College tours can extinguish bright scholars

November 18, 1999|By Kevin Cowherd

THIS AUTUMN, much of my time has been spent touring college campuses with my 17-year-old, a senior in high school who is helping his parents through this stressful ordeal by declaring:

a) He doesn't know where he wants to go to college, and;

b) He doesn't know what he wants to study.

Since this places him in the same demographic as 90 percent of the high school seniors in the country, my wife and I are not too concerned.

Instead, we spend our weekends dragging the boy to every college on the East Coast, hoping he might find a school he likes, one that measures up to his rigorous standards, which right now seem to center on which has the most vending machines in its dorms.

On most campuses, our guide is usually a peppy junior named Tiffany who has apparently prepped for the tour by shotgunning a six-pack of Mountain Dew.

With a voice that sounds like a chipmunk on Benzedrine, Tiffany proceeds to march us double-time to various points of interest around the campus, pausing often to flip her hair and ask: "Um, does anyone have any questions?"

Naturally, it's only the parents who ask questions. The kids in the group never have any questions. Instead, they stand there yawning or wearing that familiar stunned expression on their faces.

It's the same look you imagine a steer has after it walks through the slaughterhouse door and takes that first sledgehammer blow to the head.

Then again, sometimes it's better for some of these kids to keep quiet. On one recent tour, for example, as we walked through a science classroom, a girl in our group suddenly asked: "What's that?"

I thought she was going to point to, I don't know, a neutron microscope or a hemacytometer or something. Instead, she pointed to a large red object on one wall, which proved to be -- here's where you have to worry about the girl's future -- a fire extinguisher.

Look, I'm not saying I have the brightest kid in the world. But my kid looked like Thomas Alva Edison after this girl's question.

Let me tell you, if I'm the Dean of Admissions and I find out your kid doesn't know what a fire extinguisher is, she's got no shot of getting into my school.

I don't care what her grade point average is, I don't care how well she did on her SATs, I don't care how many school activities she was involved in. If she doesn't know what a fire extinguisher is, I gotta figure she's only a week or two removed from eating dirt.

One thing you have to know about these college tours is that they only take you to the nicer parts of the campus.They show you the newer classroom buildings, the modern sports facilities, the quaint chapels, the freshly mowed lawn and refinished brick buildings that grace the picturesque main quadrangle.

Then later, when you're walking around on your own, you'll suddenly come upon a dilapidated building that looks like homeless people have been squatting there.

All that's missing are chickens walking around in the mud out front and winos warming their hands over trash-barrel fires.

Of course, when you ask a passing student what this awful building is, he says: "Oh, that's MacArthur Hall, our largest freshman residence hall."

Terrific. A half-hour earlier, of course, you were being shown dorm rooms that looked like the new wing of a Hyatt Regency.

Now you're standing in front of something that looks like a leprosarium in downtown Calcutta.

Another thing that happens on weekday tours is that they invite the parents of prospective students to eat in the school cafeteria, where they just happen to be serving a "typical" meal of shrimp cocktail, filet mignon and twice-baked potato with sour cream and chives.

The minute the tour ends and the parents are hustled off campus, of course, a hairy cook with an eye patch will be hurling spoonfuls of lumpy mashed potatoes on the plates of startled undergrads and shrieking: "You'll eat it, and you'll like it!"

But that is not your concern right now. Right now you're too busy enjoying that shrimp cocktail and the soft classical music filtering through the state-of-the-art speakers nestled high above in the vaulted ceilings.

I could see my kid going here, you think. And if he has to live in MacArthur Hall, hey, he's young, he'll get over it.

Then you stab another jumbo shrimp and reach for the cocktail sauce.

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