MY SON IS a senior in high school, which means that pretty soon he, like millions of other seniors, will have to make a crucial decision, the consequences of which will remain with him for the rest of his life: Who will be his prom date.
Also, at some point he'll probably select a college. In fact, we've already gone on several college visits, which are helpful in choosing a college because you can get answers to important academic questions such as:
* Is there parking?
* Are all the students required to get body piercings? Or is this optional at the undergraduate level?
* Is there a bank near the college that you can rob to pay the tuition?
Most college visits include an orientation session, wherein you sit in a lecture room and a college official tells you impressive statistics about the college, including, almost always, how small the classes are. Class smallness is considered the ultimate measure of how good a college is. Harvard, for example, has zero students per class: The professors just sit alone in their classrooms, filing their nails.
I noticed, in these orientation sessions, that many of the kids seem semi-bored, whereas the parents not only take notes, but also ask most of the questions, sometimes indicating that they've mapped out their children's entire academic careers all the way through death. There will be some girl who looks as if she's 11 years old, and her dad will raise his hand and say: "If my daughter declares a quadruple major in Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Large Scary Equations, and she graduates with honors and then earns doctorates in Medicine, Engineering, Law, Architecture, Dentistry and Taxidermy, and then she qualifies for a Merwanger Fellowship for Interminable Postdoctoral Studies, does the Nobel organization pay her expenses to Sweden to pick up her prize?"
I was intimidated by these parents. I have frankly not given that much thought to my son's academic goals. I assumed he was going to college for the same reason I did, which is that at some point they stop letting you go to high school. I tried to think of questions to ask the college officials, but the only one I could think of was: "How come these lecture-hall desks are never designed for us left-handed people?" Although I didn't ask this, because it's probably considered insensitive on college campuses to say "left-handed people." You probably have to say something like "persons of handedness."
After the orientation session, you go on a campus tour conducted by a student who is required to tell you the name of every single building on the campus, no matter how many there are: "Over there is the Gwendolyn A. Heckenswacker Institute for the Study of Certain Asian Mollusks, which we call 'The Heck.' And over there is the Myron and Gladys B. Prunepocket Center for Musty Old Books That Nobody Ever Looks At. And right next to that is The Building Right Next to the Myron and Gladys ..."
After the tour, the kids have interviews with college officials. My son revealed little about what goes on in these interviews. My theory is that the officials close the door and say: "Relax. You'll spend the majority of college attending parties, playing hacky sack and watching 'Friends.' The tour is purely for the parents. The guides make up the building names as they go along."
One of the colleges my son visited was my alma mater, Haverford College (proud motto: "Among The First In The Nation To Drop Football"). I was a little nervous about going back: I expected that, at any moment, the dean would tap me on the shoulder and say: "Mr. Barry, we need to talk to you about your share of the Class of 1969's bill for the cost of scraping an estimated 23,000 butter pats off the dining-hall ceiling."
Fortunately, this did not happen. Our student guide gave an excellent tour, although he failed to point out some of the more historic sites at Haverford, including:
* The building where, in 1967, the rock band "The Federal Duck" made the historic discovery that if it was going to play "Purple Haze" correctly, it needed WAY bigger amplifiers;
* The dormitory room where my roommate, Bob Stern, and I accumulated what historians believe was the world's largest man-made pile of unlaundered briefs.
Those are my most vivid memories, although I also vaguely recall attending classes and learning numerous English-major facts that still come in mighty handy whenever the topic of conversation turns - as it so often does - to 17th-century English metaphysical poetry. Yes, college was a valuable experience for me, and I'm sure it will also be one for my son, wherever he decides to go. On prom night, I mean.
Pub Date: 10/04/98