lap, which when I was in college might have seemed dreadful, un-aspirational, an insult to feminism and to Betty Friedan, but on an immobile day like today, seems lucky.

I’m a college essay coach, so this time of year is busy season, as one kid after another struggles to convey to colleges, in 150 words or less, a sense of who they are and why this school or that is the school of their dreams. They peel curriculums and activities and research opportunities off university websites and plunk them down on virtual paper. They declare majors and passions and goals with a certainty that from my perspective, thirty-years out and couch-bound, can be seen for what it is: an exercise in the ridiculous. “I can’t wait to take Strategic Management in a Global Economy.” “Urban Fiscal Policy is where all my interests seemingly converge.” “Classes like Biostatistical Methods, Stem Cells and Regeneration totally excite me.” As if.

As if, at 17, kids can know who they are. Or what they’ll be. Or why they want to go to college, let alone a certain college, beyond the legit reasons that they can’t articulate as part of the “Why” essay, like: I visited and had a great time or my parents went there or they have a great football team.

As if the line from where one goes to college to where she hopes to end up is a guaranteed trajectory. As if our 17-year-old selves could have imagined that one day, on the doorstep of fifty, the line between living the dream and just living would become so fine.

*

When I turned twenty-one, my mother gave me a gift.

I was a senior in college, living in a house with the aforementioned group of girls when the gift, my mother’s much-hyped surprise, arrived in the mail. The month was May, and we were huddled on the porch that would soon collapse under the weight of the six kegs and 20 million people that would come to the graduation party we were planning.

The doctor from Houston and I had one pair of jeans left between us that still fit, and as we discussed who’d wear the jeans to the party, I opened the packaging. Faces fell, mine especially, as from the size of the gift box we knew we weren’t getting another pair of pants. Instead, I pulled out a diamond 21 dangling from a gold chain. With it, a note from my mother, explaining that I would not be young forever but I would have this necklace forever and whenever I wore it, I’d be reminded of how I felt on that day, when I turned 21.

Fat was how I felt. Fat from four years’ worth of beer. Exhausted, too, from the insomnia that set in second semester, brought on by worry as to what I was going to do when college came to an end. To me, 21 was old, but not old enough. Not to mention that nobody, when they are 21, wants to advertise that they are only 21. The youngest, most inexperienced adults in the bar, the office, or wherever we were headed. I was as disappointed in the gift as my mother was excited. The necklace went back in the box, and we went back to planning our party.

*

Almost thirty years later, the fat is gone. In fact, due to the colitis and cancer scares (one real, the rest false alarms), I struggle to maintain weight. The exhaustion from worrying about my future is gone, replaced by exhaustion from worrying about my kids’. The college house with the porch, too, is gone. Destroyed by fire several years after we’d gone on our way. I remember many of my classes at college—but largely for the wrong reasons. Creative Writing because I had a crush on a boy in it. Chinese—the language—because I was the only non-Chinese person in it. Public Speaking because my friend the house manager and I almost got caught plagiarizing a speech on plagiarism. Peace and the Middle East because I sat near Lucy Liu. If I had to write an essay now explaining to my alma mater what I got out of the courses I chose, my diploma would be revoked. Even the law degree, the culmination of my studies, is now in a closet collecting dust.

But I still have the necklace. And I still have the friends. I wear the necklace at least once a week, as often as I’m in touch, at least via text, with the friends. Every time I settle the charm around my neck, I think of that spring day in Ann Arbor, of the porch and the party, of the jeans, our full faces, and how my mother, like all mothers, had gotten it right.

At our graduation, Lawrence Kasdan, the writer of The Big Chill, didn’t mention goals or dreams or careers in his commencement address. He spoke about people. “Your friends from college may be the best you ever have, guard those relationships like gold. When they have a wedding, go across the country to be there. When one of them gets sloppy about keeping in touch, keep trying. And when one of them needs your help, cross the globe to give it to them. If you do that, if you work hard, your friends will become a precious touchstone in your life; there aren’t many things more valuable.”

Lawrence failed to consider the scenario in which all of the friends need help at the same time. Nonetheless, as I read over the reasons these kids say they want to go to college or think they want to go to college, his words come to mind. I know the things they will take away from college cannot be known to them now. The “Why” essay is meant to be written in retrospect. And it cannot possibly be conveyed in 150 words or less.

Francie Arenson Dickman and her friends are all doing better. They are planning another party, this time for their 50ths. No porch kegs, but everyone will have their own pair of jeans. Read more of Francie’s work at franciearensondickman.com.

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