The weight of the next fifty years is bearing down hard on my 17-year-old son, who is a senior in high school.
For the past 12 years, he has had a great run: Cookie time and naps, medieval fairs and science projects, band concerts and a dizzying array of sporting events, back-to-school dances and proms, teachers and friends who all have had something good to offer him. But now the gig is coming to an end.
By August of next year, he will be a newly-minted high school graduate, ready to go out into the world alone, armed only with our financial support, the iPhone we bought and added to our plan, the clothes we’ve bought for him, and, most likely, one of those tiny dorm refrigerators in which to keep – we hope – his non-alcoholic beverages.
That is, if he ever gets his college applications submitted.
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The deadline is Nov. 30, a little factoid I mention to him every time I see him catching up on episodes of “Arrow” or “How I Met Your Mother.”
“I thought that show was over,” I said the other day when I saw him sitting in front of the computer, streaming an episode and not typing his application essay. He has been watching “How I Met Your Mother” for a long time now, and I remember reading with relief that the show had aired its final season. But no.
“There’s still one season left that I need to catch up on,” he answered, as though watching “How I Met Your Mother” was a grave responsibility that could not be neglected.
“What about your applications?” I asked.
“None of my friends have even started,” he said.
It was an astonishing revelation. Though I have been teaching for most of my adult life, and I know a lot about student procrastination, could it really be that his friends had not begun filling out their applications when there were only a few weeks left before the deadline?
“I don’t believe you. They’re just saying that,” I told him.
“I don’t know what to write about. It’s a stupid writing topic, and those two stupid essays determine the next 50 years of my life.”
He bolted out of his chair and stomped from the room. I noticed, though, that he had the presence of mind to put “How I Met Your Mother” on pause before he left.
And then I understood. The wide world and his future do not shine before him, beckoning with bright promise. They loom, dark and forbidding, promising only more calculus problems and writing assignments, followed by a mortgage and children and lawns his parents will not mow for him when he is too tired.
“You only have to write 900 words,” I yelled after him. “You could do it in one afternoon.”
I have read the directions for the essays, and they are not so bad. The longest one asks him to analyze the influence his family and community have had on him.
But thinking about the impact of family and community on one’s character is the kind of reflection more suited to someone in middle age, not a 17-year-old who lives in a world where his friends and “Tosh.O” are his most-revered role models.
In a way, this last year of my son’s school experience is reminiscent of the nine months of pregnancy I endured before he was born. I didn’t know what my new world would be like once I became a mother, and at times it was pretty terrifying.
I went through the motions, took my vitamins, let Dr. Rojas’s assistant weigh me, and ate a lot of fruit. My husband and I took birthing classes. I read and read and read about pregnancy and child-rearing, studying up for the 18-year-long final exam that was just around the corner.
I did my homework and got good grades from everyone involved – doctors, nurses, random people on the street who congratulated me even though they had no idea what kind of child I might produce. But in the end, nothing had really prepared me for the big event. Not really.
I suspect that is the source of my son’s anxiety, and part of the reason he keeps delaying the application process. Because once it’s done, something new begins, and he has no way of knowing what that will be like.
Maybe he will like the university his labor has finally led him to, but maybe he won’t. Maybe he will have sun-filled days of fun and laughter, but his experience might just as easily be one long slog of unrelenting work. There is really no telling.
But here is another factoid for my son: If he doesn’t fill out his application, he isn’t going anywhere. And, for God’s sake, it’s 900 measly words.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.