a novella by MJ Halberstadt
For the one who asked, “I know y’all are in Boston, but is that Boston, Maine? Or Boston, Miami?”
“We’re in Boston, Miami.”
1. Portland, OR
Whoever said “there’s no such thing as a dumb question” never stood behind a table at a college fair. The trouble is that when you’re representing an institution and your ability to retain healthcare and keep student loans at bay hangs in the balance, your snarkiest remarks are reserved for the rich hypothetical world inside your head; keeping a straight face becomes an exercise in restraint and improve-tragedy.
“So by co-ed, does that mean I’ll definitely find a boyfriend?”
I’d love to reply, “Not with that level of willful stupidity!”
Instead I reply, “A lot of our students lead very rich social lives! We have six different fraternities and sororities…”
“Do I have to bring my own bed?”
I’d love to reply, “That’s assuming we admit you which, by the sounds of it, seems unlikely.”
Instead I smile and share, “Our housing office of housing provides twin-XL beds, and for a small fee you can purchase a set of sheets to…”
“How would you compare the liberal arts classes at your school versus the liberal arts classes at Brightwater University?”
“Considering the fact that I didn’t attend Brightwater? Considering the fact that, by virtue of them being two separate institutions, no human being can accurately compare them? Considering the gaping and debatable definition of what is meant by ‘liberal arts classes’ in the first place? I’ll let you puzzle that one out.”
“Let me give you the link for you to explore our general education requirements so that you can compare them for yourself.”
My name is Marcy Brooks and I am a Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admission at Thoreau College outside Philadelphia. I attend college fairs and present information sessions around the country. When I’m not on the road, I lead our pre-tour talks on Mondays and Wednesdays. I liaise with our Performing Arts department chair. I am a full-time member of the review committee, a half-assed member of our marketing committee and the chair of our scholarship committee. There are a lot of committees and, spoiler alert, they are the same twelve people in the office rearranged over and over again; it’s like when you shuffle the tiles on your little wooden Scrabble shelf over and over again, praying that something coherent will appear. I read the applications from Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, New York (but oddly only North of Westchester County), North Carolina (except the towns of Cary and Apex), North Dakota (but for some fucking reason not South Dakota which is absurd because we’ve received exactly 6 applications between both states in the past 10 years), Oregon and Texas (excluding Austin). Oh and all six we get from Africa and Germany. You’ll notice that I’ve gotten really good at reciting them but only in alphabetical order; throw me off in the middle of my schpiel and we’re all doomed.
You’ll hopefully forgive the blatant exposition, but I think it’s important you get to know the institution so that you can understand the nuts and bolts of why it is such an addicting pain-in-the-ass place to work, and just what personalities are attracted to such an unlikely place.
Thoreau College was not founded by Henry David Thoreau, much to the chagrin of aspiring moody literature majors. Thoreau College was named after Eloise Matilde Thoreau who would sit somewhere between the B and C list of hotel-industry royalty of American history.
Today Thoreau College consists of seven academic departments which all cooperate in the running of a hotel called the Thoreau Crown Jewel. I stayed there once and would give it three-and-a-half stars, which, from me, says something. Each academic department sends some of its seniors to work in some leadership capacity at the Crown Jewel.
Think interior design, landscape architecture and some art for arts-sake classes. The students here are mostly moody and withdrawn, except when they’re high – in which case they exist on the fine line between ecstatic and catatonic.
Business Studies / Practice
This department’s name contains a slash. The students here are always dressed like they’re ready for an interview, but are consistently under-slept. Did you know that it is possible to fall asleep standing up while waiting for the crossing signal? About half of our international population studies here.
The other half of our international population. The common complaint is that “creativity goes here to die”. The chair is allegedly very rigid and does not exactly welcome the global perspectives at his disposal. The good news is that wannabes are scared off by the nutrition and “palette” classes that are prerequisite to working in either of the Crown Jewel’s restaurants. The great news is that the wine and beer classes are technically open to cross registrations from other departments and staff who want to audit).
Drama (And Its Disciplines)
This department’s name has a pair of fucking parentheses in its title. The sixteen, count ‘em, sixteen majors here are a veritable obstacle course in punctuation marks. God forbid you refer to Theatre: History and Criticism without the colon, Stage-Management without the hyphen, or Playwriting—Classic Context, Modern Practice without the goddamned dash and comma. Did you know that there is a difference between a dash and a hyphen? Did you know, also, that I don’t give a shit, but use the word “play-writer” in one e-mail to a prospective student and you’ll have a passive-aggressive masterpiece of e-mail literature in your inbox. Students here mostly wear yoga pants and the gender ratio plummets to 80: 20, hags to fags.
Hospitality and Hotel Management
These are the bigwigs, the crown jewel of the Crown Jewel. Students in this program automatically receive a half-tuition merit scholarship, as it is our most competitive program. As a result, the last names on the student roster here sound mysteriously similar to the board of directors and top donors.
International Relations & World Languages
I’d just like to point out that this department contains an ampersand. The others don’t. This one does. Students who begin this major are mostly sheltered white girls from New Jersey who switch out of the program, and sometimes from the school altogether. Students who graduate from this major are mostly the more sensible, sensitive types from Business Studies / Practice that internally transferred in.
For political reasons, this is separate from Aesthetic Studies. Aesthetic Studies thinks web design is below its lofty, snooty cloud. Web-Based Design sees art for arts-sake as a Papillion dog: cute, but not a dog by dog standards. The gender ratio is pronounced here – 25: 75, lesbians: anal expulsive young men.
The joke is that six of our departments run the Crown Jewel and that the seventh - Drama (And Its Disciplines) - staffs its restaurant. The theatre kids do not help matters with their tendency to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
What else? We’re a 4-year private college with guaranteed housing for two years; our overall gender ratio sits at 55:45, women: men; we offer merit scholarships and need-based aid; our acceptance rate is 43% but some departments are more selective than others. In order to keep ourselves at that competitive 43%, however, we need to have a pool of students with which to be selective, which is why I presently find myself standing behind a table in a cafetorium at a high school twenty minutes outside Portland at 8am on a Monday praying I won’t make eye contact with the wrong “colleague”.
College fairs are, as Forrest Gump calls life, “like a box of chocolates”. Sometimes you get a continuous marathon of students from beginning to end; these are the best because they’re over before they begin. Sometimes you get the initial surplus and the subsequent drought; these are the worst because then your neighbor starts to make small talk. Sometimes you might not even talk to a student. Sometimes, when you’re not in a fucking cafetorium during morning announcements, you might be in a convention center talking to students, their parents, their guidance counselors, their mentors, their rabbis, their sensei, their Rottweilers or, worst of all, independent counselors.
But this particular fair promises only students, and will run from 8 to 8:45am. That is if the morning announcement girl ever shuts up.
“Make sure you check out the bake sale in the lobby if you want to support cancer. Awareness. Auditions for the fall drama A Midsummer Night’s Dream have been posted in the theatre lobby. Students must sign up for a slot in order to attend to the auditions, and slots will fill up fast. Please see Ms. Fitzgerald if you have any.”
Is she done?
There it is.
Finally the students start filing in. We all look towards the door, hold our collective breath, and assess: what kind of crowd is this going to be?
The girls wander in first in one solid gaggle, then two couples, then the boys trickle in reservedly, not wanting to be the first loser to show interest.
One girl with wildly frizzy hair marches through the aisles. She is on a mission, scanning the table banners and making her way through the alphabet until she finds what she’s looking for: “Thoreau!”
“Here I am!”
“Oh my God I’m so excited you’re here.”
She looks at me expectantly. Does she think I’m going to initiate this conversation? Am I supposed to tell her “I’m excited you’re here”? But there’s that pained young look in her eye that reminds me, after all, she is sixteen years old and terrified at the prospect of applying to college. Perhaps rightly so, if her upkeep of her academics is on par with her upkeep of her hair. And blemishes. And backpack. And oh my God why do I spend so much time judging teenagers?
“So I’m like ninety-five percent sure that you’re my first choice college.”
“Please tell me how I can get rid of that remaining five.”
“I’m like, really interested in the Hotel and Hospitality Management program-“
“Errr. You mean Hospitality and Hotel Management.”
“Sorry, I mean Hospitality and Hotel Management. I’m really interested in that. Because I think it would be so cool to be a part of running a hotel. And, like, Thoreau is highly ranked on all the major lists. I obviously don’t have any experience in, like, hospitality other than like, my friends tell me that I’m really good at hosting sleepovers. God, is that embarrassing to say?”
“Yes,” I think.
“No!” I say.
“Anyway. Yeah. I guess. I guess, um. I guess I came by to collect more information from you and hear a little bit more about it.”
Great. One of those open-ended questions, asked more out of a desire to have asked a question and less because of an actual pursuit of knowledge. It’s like a floppy handshake or tug-of-war with a loose rope. I’ve learned to not fall into that trap and to instead ask questions back at them. This time I go with, “Have you visited the Crown Jewel before?”
“Oh, just the highlight of what you just told me is your first choice college.”
“The hotel our students help run.”
“Oh! I didn’t realize it had a name.”
I use this as an excuse to pawn off our literature; that usually occupies their harried minds for a minute and then they come back with a legitimate question or, even better, a completed inquiry card and a handshake goodbye.
Frizzy steps back and flips through the Crown Jewel pamphlet. Her expression is vacant. I can tell that she’s staring at the words without reading them as her mind races for something else to say to me.
In steps a pair of platinum blonds who begin right away by grabbing the same pamphlet. They skim through it. One of them chews her gum with her mouth open. The other pushes her hair, which was already behind her shoulder, back behind her shoulder. She does this at least two more times.
“Thoreau College is a specialized institution outside Philadelphia with programs related to arts, business and hotel management. Let me know if you have any questions about the school.” That usually gets things moving.
Platinum with Gum never makes eye contact. “Do you have nursing?”
“Do you see Nursing on the list of majors on the pamphlet that you’re staring at? Do you see Nursing on the list of majors on the tabletop poster in front of your face? Does Nursing fit under any of the categories I’ve just recited to you? No, no and no- so do you think it’s a good use of your, my or the universe’s time to ask if Thoreau College has a Nursing program?”
“No - here’s a list of our majors here for your reference.”
Platinum without Gum flips her hair back again and looks at me, challengingly. “But you have a program in Hospitals.”
“’Hospitals’ is not a major. It says Hospitality and Hotel Management. You’re in high school. Puzzle it out for yourself.”
“I know it can be a little confusing, but the program is actually called Hospitality and Hotel Management because it has to do with running a hotel.”
“That’s really confusing. You should just call it Running Hotels or whatever.”
Her point is salient despite its idiotic verbiage. Would I could demonstrate that I share her frustration with the names of the majority of our programs and with the marketing forces behind their inconsistent and misleading messages.
“If it were up to me,” I tell her, “maybe it would be.”
Platinum with Gum puts the pamphlet down and finally makes eye contact. “I mean that’s okay. I’ll fill out an inquiry card anyway.”
“Even though you want to major in Nursing? You’re still going to waste one of my cards? So that you can get e-mails from an institution you don’t care about and who surely doesn’t care about you?”
Too late, she’s already scribbling away. Platinum without Gum takes out her phone and texts.
Frizzy looks back up. “Can I fill one out too?”
Then there’s that painful stretch of silence as the girls fill them out. I observe that some counselors continue to jabber away at students while they write - but that’s distracting. I observe that other counselors pick up their phones or talk to their neighbor, but that’s just rude. I observe that other counselors use it as an opportunity to mentally undress students, but that’s just trashy. Me? I look around and play the “Who would I bang?” game among the other counselors.
There are no prospects around me. Thoreau is usually alphabetically in the neighborhood of Tinsel Aviation Academy in Augusta, Maine which is what it sounds like and usually manned by one of several potbellied misogynists all named Chad or something; Thompson University in San Jose, California is an inoffensive liberal arts university where this year’s flavor is a harried and fresh-from-undergrad guy named Paul who needs a lesson with a razor; and Southern Texas Film University, which is as specialized as it sounds, and is represented by my-mother’s-age Marge, who plays well to the parent crowd. My taste is traditional compared to some lesbians: give me a cute number in a well-fitting dress who can look effortless in heels. Plus or minus five years from me (30), and must love cats.
There’s the rep from Dodd Institute, but I barked up that tree in vain two years
There’s somebody new at Anchorage University, but I see a wedding band.
There’s that one from Schulman College who I’ve always seen as a last call / final resort kind of attractive.
“So do I give the card to you?” asks Frizzy, painfully self-conscious.
“No, give it to the asshole at Tinsel Aviation.”
The thing about: high school visits
High school visits are an exercise in improvisation. There is no standard for how these are supposed to go, and there’s no reliable way to predict what it is you’re going to get. I’ve shown up for high school visits where a guidance secretary meets me at the door, tells me that my appointment coincided with a district holiday, and that there are no students but I should totally leave some pamphlets behind. I’ve also shown up for high school visits where the principal had me sign a media release before thrusting me onto a stage where a local TV station and over 200 students watched me dig up a Power Point from the bottom of my purse and the back of my memory. It’s still on YouTube, despite my strongly worded complaints.
More often, a high school visit begins with me small-talking with the guidance counselor about traffic, weather, and the quirks of travel. At better visits, they’ll offer a granola bar and coffee. At worse visits, they’ll look at their planner for a while because they forgot to jot down your appointment, but then shrug and say, “Oh well, take a seat anyway!” A handful of students with a cursory knowledge of Thoreau will come in, and we’ll chat for a period of time somewhere between five and fifty minutes. I’ll leave my business cards, information pamphlets, a pennant and a more comprehensive information packet for counselors.
Admission leadership insists that an recruiting staff visit at least four high schools in a day; this is because they don’t realize that such a feat is only possible if you are recruiting in an area where high schools are that close, and if that area’s traffic is compatible with getting from school to school, and if you are able to find four high schools that are strategically important to your school all within a reasonable proximity to one another, and if the counselors at those four strategically-valuable schools offer college visit hours at times that do not coincide, and if those visit times are not already booked. As long as all those are true, you’re golden! Try for six!
My very least favorite thing about high school visits is the process of arriving. Your GPS plunks you down at some freight entrance with a sign that tells you “DO NOT ENTER” and a resident New Jersey driver honking behind you as you squint around looking for the entrance to the parking lot. Once in the parking lot, you’re stuck in a veritable free-for-all, with signs threatening to tow your car if you park in a faculty spot, or to possess your firstborn if you park in the student lot without a sticker. There are a few visitor spots, but they are all occupied.
Wait, one’s available! Oh, wait, no, a Hummer is parked diagonally and it’s taking up two spots.
Once parked, you pull out your tote bag full of admission documents and head up to the building. A sign on the nearest door tells you “Visitors must use main entrance”.
“Well, no shit. Where the hell is it?”
Another door tells you to “Please use Door 1”. This door is labeled Door 47.
Choose a direction, any direction. Start walking. Keep your head up and eyes forward as you trudge past dumpsters, deliveries of cafeteria food, and a gym class. Decide against entering the school through the Boys’ Locker Room. Finally you reach Door 1. Sometimes you have to be buzzed. Sometimes you have to be signed in. Sometimes you have to wear a visitor badge. Sometimes the school secretary responds to, “I’m here to see the college counselor,” with a look that makes you feel like you’ve just asked for “Eel sashimi to go, please, I’m in a rush.” The secretary shrugs and calls the college counselor, then tells you to go ahead to the college counseling office or some-such equivalent.
“I’m wearing a “Visitor” badge - one that’s going to ruin my sweater, by the way. Do you think I know where the office is?”
“So you just make a right here. Then you go up the second staircase next to the glass case. Make a left at the top of the stairs, go down the hallway to your right and through two sets of double doors. The office is the third door in the fifth hallway after the half-staircase just before Narnia but if you hit Hogwarts you’ve gone too far.”
“What’s the address for this office? I feel like I need to use Google Maps to find it.”
When you finally walk in, a secretary sees you and says, “Thoreau?”
“That’s exactly how I define myself too.”
“Good! I was just getting worried that you’d forgotten to come!”
A glance at the clock on the wall tells you that despite parking at quarter to the hour, you’re actually arriving at five-past.
In short, high school visits are also a crash course in GPS manipulation, speedy Panera visits, polite exits and holding in pee for hours at a time.
- = -
Today I am visiting Babbling Brook High School just outside Portland, Oregon. I come here every year because we usually get a good dozen applications, and because I happen to really like the counselor, Joan. She’s got a good sense of humor but is also no-bullshit.
“You want coffee?” she asks.
“I love you.”
Joan Chu and go way back. We were in the same community theatre production of Bye, Bye, Birdie in a suburb of Albany when we were in middle school. Her mother was worried she’d have a hard time making friends, being a first-generation Chinese-American, and signed her up. My mother was worried I’d have a hard time making friends, being a grade-A bitch since the age of six, and signed me up. Joan and I had bonded by making fun of all the other kids behind their backs and making raunchy jokes out of the lyrics. “He was born in Indochina” became “He was born in a vagina”. Ah, youth.
We lost touch after that show because we went to different high schools and her family eventually moved to Portland.
I love Joan because she insisted that her Principal designate a sign at the main parking lot entrance which points to a pair of College Visitor parking spots which are right near the main entrance. There’s even a little placard in front of the spot with a little idiot-proof illustration pointing you to Door 1. There, the secretary refers to a print-out Joan gave her indicating who’s coming and when, and she says, “Ah, yes, Marcy Brooks,” and hands you a half-sheet map indicating how to find the College Counseling office. And the College Counseling office isn’t given some sneaky bullshit name like “Student Center” or “Success Suite”.
Joan and I are alone in her office for a few minutes before students arrive. She clicks open her calendar on her computer, mumbling “Let’s see, let’s see” and takes a sip of tea. “All right. I’ve got four students signed up so, at their usual attendance rate, we’ll see one or two of them,” before shutting her computer.
“How are you?” she asks. Not “How’s Thoreau?” or “What’s new at your school?”
“I’m all right! I’m getting promoted to Associate Director this week-“
“I saw the updated e-mail signature! Congratulations…”
There’s a hint of a question mark at the end of that “Congratulations” instead of the usual unabashed and desperate-to-please exclamation point. This is because she knows me, and she knows that I have complicated feelings on the subject.
“Yeah, I definitely can’t complain to be making more money.”
“Does this mean you’ll stay?”
Last year I made the mistake of admitting to Joan that I was interested to consider other career options. I didn’t know what those options were, and I’m embarrassed to admit that I still don’t. “We’ll see,” seems to me to be a diplomatic answer enough for today. Mercifully, Joan drops the subject.
“I can’t wait for you to meet Briana,” she says, “she could be a really good fit for Thoreau.”
Joan slides Briana’s transcript to me. I’m looking at two columns of A’s. After a moment I realize that one column is referring to her straight A marks and the other column is all A’s because it designates all of her classes as AP’s. Except for the two she’s taking now at a community college “for fun”. Off in a corner, Briana’s three attempts at the SAT go from great to better.
“Don’t you know I hate kids like Briana? They make me feel bad about myself.”
“What does she want to major in?”
“Business Studies slash Practice.”
Joan knows to hit the “slash” because she knows how much I hate it.
So far, so good.
Just then, Briana arrives. The Board of Trustees would choke on their swordfish dinners; she’s Black. A brilliant Black student from a tertiary market or, as those familiar with the realistic underbelly of college admission would call her, a triple threat. “Hi, are you from Thoreau?”
Joan invites her to sit with us and we breeze through small talk.
“Ms. Chu tells me you’re interested in our Business Studies / Practice program.”
“Yes!” her eyes light up.
“Tell Marcy about your idea,” Joan nudges.
Briana glances at the floor in faux-bashfulness. “My dream is to open a publishing house that pairs novellas by famous authors with writing by inner-city teenagers. Because the market for short-form writing is suffering, and the prestige from the famous authors will help give attention and voice… to…” she falters, “never mind.”
“No, go on,” I say.
“If I published their work, they’d have hope. Someone would listen. I don’t know.”
“That’s amazing,” I tell her, and I hope she believes me. I look at Joan and she’s equally in love.
But then, “That’s why I have to go to Thoreau.”
It’s like when the actors suddenly start gyrating in the aisles tugging at your sleeve so you can wiggle along to ABBA with them; I had forgotten who I was and what I was doing there and that I was an active participant in this conversation.
“Right. Business Studies slash Practice.”
Here’s the thing. Thoreau’s Business Studies / Practice major is extremely specialized, much to the chagrin of wannabe Business majors who would do better at a Bentley University. It focuses basically on the business of running a hotel or restaurant. All of the faculty have experience in those areas and those areas only. It is not a business-for-business-sake program, and it is not a publishing program. If you want to be an undergrad focusing in untapped ways to innovate the publishing industry, major in Publishing.
“Where else are you applying to?”
“I’m only applying to Thoreau early action.”
“What do you think, Marcy? Isn’t she perfect?”
I’m afraid that Joan can see the frantic look in my eyes. And Briana. Poor, sweet, talented Briana. She’s just trying to impress me.
“Yes, Briana’s absolutely perfect. Your idea is brilliant and it will move mountains.”
“And Thoreau is so right, right?”
And I explain. As tactfully as I can. And it’s painful.
“So you’re saying you don’t think I’d get in.”
“No, you’ll get in. I just don’t think you’d be happy there. I think you would do well going somewhere that has a more specialized program in publishing.”
“But I want to major in business.”
“No you don’t.”
“Where should I go?”
“Hofstra has a program, Emerson has a program…”
Worst of all, Joan’s looking hurt. “I thought Thoreau would be perfect for her - I thought you’d agree, you know. Don’t you want her to go to your school?”
“Yes, but I want her to go to the school that makes fucking sense for her,”
“Of course I would, I just… don’t know if Thoreau’s the best school for her.”
Briana is back to looking at the floor. Her faux-humility is now vrai-humiliation. I want to throw myself into a ditch. She sighs.
“I guess I’ll go back to class.”
She stands up and starts out. I can’t help myself, “Wait, Briana.”
Briana looks back to me. I stand up and touch her shoulder. “You are going to be a success wherever you go. But first you have to figure out which college is privileged enough to have the academic program that you are meant to be in. You are blessed because you know exactly what your mission is.”
Joan’s mouth hangs open in wonder.
“Briana, you are a powerful trailblazer already. You’re just waiting for the program that’s going to give your vision a platform. And then the sky’s the limit.”
She finally looks at me, eyes full of tearful gratitude. The string section swells and a hopeful clarinet strikes up a-
Instead, Briana’s out the door.
Joan’s eyebrows shoot up. “I always thought your job was to try to get the best students to go to Thoreau.”
Maybe she’s right. Maybe I’m bad at my job.
- = -
Later that day, I arrive at a different high school visit (Trent College Prep) an awkward fifteen minutes too early (and that’s not including fifteen minutes grace time). This is a problem because fifteen minutes is not enough time to justify going to Starbucks, let alone Panera. Fifteen minutes is also too much time to walk into the college counseling office and pretend I’m elated to see a college rep from another school.
This is a problem because my best option is - it actually is - to sit alone in my car in a high school parking lot for fifteen minutes. And behaving at such a level of creep for even one minute is one minute too long.
So I read an e-mail from our beloved Director of Undergraduate Admission:
From: Mary Ann Banister-McCloskey
To: Marcy Brooks
I’m besides myself.
I just got another box of business cards because I pointed out that they were missing the hyphen. Instead of putting it in as “Banister-McCloskey”, they’ve made my first name “Mary-Ann” and when I called the print services office, the brat working the desk told me that’s how his mother spells her name. Well good for Mrs. Brat’s Mother but not good enough for me. They seem to respond to your style of communication better than mine, so would you see if you could get them to get my name right?
- Mary(no hyphen)Ann Banister(yes-hyphen)McCloskey
I’ve been delegated the office’s grammar Nazi, in as affectionate a way as any designation referring to a genocide-inciter can be. This started with me proofreading e-mails, but translated into me becoming the point person to authorize all of our print material, and then somehow sticking me as middleman between our office and the miserable crew in our Print Office. Mary Ann hates confrontation but loves complaining.
I flag this so that I can reply when I’m more caffeinated. Or tipsy. Or both. Or just never.
Then I realize I’d better check in on Daisy.
Gina picks up right away, “Heyyyy!” Gina came on as an Admission Counselor two years ago. She knows her shit, and doesn’t complain. This makes her easy for other staff to take advantage of, and difficult to advocate for. My hope for her is that one day she snaps and says some words that she’d usually find dirty, like “heck” or “crap” or “no, I’d rather not”.
Even though she’s watching my cat while I’m away, I believe I’m among the people who don’t take advantage of her chipper and naive persona. I asked her to watch Daisy because I know she likes cats.
“Daisy’s doing just fine, she says hello!”
I know people like to say their cat is different from other cats. They’re full of shit, but I’m not.
Daisy is an unusually friendly cat; she doesn’t do any of that passive-aggressive crap that so many others do. You know exactly where you stand with her, and she doesn’t play games about it. If you’re cool with her, she’s cool with you. If you want to pet her, she’ll let you know if she’s down. If you talk about her like she’s not there or hold her like she’s a pan you took out of the oven, then, naturally, she’s not going to give you the time of day.
“Will you get a dog one day?” my sister Molly asked me once when she came to visit.
“No!” I said, perhaps more emphatically than was required, “I’m a cat person. How could you ever think I was a dog person?” It occurred to me afterwards that my delivery accentuated the point.
At that point, Daisy pounced on her shoe in the corner of the room and started tearing apart her laces. As a matter of decorum, I distracted Daisy away from the shoe.
“This is why I don’t like cats,” Molly said.
“And this is why they don’t like you.”
Daisy knew what was up. She always does. I honestly think she’s picked up language. I’m not stupid enough to think she understands all of the words, but she gets tone. And certain letters have certain connotations so I think, you know, if she hears a lot of harsh K and T sounds, she can sense aggression.
My point is: Daisy is super different from other cats.
Gina tells me that she’s eating fine, and that she yakked on the carpet she always yaks on, and got stuck in a shoebox under my bed. For Daisy, life continues as normally without me, and that is a huge comfort to hear.
“And how are you doing, Gina?”
“I’m… good. I have to go to a college fair in Pittsburgh tomorrow, though.”
This is, no doubt, the handiwork of our Senior Associate Director who oversees our recruitment travel with the grace and deliberateness of one of those tubular vinyl torsos that wave and wiggle in the wind outside car shops. The one thing that’s cohesive about our Travel Coordinator is that his name happens to be TC, which stands for something Indian I can’t pronounce right.
“Is TC giving you a comp day?”
The problem is that Gina oversees our tour guides, so she has to stay on campus, which TC uses as his cue to send her to “local” fairs. Because it’s a breeze to drive six hours from Philly to Pittsburgh and I’m sure that’s exactly how Gina wanted to spend her Saturday.
“I’m telling you you get a comp day.”
“Oh, I can’t do that,” Gina says, “I have to make up for the meeting I went to on Wednesday.”
“When will you get it through your head that if you miss work because of work, you should not let somebody else bully you into making up for lost “work”? Tell TC to shove the phrase “occasional night and weekends” up his ass.”
“The way I see it, Gina, you’ve been giving weekend and evening hours without complaint, so if TC takes issue with you missing some typical Monday-Friday nine-to-five hours, ask him to count how much extra you’re working and then see if you need to make up lost time.” Gina gives a nervous laugh, so I try to goad her. “Don’t you think that the hours of work you’ve done outside office hours is at least two times the office hours you’ve missed?” Silence. “All right, I have an assignment for you. Keep exact count of the hours you’ve worked extra. Count the time you spend driving - everything from the moment you leave your apartment to the time you come back. Let me know what you come up with.”
Gina sighs. “Don’t worry, my roommate’s going to take care of Daisy while I’m gone. I’d better go, TC needs me to transpose our travel calendar by the end of the day.”
TC was supposed to make and distribute that calendar before we all left for travel. That was three weeks ago.
“Give her a kiss for me.”
I hang up and I am transported back to my reality: I am still sitting alone in a car in a parking lot at a high school, and there are still twelve minutes before it is socially acceptable for me to come in.
Sitting in silence makes me feel like a creep, so I turn on the radio.
Sitting here listening to NPR makes me feel like a creep, so I change the station.
Sitting here listening to Taylor Swift makes me feel like a creep, so I turn off the radio.
The thought of calling my parents passes through me as quickly as it occurs to me.
You know what? I’ll read my book. I picked up Wild by Cheryl Strayed in the airport; that’s the true story about the woman who went through a grand and poetic grief after her mother died and decided to hike from Southern California to the border of Washington State. It’s book club gold if you’re an idiot, or a kick in the pants about perspective if you’re not. And it’s in my purse which I now realize is in the trunk, which is too much work to go get right now. I don’t think I’m made of the same tenacious stuff as Cheryl.
Do you go there?
That night I go to another college fair.
I like to set up my table pretty simply. Two standing boards list our majors in the back, a pile of general pamphlets on one side, a small stack of Crown Jewel pamphlets on another, a pile of inquiry cards in the middle in front, my business card stand in the middle near me. Some colleges have a dozen pamphlets, each one addressing details of the school: athletics, scholarships, such-and-such-major, housing. I once pointed out the irony of Braemore University printing a trifold pamphlet about their efforts to be environmentally sustainable, but it went right over the rep’s head. As I see it, trying to capture all of the bits of information in print at a college fair is counter to the purpose of a website. Colleges need one pamphlet each, and it basically needs to contain the phrases “Thoreau College”, “Philadelphia, Pennsylvania” and “visit thoreau.edu for more information”. Anyway, having just the two pamphlets helps to curb my perfectionism; about twice a minute I have to nudge the pile back to a perfectly straight stack. If we had as many pamphlets as, say, Thompson College does, I’d never get anything done.
I notice that as I’m setting up, one of the Chads from Tinsel Aviation undresses me with his eyes. “How’s it going?” he drawls.
“Fine, thanks. Long day.”
“-so fuck off.”
He seems to find amusement in the fact that I’m being bothered by the way our new slightly glossy pamphlets frictionlessly slip off of one another. Finally I get them to stay and start making my way around the table.
Chad inserts himself in front of my table. “What would you do if I went like this?” he asks. And this is flicking the pile of pamphlets so they fan out across my whole set up.
“I still wouldn’t sleep with you, if that’s what you mean, you walking, balding textbook example of a midlife crisis.”
Instead I turn my palms and face to the ceiling and pretend-shout, in order to mask the fact that I really want to real-shout.
“Women are such perfectionists,” he contributes. Such sage observation. I notice that his wedding band is gone, and I’m at least 85% sure that this Chad is one of the married ones. Or was, I guess.
Marge from Southern Texas Film University rolls her eyes in our direction for my benefit. Fifteen years ago, she would have been Chad or Chad or Chad’s victim.
Mmmm… make that twenty.
The fair begins.
“What majors do you have?”
“They’re listed right in front of your vacant-looking face. Just tell me what you want to study so we can both move on; we already know you’re going to say something like neuroscience, which makes me more nervous about what might happen if I got a brain tumor than I should be.”
“Rather than dictate them to you, take a look here and read them at your own pace.”
“Do I gotta do alotta studying?”
“By the sounds of it, yes, you do.”
“Thoreau definitely has definitely a rigorous, hands-on curriculum.”
“What is the study and craft of storytelling through performance, Alex Trebek?”
“…we do have a “Drama (and its Disciplines) program. What in particular are you interested to learn about it?
A young man behind a curtain of pimples picks at a whitehead at the corner of his mouth as he stares at the major board.
“We’re a fairly specialized college in the Western part of Philadelphia. Let me know if you have any questions about our programs or application requirements!”
Then he starts focusing on the inquiry card.
“You can feel free to fill that out if you’d like to be added to our mailing list!”
Then he starts fixating on my business card.
“If you have any questions after tonight, don’t hesitate to get in touch!”
Then he starts scrutinizing my name-tag. I’m suddenly very self-conscious of its position, and the palpable silence. Some counselors would just keep talking. I’m not about to do a one-man show about Thoreau without some type of deliberate demonstration of actual interest in the school.
Finally he looks up at me. “Do you teach there?” he asks.
“Do you go there?”
“No, I graduated quite a few years ago.”
“Oh, so you’re just an alum.”
“No, I actually also work there professionally.”
“Like, just in admission? You just go to college fairs?”
“No… admission is quite a bit more than that.”
“Oh. What do you do?”
This is actually a funny question to me – not because it’s dumb, because it’s obviously perfectly valid. It’s funny because I’m rarely prompted to reflect on what it is exactly that I do. Other people with more common jobs are able to furnish a single word that communicates exactly what they do: teacher, lawyer, engineer. When we picture one of those people, we have a concept of what their job looks like; it may be a misconception, but it’s a conception nonetheless. So what about an admission counselor?
Our jobs exist on a revolving carousel of three basic tasks: recruit, read, yield.
Recruiting season takes July and August to plan, and keeps us on the road for most of September and October. When we recruit, we’re driving around in a rental car visiting about four high schools a day, and attending a bunch of college fairs. Fun fact: when you’re talking about college fairs, remember that childhood is dead and that the word “fair” should not imply rides, candy or even a modicum of fun. This part of the job doesn’t have a uniform, but if it did it would have to include our square rolling suitcases whirring behind us as we rush into a high school or a convention center or onto a bus. Your stock image should also include an iced coffee, a purse filled with receipts, and a fuck-ton of small talk about hotel and airline reward points.
Reading season takes all of November thru February. When we read, we’re sitting in our living room with a laptop and an extra monitor and a folder full of worksheets that help us to decode transcripts and remind us of our school’s admission criteria. Depending on your school’s reading process, we might read anywhere between 30 and 60 files a day. Thoreau reading is around 40. This part of the job also doesn’t have a uniform, but if it did it would have to include sweatpants that have been owned for at least four years. Your stock image should also include a hot coffee, blotchy eyes behind glasses, and a fervent glance towards a bottle of wine that won’t stand a chance as soon as file 40 is submitted.
Yield season takes all of March thru May. When we yield, we’re in a series of “committee meetings”- arranging and rearranging the handful of people working in your office in every possible permutation: scholarship committee, transfer committee, international committee, Drama (and its Disciplines) committee, AHANA committee, discipline committee, home school committee, wait list committee. All among about twelve staff. Then once our letters are out, we play whack-a-mole with e-mails and phone calls.
Scholarship appeal - WHAM.
Withdrawal - WHAM.
Deferral - WHAM.
Scholarship appeal - WHAM.
Scholarship appeal - WHAM.
“My daughter is born to be on Broadway-“ - WHAM WHAM WHAM!
Withdrawal - WHAM.
“What do I do while I’m on the wait list?” - YOU WAIT, KID! WHAM.
Scholarship appeal - WHAM.
We politely open a bottle of champagne in the office, and not-so-politely empty a bottle of Maker’s at the bar. This part of the job does have a uniform, or at least a dress code.
That brings us to June, when we begin planning for next year’s recruitment, but it’s unofficially turnover season. Planning next year’s recruitment involves booking hotels and college fairs and flights, but it also involves the subtle science of shiftily looking at your colleagues in order to guess who might be leaving. It becomes like Clue; you’re sharing bits of information confirming or denying the validity of your peers’ suddenly frequent “doctor’s appointments” and the nature of how they spend their vacation time. There’s usually one person everybody expects, “He has been here a long time..!” and one person nobody expects, “I thought she was happy here!”
All the while I fantasize about giving my own two weeks. Or maybe I’ll get stuck and retire and they’ll give me a watch for fifty years of service to the college and I swear to God I will throw that Rolex into the trash.
But I don’t tell all that to Pimples.
I tell him, “I do a lot of things,” and he actually seems pretty content with that answer and shrugs off, and I notice he’s gone too deep picking on that whitehead and there’s a trickle of blood starting to pool in the corner of his mouth.
I accidentally make eye contact with Chad from Tinsel as I follow Pimples away with my eyes. He’d been watching that whole interaction.
“Think he’s got a crush. Can’t say I blame him.”
“Even if I were straight, you would nauseate me.”
I’m surrounded by adolescence - of both the delayed and right-on-time varieties.
- = -
During the last fifteen minutes of college fairs, the reps start to get shifty. Usually the crowd has totally died down and everyone’s waiting for someone to be the first to pack up and go. This is called the art of the Slow Pack.
The Slow Pack involves putting away the less important admission materials, so that a cursory glance at one’s table would suggest that you’re still in business. Your definition of what’s “important” starts to get more and more conservative. Pens go first. Maybe secondary pamphlets next. Personal items after that.
Then once you hear the first “click, click, click” of someone putting away their metallic major-list board, all bets are off and it’s a race to stow away your own major board, the inquiry cards, the table banner.
Then – and this is scientifically proven – some kid always comes up to my table and goes, “Oh! I’ve been looking for you all night.”
And I glance around at my surroundings to be sure I’m not in the Twilight Zone.
“Did it not occur to you to look among the letter T?”
And by the time you’re done with him, everyone else has gone; the Slow Pack becomes the Fast Pack and you get the hell out of there.
2. Ann Arbor, MI
The thing about: alumni volunteers
Alumni volunteers’ attendance rate at events they commit to is, in general, 35%. That number actually begins at 23% for the first five years after they graduate, goes up to about 57% for a decade or so, then plummets to 19% once they’re past child-bearing age and trickles slowly down until they ominously stop replying to e-mails altogether.
When they do show up, they are lucky bolts of lightning. They look fresh, they are excited to be there, and they know more about the college than most professional staff. They bring buzzword-filled Thoreau-success-story anecdotes, an unironic chipperness, and a fresh sense of humor. But then they’re gone, like a one-night stand, the only evidence of their ephemeral visit being a lingering scent and a wave of euphoria. After they’re gone, the next event feels that much lonelier.
Alumni volunteers are most often at our “yield events” where we host hors-d’oeuvres hours and the evening takes the form of a cocktail party without the cocktails (remember, we’re marketing to 17-year-olds, and only through legal channels). At some point you remember that, as an adult, parties are mostly only fun after the second drink. Alum volunteers are mocktail lubricant. Without them, I’d be standing around in a stilted silence, trying to fill the void with the admission schpiel that sits in the muscle-memory part of my hippocampus. Alums somehow know how to appeal to teenagers and their parents by telling stories that somehow straddle the line between PC and interesting with such seamless grace. I think they’re better at it because professional staff know they’re fighting for their lives and that any misconstrued language could turn into an office-wide e-mail reminder of professional etiquette or worse. Alums can poke the bear a little bit. This makes them appear human and, therefore, likable in a way no admission counselor will ever be.
In the end, the cost-benefit analysis would probably prove that they benefit Thoreau but probably deficit an emotionally unstable counselor. Moi.
What can you tell me about your Musical Theatre program?
GLACAC stands for Great Lakes Association for College Admission Counseling, and captures major admission events and efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan, Northern Ohio, Ontario and upstate New York. It’s one of many -ACAC acronyms that only admission counselors can say with a straight face. -ACAC fairs are pretty big, so I tend to request the help of an alumni volunteer whenever possible. Alumni volunteers are assigned by one of our Senior Assistant Directors, (Adewale Adekoje ’12); in the case of GLACAC, I am being graced by the assistance of Jaymes George Jerome ’15.
I looked him up and immediately little bits of his review came back to me; I had recruited him myself five years ago, since he’s from Detroit, and that was one of the years my territory included Michigan (I have on/off relationships with most of the states).
We had needed to take his file to committee to discuss further. He was a rare Black applicant (✓) from a tertiary market (✓), a boy (✓) applying for Musical Theatre (X), high need (X) with B’s (✓-), some C’s (X) and a D (X!). His essay was earnest enough that it caused my eyes to roll but evidently made it into the “favorite” folder on the Drama (and its Disciplines) Chair’s computer, and despite my suggestion that we offer him need-based aid and leave it at that, our then Director suggested we supplement with merit scholarship in order to whet his appetite; the implication being that it would contribute to our diversity quotients. I took issue with the fact that we were offering him scholarship dollars from our (unfortunately named) White Scholarship fund (it’s named for the late philanthropist Greyson White who, by further twist of irony, was of Japanese and Nigerian descent). The White fund is for students with meritorious academic records; I felt that offering Jaymes the White scholarship was dishonest and invited a pretty fair criticism of our willingness to bend its criteria. Before you start calling me completely heartless, I instead advocated for our establishing a separate scholarship fund for Drama (and its Disciplines) to do with as they please. This went over as well as the times I’ve suggested establishing a First Generation Scholarship, an Outstanding Leadership Scholarship and a Hawaiian Scholars Program; somebody started waxing poetic about glass ceilings and wore me down.
One day, I’ll find a way to justify a recruitment trip in Oahu… and I will pry it from TC’s cold, dead hands.
Anyway, you probably know the rest: Jaymes took the bait, was a Thoreau celebrity for four years, has his face plastered on three different pages on our website, graduated in May, and has just arrived on the 1:05 bus from Detroit to Ann Arbor so I can have his help for the four-hour GLACAC fair. While I waited for him, I reviewed my instructions from Adewale.
From: Adewale Adekoje
To: Marcy Brooks; JaymesJeromeActor94@gmail.com
Thanks again for working together to tag team the GLACAC fair! You’ll be taking the 1:05 bus from Detroit to Ann Arbor. Marcy will be waiting o pick you up at the Ann Arbor transportation cener at around 2:00pm on Saturday. The fair goes from 4 to 8 and we’ve set you up at the Marriot Ann Arbor and we’ll take care of your dinner. She’ll drive you back to the ransportation center the next morning in time for the 9:05 bus back.
Have a grea time!
The T key on Adewale’s keyboard has been sticky for at least two years, which I’m sure make people picture him as some tribal chief with an impenetrable accent; he is a first-generation African-American but he was born in Virginia and literally went to private school in England until he matriculated at Thoreau. He speaks English as fluently as Nigerian (and Italian, incidentally). It’s just that the guy who coordinates technology across our division has not approved his request for a new keyboard (“unnecessary expense”) and Adewale has lost patience slamming that one key. I suggested spilling coffee on it and making the expense “necessary”, even offering to spill the coffee myself; Adewale is too much of a rule-follower, and politely laughed me off.
Incidentally I hate when people ask me questions about “if you were straight”, but if I were straight, Adewale would be my first phone call.
Anyway… I’m a little confused why we’re going to such lengths to secure an alum for the GLACAC; yes, I did request one, but this seems like a lot of unnecessary expense when I could just as easily handle the GLACAC myself.
Jaymes sees me and smiles, bounding over. His smile is an orthodontist’s wet dream and is his jaw line predicts he will be straight-up handsome in about five years. For now, he’s still shaking off the features that make him kid-like, like the loose-fitting zippered hoodie and Chuck Taylors. As soon as he makes that invisible transition from boy to man, someone will suggest modeling.
He’ll break many womens’ hearts, and not just because of the looks…
“Heyyyyyyy. PHEW! I don’t know why I was worried I was gonna show up here and realize I’d gone to the wrong place or something.”
…Jaymes is also gay. Of the mile-a-minute talking variety.
I ask if he’s hungry and he pats his backpack (from the boys’ section of Target or something), acknowledging, “I’ve got snacks,” before tossing it into the passenger seat and a navy duffle bag into the backseat.
I realize I’ve forgotten to clear the passenger seat and start to hastily toss its inhabitants into a wayward CVS bag. With my back to him I try to conceal the wasteland from him: a half-empty bottle of Diet Coke sagging from the temperature, my Avis contract, Panera wax paper, two empty bags of Sun chips, and at least four wrappers from Nature Valley bars. And crumbs. Lots and lots of crumbs from said Nature Valley bars. Seriously, fuck them.
Did I mention I rented this car less than 24 hours ago? There you have it: this is where I’m at.
All the while, we’re making small talk: “How was the bus?” “How’s recruitment travel been?” “What’ve you been up to since graduation?”
Finally we’re on the highway. The road is foggy, and every once in a while I’m needing to turn the windshield wipers on to deal with the suggestion of condensation. It’s all very autumn-limbo. He’s digging into a Ziploc bag of log pretzels. As he eats, he sprays. I’m thinking about how wood-like pretzels are and how much wood would a wood chuck chuck…
“…I’m actually really excited for this, it feels like, I don’t know, it feels kind of like a real person responsibility, you know? I did some summer stock in July, and I just closed a small professional production of Rent, but other than that I haven’t really done something that felt like work in the typical way, you know?”
“Instead of competitive make-believe.”
“I’ve been trying to figure out what to do next, you know? I could always stay in Detroit and live with my parents because I know lots of theatres around here - I mean there. I keep forgetting I’m in Ann Arbor. I have connections there, but I also have a lot of friends who are trying the whole New York thing but I don’t know if that’s what I want to do. It feels a little risky.”
“Or maybe I could give a secondary city a shot. Somewhere like Boston or Seattle or Austin where there’s a theatre scene but I won’t feel like such a small fish, you know? Because I know I have what it takes, but it’s just so competitive. It’s not a matter of how good you are, it’s being in the right place at the right time. My professor at Thoreau, Hilda Matilda. Oh, you probably know Hilda-“
This nervous-monologuing goes on until we get off of the exit. I’m actually grateful for it because it takes the pressure off of me. The pretzels, however, don’t stand a chance; they’re about 50% eaten and 50% sprayed from the intensity of his speech. Then we pull into the parking lot. College reps are playing Frogger crossing from row to row at this convention center, some balancing boxes of materials on their shoulders or on their travel cases. At this point Jaymes suddenly gets quiet and I know something’s on his mind. It’s not until I pull the key out of the ignition that I learn what it is.
“So… what do I need to know before doing this.” There’s a surprising amount of urgency in his voice.
“You don’t have to worry about it, really. I’ll take the lead, and you’ll just answer questions.”
I undo my seat belt but he doesn’t.
“What kinds of questions?”
“You really don’t have anything to worry about. If anyone has any admission questions, I’ll take those. You can just talk about your experience and about the theatre program… really you’re just back-up.”
I open my car door but he doesn’t.
“What if someone asks me something I don’t know the answer to?”
“It’ll be fine. I’ll be right there the whole time.”
He isn’t moving at all.
“This really isn’t rocket science, Jaymes. We’re gonna talk to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds about things you’ve been taking for granted for years, so just rally.”
Instead I shut the door and face him. “What’s up?”
I hate to see people upset; it’s completely humbling and you can’t help but feel bad for them, which you know only makes them feel worse. Also, they should just bottle that shit up until they’re on their couch in their PJ’s.
He starts by trying to play it off, “I don’t know why I’m so nervous all of a sudden,” and all that.
“You’ve performed in front of hundreds of people,” I remind him.
“I know, but onstage I’m hiding behind a character. That’s less scary to me than being myself in front of just one stranger in a way, you know? With a college fair, all of Thoreau College is depending on me…!”
“It’s really not quite as profound as all that. Thoreau College will live.”
Instead I ask what it is we can do now to make him less nervous. Hopefully not any breathing exercises or massage trains; I observed an acting class once and it was horrifying. The closest phenomenon I can compare it to is an exorcism. He shrugs. “Look, I can understand how this is making you nervous. I’m not going to tell you you shouldn’t be, because that’d be… mean of me to say if that’s how you’re feeling. So how about this: we go in there, I’ll be right there near you, and if you need to remove yourself there’s a closed-off section for reps where you can take a breather or whatever you need.”
I figured that’d work because it sounds kind of like what a camp counselor would say, and he’s a theatre kid so he probably eats that feelings-stuff up. But he’s stock still as he mumbles, “I feel like I’d be letting you down.”
“You’re under the mistaken impression I give a shit.”
“Honestly, Jaymes, I reallllly doubt you will. You’re overcomplicating it. We’re here to talk about Thoreau. I know you’re a huge fan. You went there. These kids are not going to ask you stuff you don’t know. They’re here to get a very first impression of like… what programs we do and don’t have and what city we’re in…”
“Yes, that’s like 95% of the dumb questions they ask,” I think.
And then “Yes, that’s like 95% of the dumbass questions they ask,” slips out.
I think the word “dumbass” takes him aback and he looks at me. Somehow I’m a person to him now.
“That’s not so bad,” he says, as he rallies and unbuckles his seatbelt.
“It’s the worst, actually,” slips out; lucky for me, it’s overpowered by the closing of passenger door.
Tough love, huh. Sometimes it works.
Is all of the school’s technology state of the art?
Without going into too much detail, the fair we’re headed to is one of several GLACAC fairs, meanwhile GLACAC is one of over a dozen sub-organizations within NACACAC, which stands for the North American Continent Association of College Admission Counseling. These sub-organizations capture college admission events, regulations and, yes, fairs all across Canada, the United States and a few in Mexico. NACACAC fairs all feature acutely measured booths, regulations for what can and can’t be done in those booths, and a bar code feature. Registered students who attend the fair print out a bar code on a slip of paper; admission counselors hold digital readers that allow them to scan the bar code and download students’ contact information. Basically, this is a paperless (or, at least, less-paperful) stand-in for inquiry cards. The bar code feature is an incredible convenience, in theory, but it is seriously bogged down in GLACAC’s case because of the pair of dingbats who distribute and collect them.
One is burly and bearded. The other is even bigger and bare-faced. I’ve just always called them Beard and Belly in my head for years. The line of reps creeps along slowly. If there is something complex about looking up a registration number on a sheet and distributing a correspondingly-numbered little box, I’m unaware of what that might be. For some reason, this process is painfully protracted though, to the point that reps have learned to budget this into their schedules and choose to arrive 45 minutes early.
The woman standing just ahead of me (and Jaymes) in line is finishing up a chapter in her book. The guys behind us are catching up with one another, a little too loudly. I take the opportunity to explain the bar-code system to Jaymes. Finally, it’s our turn.
“How can I help you?” Beard asks. This is odd to me.
“Let’s see. I’m an admission counselor. Your job is to give admission counselors bar-code scanners. I’m gonna let you intuit this one for yourself.”
“I’m here from Thoreau College.”
He scans a sheet of paper looking for Thoreau. I consider spelling it for him, but that may be too bald, even for me. His finger makes its way to the end of the S’s and through to where the T’s begin, but the page ends at Teeters College.
“Hm. We don’t have you registered. Are you sure you’re registered?”
I tell him I am sure and to keep looking on the next page.
His finger repeats the journey and he looks towards Belly. “Hey Matt, she says she’s from Thoreau College.”
Belly turns away from the rep he’s helping and looks at his own sheet.
“It’s on the list,” he says, before retreating back to his work.
“But it’s not on mine!”
You’d think Jaymes was trying to smuggle something through airport security with the look of terror on his face. “What if we’re not registered?”
I assert my elbow onto the counter. “Thoreau is registered. We’re on the next page.”
“I looked at the T’s-“
“You looked at the T’s until Teeters. Thoreau comes after Teeters.”
“How is that spelled?”
I pick up my travel case by the handle with both hands and just start whirling around and around with it. First it swipes the computer monitors off Beard and Belly’s desks, scattering and shattering them to the floor. The flimsy makeshift desks take the next hit, splintering into bits. The other reps back away, though somehow Beard is still puzzling out the T’s on his page, unbeknownst. Jaymes emits a war cry from deep within his belly. Finally Beard admits, “Oh, it is here.”
I slam the travel case down and glare him down, snorting breaths through my clenched teeth.
“I told you it was,” then snatch the bar code scanner and storm-
Beard nods his head. He found it. Jaymes deflates in relief. We collect the bar code scanner and are on our way.
What’s the student body like?
The fair is pretty straightforward. It takes until about ten minutes in that the first students make their way to our section. Jaymes straightens up, checks his teeth from his phone’s reflection, and says an eager “hello” to a pair of girls who were walking past.
“Hi…?” one of them says, and they’re gone.
His face falls. Defeat, or something.
“We’re not trying to get everyone to talk to us, you know. A lot of them are just going to walk past us and that’s fine.”
“So we just stand here until they come to us?”
“Is there something we should do while we wait?”
“Quietly judge them in our heads.”
A lone wolf kind of boy makes his way through our section. He takes a pamphlet from each table. As he approaches ours, I chop the air horizontally behind our major board - a signal to Jaymes, saying “don’t bother”. And as quickly as the lone wolf arrives, he is gone, glancing at the Thoreau pamphlet only so he doesn’t have to make eye contact.
Jaymes eyes ask why we didn’t do anything about him.
“He’s a Grazer,” I tell him.
I guess I never really thought to describe the categories of college fair visitors fully, but today I give it a shot, because now I have a captive and captivated audience member.
If you’ve ever wondered what it feels like to be invisible, just make a point to try to engage with these students. They walk up to your table acting like you’re not there. They often come in pairs, talking aimlessly about which of them would make the better roommate, or why Rebecca is dating Julian.
Best bet: Say “hello”, and let them do their thing. Perhaps throw in a “let me know if you have any questions about our programs!” if only to remind them that it’s poor manners to ignore a human being they are standing right in front of.
Average GPA: “Probably higher than Jenny’s but definitely not higher than Sow Chan Pak or whatever her name is.”
These students - usually girls, because girls are on top of their shit - find you at your table early and arrive out of breath. She has dreamt of going to Thoreau since she was in sixth grade. She’s a junior but she’s planning on applying Early Action and wants to know if we have a summer program for high school students because she just can’t stand not being a Thoreau student for much longer.
Best bet: Smile. Nod. “Oh great!” Repeat.
Average GPA: 3.2 weighted on a 4.0 scale.
Grazers are like that lone wolf guy. A grazer does not know what they’re interested to study, only that they’ve been told they should go to these college fairs and see what they can find. They’re doing due diligence, but just barely. In this case, it’s best to feed the animal and let him be on his way.
Best bet: “Lone wolf” is actually pretty apt. Stay back and be quiet until they pass. Actually I don’t know if that’s how you’re supposed to behave around wolves. Maybe Cheryl Strayed knows.
Average GPA: unknown, probably either 2.5 weighted on a 4.0 scale or 4.0 unweighted but definitely not anywhere in between. That, or some made-up home school designation like “Comprehensive” or “Mother’s Favorite”.
For some reason these students have a permanent chip on their shoulder and their current target is Thoreau College. Someone told them that four students got food poisoning in the dining hall last month, or that it’s not a great place to go if you’re Jewish, or that the teachers are all really mean (literally all of them). Or maybe they’re interested to compare curricula and want you to rattle off course descriptions for the Culinary Arts major. As you confess that you haven’t committed the entire course catalog to memory, the bug-eye look says, “Well that just seals the deal, doesn’t it?” and they’re outta there.
Best bet: Fend them off with e-mail addresses and URLs to the departments and offices that deal with the minutiae that are giving them agita.
Average GPA: 4.2 weighted (a.k.a. “What does unweighted mean? That’s just my GPA… right?”)
Not to be confused with prospective Journalism majors. These students are identifiable by the sheet of stock questions that was probably furnished by their school counselor or parent. They show up while you’re in the middle of a great conversation and just start rattling the questions off. Oddly enough, these questions do not help them to learn anything meaningful about the colleges they’re talking to. Stuff like “What’s the average GPA for incoming students?”, “What’s the four year graduation rate?”, “Are there dorms?”
Best bet: Deflect their questions by asking them what they want to study, or rather, what they’re looking for in a college. They will reply that they’re looking for a major we don’t have, or a liberal arts program, or a school in a rural setting. Gently describe that Thoreau is not that school or does not have that program. Unfortunately, this strategy actually only works half the time, and you may have to wait until they fill in their whole sheet.
Average GPA: 3.0 unweighted.
I’d be amiss not to also prepare Jaymes for a few designations of parents as well. They are arguably an equally important market when it comes to college admission.
So-called because they hover over their children and micro-manage their every move. Their antics inspire many rolled-eyes and exclamations of “Mooom!” “Dad-uh!” Helicopters parents often accidentally say, “When I filled out the applic- wait, I mean, we, heh-heh-heh… so when we filled out the application…”
Best bet: Continue to make eye-contact with the student, sending a cue to the parents that they need to hand over controls to their child now as a practice round for when their kid doesn’t call them twice an hour next September.
Picture that weird Olympic sport with the people sweeping the friction away from the ice and the big stone sliding along behind. These parents are the ones with the brooms. Curling parents are a toned-down version of helicopter parents, but are still more high-maintenance than they realize. They fill out the inquiry card for their child, telling them, “I’ll fill this out, you ask the rep questions. This is your decision!” And the kid will ask some question or other, but their parent will contribute suggested follow-ups and their child has to behave like Pete the Repeat Parrot. Remember him?
Best bet: Try to find the student an hour later, having escaped their parents. You’ll have much better luck at an actual conversation.
This is a variation on the fourth-wall builders, except the parent tries to sell their child an interest in a college, any college. They point out items on your major board saying, “Oh, look, they have Business Studies, you like business; didn’t you say you might major in business?” then aside to me, “Most kids make lemonade stands in the summer, she made an iced tea stand! Always such an entrepreneur.” Warning: they will recite facts about your school that are simply not true. “Peggy told me they have great pools,” or “You remember Mrs. O’Sullivan’s son? He went here and majored in… what was it… bio-engineering!” or “You were in the news the other day for being a top pre-law program.”
Best bet: Jump in with a pre-determined schpiel. Mine is, “Thoreau College is a highly specialized college in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Our programs all relate to areas of business, hotel management and the arts and here’s a list of all of our current majors. Let me know if you have any questions.” Eye contact with the student. If all else fails, jokingly ask the parent to stand behind the table if they know so much about Thoreau. One parent did take me up on that offer, but that was a pretty exceptional case and once I explained I was being sarcastic, he stalked off.
There are those students (and parents) who are outside these categories, of course. The ones who ask intelligent questions and demonstrate an earnest interest in learning what Thoreau is. They’re the ones who usually say, “This might be a dumb question…” Those students are actual prospectives, and finding them is, to me, the whole point of suffering the other 85%.
Throughout the fair, Jaymes keeps stage-whispering to me what types of people he sees students as, and soon the pulse of ignoring grazers, giving hard-hitters our website URL, and ignoring parents is in his veins. He’s a natural, and has potential to be better at it than I am because his smile is disarming and I kind of have resting-bitch-face.
By the way, if you think that observation is self-deprecating, you forget that I do not have an ego about this kind of thing.
- = -
(Seemingly) before long, it’s 8pm and the fair is done. With Jaymes there, it really did seem to go much quicker.
One thing college fairs have not managed to get right is the timing. 4pm to 8pm does not just mean 4pm to 8pm. It really eats 3pm to 9pm, which means you won’t get to eat in that window between getting dressed, driving in, finding parking, picking up the bar-code scanner, et cetera. By the time the fair is done, you’re hangry (hangry = hungry + angry) (for me, hungry = angry, to begin with) (come to think of it, one begets the other). Which means as you’re orienting yourself post-fair, your M-O becomes finding food as close to your bed as possible; thus, eating at the Marriott hotel looks realllll pretty.
Given that Jaymes has volunteered to help at such a long fair, Adewale coordinated putting him up and paying for his dinner, the best deal we can give a “volunteer”.
“But if you want a drink, that can’t go on my work card, unfortunately,” I tell him.
“That’s okay, I don’t need to drink,” he says politely.
“I do,” then to our server, “A glass of Malbec, please.”
I catch Jaymes’ darting eyes. He wants to order but is afraid to. I rescue him and order a vodka tonic for him. “On me.”
“That’s exactly what I would have ordered,” he confesses, awestruck, “How did you know‽”
“I know gay actors.”
That he’s given his affinity for vodka tonics away forbids him from decrying my political incorrectness.
He recaps the fair for me, as though I weren’t there. It feels like a play-by-play, though I’m sure Jaymes doesn’t know what that is. “I feel like I learned so much! It was kind of cool, telling students really basic things about college, you know? I never realized how much you can help them! Can you imagine how good it would feel to-“ he stops, reaching for his pocket, then glances at his phone. His smile evaporates. I nod my head in that way that says, “Fuck politeness, take it.” He takes it, but he doesn’t look jazzed about it as he disappears around a corner.
While he’s gone the server comes back with our drinks. I hold off on drinking mine out of habit. For some reason I find myself staring straight ahead at Jaymes’ empty chair with the white cloth napkin heaping off the plate. In that moment, I don’t need to be checking my phone or scanning the menu, I’m happy to zone out. It’s then that I realize how often I find myself sitting opposite an empty chair. Usually I’m very comfortable with this, but now that I’ve had a person in front of me for a few moments, the phenomenon strikes me again as incredibly lonely.
I shake it away, remembering that the reason I’m feeling this melancholy vulnerability is probably because I’ve been in high school visits and a college fair all day and haven’t had a second to stop. Right, that must be what it is.
Jaymes returns with a “Sorry about that.”
“I’m not going to ask what that was about.”
“That’s all right. Your vodka tonic came.”
He dives in as though I’ve pried - elbow on table, face on fist. “So I’d been seeing this guy.”
Suddenly my glass is half-full. No, half-empty.
“He’s a bit older than me. A lot more experienced. And he has like, a real job and stuff, something called “wealth management”. Talk about White - no offense.”
He is right. “None taken.”
“Anyway, I thought things were going well, we would mostly hang out and stuff when I was back for summers, and we kept talking about being together after I was done with school and stuff and so he’s kind of the whole reason I came back to Detroit.”
“Mistake number one.”
“We weren’t, like, officially anything so it’s not as though we talked about like establishing what the rules were or anything.”
“Mistake number two.”
“And now that I’m out of school, there’s, like, this block. Because I think he expects me to get a real job, but I don’t think he gets that that’s kind of not what I really want.”
“I’m actually with Mr. Wealth Management on this one…”
“So now I don’t really know where things stand and he’s kind of hot and cold and last week he was saying he wasn’t sure where he wanted things to go, but now that I’m out of town for one night, he’s all bent out of shape saying he wishes I could come over…”
“Why are you telling me this?”
As if he heard my thoughts, he adds, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.”
Jaymes swigs his vodka tonic. I think he’s copying his motions from when someone drinks straight bourbon, his angst part-choreography, part-earnest. Even when he’s not performing, he’s performing.
“It’s fine,” I lie. “Let’s just end this merry subject here then, shall we?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asks.
I leave it at “No” because unlike Jaymes, I’m uninterested in selling the movie rights for my personal life, and if I tell him I’m gay he’s going to get way too excited at our shared homosexuality which, as far as I’m concerned, is really two ships passing in the night.
“I don’t know what I should do.”
“Forget him,” I say, lubricated with wine.
“I can’t just forget him.”
It spills out, “You spent a lot of time just now talking about what he wants and what decisions he gets to make about your relationship. If I were you, I’d spend less time worrying about that and more time focusing on what it is you want and need.”
“But-“, he begins, but “but” doesn’t lead anywhere. “But,” in this case means, “but you were supposed to just feel bad for me and just nod and smile and say he’s being ridiculous and I deserve to win his love.” But no, Jaymes, “That’s not how relationships work, they’re not a prize to be won because you earn them. If you don’t like the answer, kid, don’t ask the question. Especially to a stranger.”” Fortunately for us both, Jaymes doesn’t continue after “but” because he did ask me what I thought, and I don’t continue because I just don’t want to go down the rabbit hole.
Wine suddenly makes a lot of sense.
I flip through my mental rolodex desperately searching for a new topic. Jaymes, of course, finds one first.
“Did you watch Sex and the City?”
“Yes,” I admit. And that subject keeps us in the clear until the bill comes and we retreat to safety in our own separate rooms.
- = -
Back in my room, I make the mistake of looking at my work e-mail before I’ve changed into sweats.
From: Mary Ann Banister-McCloskey
To: Marcy Brooks
Good news: my business cards say “Mary Ann”.
Bad news: they also say “Banister McCloskey”.
Hate to bother you while you’re on the road but it looks bad as I’m giving out business cards where I’ve inked in the hyphen myself.
Mary Ann Banister(HYPHEN)McCloskey
Add that to the to-do list.
- = -
From: TC Schenone
To: Marcy Brooks, Gina Gutierrez, Adewale Adekoje, Noam Schwartz, Christie Oberther
CC: Mary Ann Banister-McCloskey
Just a gentle reminder that I haven’t received any travel logs from you. Please review the guidelines for these as soon as you can, and remember to input them in the proper format, upload them into our server, and then also use the online form.
Travel logs are very important when it comes to planning future travel! :)
This one makes me toss my phone on the desk in fury. A little context is necessary. TC makes loose use of the term “Coordinator”. He’s bopped around six undergrad admission offices in the last ten years, always citing professional development opportunities as his reason for departing. To my observation, this development has not actually occurred; despite being Senior Associate Director of Admission (second only to Mary Ann), he continually demonstrates what I’d call “selective professionalism”. He’ll politely come down on you for your dress code one week, then show up in costume the next. He’ll passive-aggressively remind you of the protocol for indicating time off one day, then unceremoniously take off the next. My problem with this e-mail is that even though it makes me and the other recipients look like delinquents, I’ve already told him, in polite terms, that I know very well that his habit is to collect these travel logs and lose them. This is frustrating because they take hours to tediously put them into the format he prefers (see: picked out of a hat), and while I do see their usefulness in theory, I’m aware that an e-mail in TC’s inbox sits in a sort of Russian Roulette toilet. I’m uninterested in spending hours of my time on formatting travel logs that won’t be used, and if it only goes to him it’ll never actually improve how we execute our recruitment and the weeks during which our team puts their lives on hold will be for naught and the pointless cycle is propagated. This is why I’m creating my own travel log on my personal Google Drive and I even told TC that I will yield this travel log to him next year when he requests it for his planning purposes, and will only reformat it if he can resurrect me my travel logs from last year and explain why his format is necessary.
This latest e-mail from TC affirms my suspicion that he did not read that e-mail. I delete it, needless to say.
- = -
Another e-mail pops up.
From: Mary Ann Banister-McCloskey
To: Marcy Brooks
How did today go? Can you take a 2 minute call soon? V important.
I look at the clock. 9:57. All right, Mary Ann, you get me until 10:00 exactly.
“How’s the road?” she asks.
“No small talk. What do you want?”
I opt instead for seeming concern. “Is everything all right?”
“Oh yeah,” she drawls. I’m regretting not ignoring her e-mail until the morning. “I wanted to know how Jaymes was at the fair today.”
To be honest I’m surprised Mary Ann knew I worked with a volunteer today at all.
“Good!” She pushes the subject, though. “He was great! He had a lot of good questions. After I explained how things work he took to it. He’s a little talkative, you know.”
“Well he’s a Musical Theatre major,” she reminds me as if she were the one who just spent 8 hours with him.
“Right. So what’s up?”
“And he was on the train on time and dressed professionally and all that?”
I’m dying for her to get to her point. That’s Mary Ann for you, though. Finally I get an “All right…” at 10:02. God damn it. “Well just so you know the promotions will all be announced in our phone conference staff meeting on Monday morning.”
I know I’ve been promoted and that still needs to be announced, but I wasn’t aware there were others.
“You’ll hear all about it on Monday…!”
While I’m not into the suspense game, I am interested. Just not at 10:03pm in a Marriott in Ann Arbor.
“Good night, Mary Ann.”
“And don’t tell me a phone call is important unless you’re telling me something new.”
What percentage of graduates are employed within their field?
The next morning I’m driving Jayson to the transportation center and he has been talking at me since the moment we left the Marriott twenty minutes ago. I used all of my usual tactics. When I turned on the radio, Jaymes got excited about the first song that played and shared all about his high school chorus teacher; when I suggested we stop for Starbucks, Jaymes got all excited that it’s Pumpkin Spice Latté season and shared choice anecdotes about his brief career as a barista; when I asked if he would plug our next destination into the GPS, Jaymes shared that he once got a gig providing the voice for a Mattel action figure but would love to be the voice on a GPS. His BFA in Musical Theatre in action.
The GPS’ voice was a welcome relief every few minutes or so because it allowed me to shush him for a half a second so I could “pay close attention to the directions”.
I can navigate Ann Arbor in my sleep.
Then Jaymes did one of those things that conversation steam-rollers do that piss me off the most: they ask a question abruptly.
“So what made you go into admission?”
“The ability to earn health insurance doing a job that consists of talking about the college I went to.”
“Oh, um. After I graduated-“
“Where did you go?”
I couldn’t finish a fucking sentence.
“Really? I didn’t realize you actually went to Thoreau.”
“Of course you didn’t, you haven’t invited me to join your monologue”
“Yeah! And I was a tour guide and, well, they had an opening. It’s a good job for right out of school…”
“…and it’s all downhill from there.”
“Huh,” Jaymes deflated, “I didn’t know all that.”
“Well, we’re never going to see each other again so I don’t really feel all that invested in making sure you know details about my life.”
“It sounds like fun, working in admission. You get to travel-”
“-to hotels and high schools.”
“-you get to read all of those interesting essays-“
“-and you get to really be a part of shaping the future of the school.”
Hmph. I’d never looked at it through that particular pair of rose-colored glasses.
And then he got quiet. I hoped he was just deep in thought. After a minute - call it masochism - it actually concerned me enough to glance at him to see what cat got his tongue. He was staring straight ahead, brow slightly furrowed, looking lonely and uncomfortable. We reached a red light and the silence became palpable. Here was my chance to fill that silence and offer something. What, a glimpse of honesty?
“Working in admission is for two kinds of people: lifers, who actually like something about higher ed management, and people like me, who stumble into it somehow and use it as a stopgap.” He finally looked at me. I went on. “To delay making the decision of what we want to do when we grow up.” I sighed. Before I could help myself, “Not all of us have a clear-cut passion like you do.”
And then he gave me this look of fresh, tender pity and I wanted to crawl out of my skin. An overly jolly radio commercial teased the moment, so I blindly swatted at the power knob until it shut up.
“Green light,” he whispered.
And we went.
He probably thought I envied him. And on a certain level, I do, because it’s kind of great to know exactly what you want from the world. But I also kind of pity him, because it must be maddening to see that goal and know that you’ll almost definitely never achieve it. Still, I’d hate for Jaymes to sense that that envy, but it’d be cruel over-compensation to play the pity card instead.
I hate it when prospective students tell me that they’re destined to be on stage. I hate it even more when their guidance counselors are taken into that delusion. And I hate it the most when parents buy into it and tell me that their child is born to be on Broadway. It makes me want to scream, whether the conversation happens before the kid has applied, while their begging to be accepted or after they’ve been rejected. As if I owe it to them to attempt to override the fact that the Drama (and its Disciplines) department – not me – has already definitively ruled them out. Even if I had the authority, I wouldn’t, and it’s not because I enjoy being cruel, but because I want to shatter the myth that any person, regardless of their talent, is “destined” for fame in theatre.
But hear me out before you write me off as being hardened and unfeeling: it does nobody any favors to feel entitled to something like Broadway. It absolutely negates any amount of hard work or God-given talent necessary. If some goddamn kid’s success is already written in the stars, then why doth thou family protest so goddamn much on my voicemail? I didn’t get my job by telling Mary Ann I felt destined to eventually become an Associate Director of Admission. We have affinities and we exercise them if that’s what we want. Or, in my case, if it’s what we need to pay the bills.
I want to tell these kids that no, they are not born to be on Broadway so stop letting your teachers and relatives inflate your ego. Recognize if it is within your potential. Recognize that it is your ambition. Recognize that it is within the realm of possibility of what you can achieve – but that it is not the only possible outcome. There’s a certain amount of practice, sacrifice and, yes, ass-kissing required. It is not my job to usher you to your destiny; if you have complaints about that, well, you can address them to God because that’s above my pay grade by a lightyear.
What do I know. Maybe Jaymes is smarter than those students. Maybe he’s got a plan I’m not aware of. Maybe he’s flying out to New York tomorrow to meet his agent and get cast in an August Wilson play opposite Laurence Fishburne. I don’t know.
I don’t just plead the fifth, I live by it.
We pull up.
“This was fun,” Jaymes says, unsmiling.
“Then why do you look like you want to die?”
“Thank you again for all of your help!”
He reaches across for what I think he thinks is an obligatory hug.
Right, theatre kids. They’re touchy.
And then he’s gone. I reach into the trunk and reclaim my preferred passenger seat companion: my purse. I have to spend a minute brushing the pretzel crumbs out the door; I’m not even going to touch the passenger side carpet.
“Sunday,” I say to no one. The day is young and it is mine.
The thing about: traveling alone
The strategic Sunday is one of my favorite recruitment travel tricks. The novice traveler will see Sunday as a convenient time to capitalize on traveling between locations in order to maximize weekdays for school visits. The expert knows to book obligations in the same city on Friday and Monday and necessitate travel during business hours, that way Sunday is freed up for Me-Time.
Everyone says, “That’s so cool that you get to travel for work!” And when you complain about it, you go through the cycle:
1) Unforgiving rant about the distinction between traveling for recruitment and a vacation.
2) Backpedaling to revert to only a socially acceptable level of snark.
3) Selection of anecdote to demonstrate the pitfalls.
4) Bumbling as you recall that your conversation partner did not ask for this and that it requires having a tremendous amount of privilege to have the luxury of complaining about being paid to go places.
5) Non-committal “shrug” of a sentence, like “But I shouldn’t complain really” or “But that’s what comes with the job” or “I guess I’m being ungrateful.”
But traveling alone for weeks at a time is a lonely endeavor, even for the most introverted misanthrope.
I’ve noticed that when you check into a hotel, the concierge will ask how many keys you want, and even though you say, “One is fine”, they’ll give you two.
I’ve noticed that when you’re feeling lonely as you walk through an airport, every pairing of people seems cartoonishly happy and rudely attractive.
I’ve noticed that when you’re sitting at a bar alone and someone asks if the seat next to you is taken or if you’re waiting for someone, it feels like an insult even though they’re being polite.
For these reasons, I avoid contact with the human species altogether on Strategic Me-Time Sundays.
The “do not disturb” sign ostensibly has one job: to stay on the doorknob. For some reason though, Marriott hotels have not yet implemented a version that can survive the speed of the closing door that they are meant to be on. If you’re not careful, they whip around as the door closes, eventually fluttering daintily to the ground. I’ve made a habit of holding them on as I shut the door, then opening it a crack to make sure it’s stayed on. Then I unnecessarily bolt and lock the door. It’s not that I’m afraid of being murdered or something, it’s that I’m petrified of someone interrupting my secluded little hermitage. I don’t need people to know what daytime TV or in-room movies I watch, or what humiliating level of undress I allow myself when alone, or that I’m hiding out in a hotel room for an entire day rather than doing something expected like, I don’t know, shopping or sightseeing or picking up a one-night stand. I’ve done all those things. I prefer zoning out and staying in my room.
But there’s no avoiding the fact that hunger will come, and for whatever reason I find room service both too tedious and invasive, so I’m more familiar with Marriott hotels’ restaurants than I should be and, in most cases, will choose hotels based on their restaurants. There is nothing lonely in quite the same way as walking up to a tired hotel-restaurant host and committing yourself with “Table for one”. It says I have settled here. I have made the conscious decision not to look on Yelp and identify a restaurant in the area that will introduce me to this city’s culture, cuisine, or – God forbid – people. Although in some cases it says We are in Bumblefuck, Vermont and you are receiving my business because you are effortlessly capitalizing on being the only restaurant in a five-mile radius and/or I’m too hungry to fumble around the parking lot for my rental car. And then they say, “Just one?” and you want to smack them. “This is painful enough, ma’am, no need to rub it in and look so shocked.” They seat you and you notice that, once again, your table is one of only three with people and your server asks if you’d like something to drink and you realize, “Yes, I’d like a glass of Merlot” even though you’d told yourself you wouldn’t drink because you have e-mails to respond to after dinner. But fuck that, you’ve been working all damn day and where is your Merlot and would it be shameful to ask for a straw to go with it?
- = -
It’s a good thing I wake myself up at 11:07pm. I fell asleep sitting up with my mouth open and the smell of wine breath wafting. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ended at least 4 hours ago, and made way for some thinly-veiled softcore porn posing as comedy called Eating Out. My left hand sits in a box of Whole Foods trail mix (created by: Marcy) that is beginning to spill between the sheets. My neck is killing me, so I pop two Advil, set my alarm, brush my teeth, and properly put myself to sleep.
A wayward almond is getting frisky with my boob. I eat it without thinking.
Ladies, meet Marcy Brooks. She is the total package.
What are some recent developments at your school?
“How’s everybody doing?” Mary Ann asks.
Mary Ann has a lot of good ideas. Our weekly meeting at 9am on Mondays is not one of them. Our remote weekly meeting over phone conference at 9am on Mondays is even worse.
There are ten people on this phone conference. Questions addressed to a group do not work. I know better than to answer. In fact, I have my microphone muted and am brushing my teeth. A chorus of voices mumble variations of “pretty good” until the TC aria begins: “I was thinking of you all yesterday - I got drinks with my good friend Sean who works at NLCU at this really great beach resort and I was talking about what a smooth travel season this has been!”
“Thank you for reminding us that you’ve blatantly privileged yourself to the most desirable territories.”
TC reads and recruits Florida, California, Hawaii, Alaska, Washington (his immediate family and girlfriend live there), US Minor Outlying Islands, the Caribbean, India (his extended family lives there) Australia and all countries bordering the Mediterranean. I’d love to know why Mary Ann overrode the Director of International Admission’s complaint that a staff who is not on the International Committee has no business reserving the sexier international territories for himself.
“Oh how sweet,” she croons. “I’m thinking of you all all the time, too. Thank you all for calling in, I know these can be kind of a pain in the neck sometimes, but I’ve got a lot of exciting announcements so this meeting was particularly important.”
Here we go: the announcement of my promotion.
“As you all know, Shauna’s last day with us was last Monday, which allowed us to take another look at our organizational structure and make a few changes. So it gives me great pleasure to tell you all, officially, that Marcy Brooks has been promoted to Associate Director.”
A polite round of ooh’s, ah’s and golf claps ensue. “Thanks everyone,” I say.
“Marcy, are you there?”
Oh shit, the mic was still on mute. I unmute and repeat myself.
“So Marcy will continue to supervise Gina, and our new incoming Admission Counselor. She’s going to continue to chair our Scholarship Committee, and oversee our communication with Drama. She’s also going to take more of a lead with overseeing our day-to-day operations in the office, you know, who’s on duty, who’s on deck, communication plans, reading training and supervision, that sort of thing.”
“That’s perfect,” TC contributes.
“It is perfect for you, TC, because it’s less responsibilities you can be blamed for neglecting.”
“Meanwhile Gina Goody-yahr-ez has been doing a great job as an Admission Counselor for the last two years,”
I hate hate hate when Mary Ann mispronounces some of the more ethnic names in our team.
“She’s going to take on some of Marcy’s reading for the White Scholarship essays, and we’re promoting her to Assistant Director!”
I actually didn’t know about this, and I’m honestly excited for Gina. She’s deserved a raise several times over. She needed and deserved this boost.
“Get the fuck out!” I say, which is hopefully hidden under the layers of “Wow!” “Good for you!”
“Thanks guys,” she says. I can picture her hiding behind her hair as she says it.
We’re also in the midst of hiring two new Admission Counselors - one that’s posted right now to replace Franklin, and the other who we have hired to help meet some of our new goals for recruitment travel.
“New goals for recruitment?” I echo.
“Right. That’s the other thing,” she begins like a sigh. “TC?”
“Everyone’s been doing a really great job with their recruitment for the most part, but I decided that we’re going to slightly redesign the way we execute recruitment moving forward.”
“For next year,” I say. I hope. I pray.
“No, effective immediately.”
“What kind of redesign?”
“Yep, I was just about to get there. I’ll be e-mailing you all with more detail about how exactly this is going to work, but at its most basic: everyone’s going to be traveling in pairs from now on.” He pauses, perhaps for response, but gets none. “I’ve heard from my friend Sean who works at NLCU and a bunch of others that a lot of admission offices are doing it this way and that it helps make the experience a lot less stressful. Two people at college fairs help us answer more questions, two people at high school visits helps us to engage guidance counselors and students simultaneously, two people giving information sessions is a lot easier on the vocal cords.”
“I’ll go easy on your vocal cords.”
“TC - I understand how traveling in pairs might be less stressful, generally speaking. But we’ve all got flights and hotels booked and our travel was planned in a way that, you know, assumed we’re all traveling individually.”
“Don’t worry, Marcy,” he says, “it’s all worked out. Some staff from Graduate Admission, Financial Services and Student Life were kind enough to volunteer to help us out.”
“But that volunteerism wouldn’t have been necessary, if you hadn’t tried to rebuild the ship while it was out to sea…”
This happens now and then: TC gets a convoluted idea and Mary Ann must love him because she lets him do it. She also lets it slide when executing said idea consumes his bandwidth and he abdicates the responsibilities he actually should be overseeing. But shifting us into partnered-travel while we’re partway through travel season and dragging staff reluctantly from other departments has got to be TC’s worst and most shittily-timed idea.
A chilling thought occurs to me: if this is a done deal, then I have a travel buddy. I have a travel buddy “effective immediately”.
“Who are we all partnered with?”
“That’ll be in your e-mail which I’ll be sending… um… probably later today,” which, in TC talk, means after 10pm tonight or else at 4:59pm tomorrow on the dot.
Thankfully Mary Ann steps in and suggests TC list our travel partners since we’re all present.
“I’ll be with Jordan from Grad,” he tells us, which I expected. They have a weird dynamic. Possibly an affair. Possibly polygamy?
“Gina and Yul,” which makes sense, he can help train Gina up.
“Mary Ann with Billie from Student Life,” which makes sense, they’re both grandmothers and would be hard to partner with anyone else.
“Noam with Drake from Financial Services,” makes me nervous. They’ve had an on-again-off engagement for the last three years. Hopefully it’s on again.
“Adewale will be with Aina,” convinces me that he’s pairing people up based on demographics.
“and Christie with Park.” Would I could be a fly on the wall for those car rides.
Which leaves me and… someone from another department?
“Oh yeah, and you’ll be with our new admission counselor hire.”
Oh dear. “Thanks, asshole, if I was uninterested in specifics I wouldn’t have asked about it.”
“Who did we hire?”
“Someone who you’re actually familiar with,” Mary Ann teases. “Jayson Jerome!”
From this angle, the prospect of traveling alone doesn’t look so bad.
3. Quebec, ON
When I was little, my sisters and I used to play Mario Kart on Super Nintendo. My brother-in-law (my older sister Mindy’s husband) never stopped playing Mario Kart games, and continues to buy and play those and other games despite being on the other side of 30. The last time I got stoned with Mindy, we decided to try playing one of the new Mario Karts. This one was called “Mario Kart: Double Dash” and involves pairing up two characters in a car. I paired up Donkey Kong with Mario, she paired up Princess Toadstool (now, apparently “Peach”) with some freak named Waluigi or something. My point is it was a terrible game and so I’ve officially dubbed TC’s idea “Recruitment Season: Double Dash”.
So what's a disgruntled employee to do? Confront it head on to try to prevent a complete disaster? Try to trust that TC knows more than he's letting on? Sit around and complain about it? Well, yes, that last option is clearly what I do best, but I'm also going to try to use this disastrous plan to my advantage.
I decide that I'm going to sit back and let this play out. If there's any justice in the world, Double Dash will crash and burn and everyone will remember that this was TC's idea and maybe we'll finally be rid of him when he cites "creative differences" as he finds another college to haunt. It can't hurt if I can find little ways to push Double Dash's wretchedness along on its miserable little way; oddly enough, my best tool in this dastardly plan is none other than my new travel companion, Jaymes. If I can make him somehow implode while making my behavior look like professional mentorship, then Mary Ann and the rest will have to appreciate that Double Dash is a bust. With any luck, the poor suckers from other departments and/or awkward pairings among my colleagues may help corroborate my point.
What am I, a goddamn Shakespeare villain?
Anyway, that will have to wait. First things first: TC has taken the liberty to register Jaymes as my plus-one at a conference in Québéc, so I'll only be able to actually urge my plan along once that's done.
Is it true when they say “Gay by May”?
QAQAC stands for the “Québécois Association for Queer Admission Counseling”. I wish I came up with this shit, although if I did, I probably would have forbidden the duck-bill kazoo “quackers”, but I guess when you’re dealing with a highly-niche higher ed market, you work with what you’ve got. QAQAC is our first stop on Double Dash.
I’ve gone to QAQAC a few times over the years. It’s official mission makes it clear that it doesn’t (read: can’t) only pander to LGBTQ admission counselors, guidance counselors and prospective students, but it does “target LGBTQ-inclusive institutions and individuals”. That it’s in Quebec is more a means than an end - members span the whole of NACACAC. The conference is just based in Québéc because the founder lived there until he tragically passed this March from complications due to HIV / AIDS.
This year’s itinerary:
10am - 4pm: Registration and check-in
12pm - 2pm: Cafeteria lunch
5pm - 6pm: Welcome ceremony
6pm - 8pm: Formal dinner
8pm - 11pm: Bingo, trivia, mixer
Session 1 / 8am - 9:45am
A) The “T” in LGBT: How to be a trans-inclusive campus.
B) The Pink Ceiling: Overcoming xenophobia and having the career you want.
Session 2 / 10:00am - 11:45am
A) What does it mean to be an LGBT-friendly school?
B) Your life, your rights: Navigating an HR department that doesn’t want to recognize your civil union / same-sex marriage.
12pm - 2pm: Cafeteria lunch
Session 3 / 2pm - 3:45pm
A) Beyond the binary: Creating an application that goes beyond “male and female”.
B) Does LGBT matter?: Why sexual orientation matters in college admission.
4pm - 6pm: College fair
6pm - 8pm: Awards dinner
8pm - 12am: Cocktail hour
6:30am: Yoga with YAYA award-winner Olivia Lytle
Session 4 / 8am - 9:45am
A) Queer but not queasy: An argument for a sober lifestyle and a dry campus.
B) Mining the generational divide: An LGBT mentor match- making event
Session 5 / 10am - 11:45am
A) The other, other need: When the FAFSA doesn't capture the realities of LGBT youth without support.
B) FABULOUS!: The phenomenon of LGBT-specific scholarships.
12pm - 2pm: Lunch
2pm - 3pm: Closing ceremony
I have a very hot and cold relationship with QAQAC and its individual components. Some of the sessions are actually really great, but the pageantry is kind of awful. The dorm situation is questionable - we’re living in dorms, but given the nature of the nature of the event, grouping us by gender seems futile. There’s a painfully PC survey that attempts to be sensitive to every possible gender expression and dorming preference. The end result is that the whole thing ends up being wildly cruisy; no complaints from me.
The thing about: flying
I “wasn’t able” to book Jaymes on the same flight out of Detroit. So sue me for white-lying, but it is very awkward flying with another person unless they’re a loved one. Come to think of it, that’s usually pretty awkward too.
I remember a time when Americans dressed up to get on a plane. It was an occasion. You were dignified about it. You brushed your hair about it. These days people at airports seem to behave as though they’re in their living room. Open nose-picking, flagrant disregard for others’ personal space, iPad games with vivid soundscapes set on high volume.
People are desperate to bring their carry-ons. They will sometimes forego offers of over a hundred dollars to check their bags, but bafflingly prefer the privilege of dragging their suitcase with them. They will beg and plead and bargain about the likelihood of the suitcase fitting in the overhead storage; it won’t. They clamor, cheat and wrestle to be the first on the plane so they can stake out the most convenient over-head storage. This confuses me because at no point in time will they require anything inside the suitcase.
I want to ask, “Are you planning on changing your underwear on this flight? Are you planning on changing it five times? Why do you need your carry-on?”
Meanwhile, there are those people who completely ignore the flight attendants’ repeated requests that we turn off our phones before take-off. And it’s always some benign and personal stuff too. “I would have put the dog down years ago! Because it’s suffering, and I don’t want it to suffer, you know? But she just loves it so much, I don’t know what to say. She loves him!”
“Hey ma’am. I don’t know about you but I’m not in the market to die today, so would you quit hogging precious radio wave space or whatever-the-fuck and kindly shut that shit down? For all of us?”
While the plane’s in the air the rules change minute by minute. Dinner-time meal service is free. Snack service will cost you, and you can only use Visa. Drinks are free. Drink-drinks are not. You can use the restroom. You can’t get out of your seat. You can use the restroom but you can’t get out of your seat to get to it. This announcement will pause our in-flight entertainment for a moment in order to tell you about our in-flight entertainment. You must be sentient and speak English to my eyes in order to sit in an Emergency Exit row.
“Can you all turn down the intensity and let me zone out on this flight? I’m just trying to sleep.”
Then the plane lands, and everyone’s a horse in the gate clawing at the ground waiting for the “Fasten Seatbelt” sign to go off so they can bust out of chairs and insert themselves into the aisle and grab their suitcase right away.
After the death march of debarking subsides, we’ll all find ourselves at the Baggage Claim anyway. Everyone lines up with their ankles right on the metal edge of the belt. They have got to be there the very second their bag bumbles along.
I’d like to make a Public Service Announcement to the universe:
“Excuse me,” I’ll say, jumping onto the island at the center of the baggage carousel. The word “carousel” fits because the crowd around me is appropriately a carnival of gawking faces. “Excuse me ladies and gentlemen. Would you all please take a step back. Would you all please take another step back. There is no reason for you to be standing directly in front of the conveyor belt. It’s inconvenient to you. It’s actually inconvenient to all concerned!”
“But I want to see my bag when it starts going around!” cries one passenger.
“That’s my dolly.” cries their daughter.
“Okay,” I say, “but look! When you all step back, you can all see all of the bags!”
A few members of the crowd nod approvingly. One doesn’t.
“But I need to be in front for when my bag comes.”
I won’t have this. “Then when you see it, you simply step forward, grab your back, and walk away! It’s not more fucking complicated than that! That's the way they do it in subway stations in Seoul.”
“You’ve been to Seoul?” someone inquires. “Yeah, for work,” I admit, and there are mumblings of awe which I try to dispel with, “It was work travel, I didn’t really get to do much,” and someone points out, “But you rode the subway!” and I just have to let it drop.
I get us back on track. “The point is, you’re all being assholes. You’re making claiming bags far too complicated, which means everyone tries to fit their luggage onto the plane in carry-ons which makes them all have to be assholes. So if we all can just band together and simplify the baggage claiming process, then people won’t mind checking their bags as much.”
Somebody’s grandmother says, “I don’t check bags unless I absolutely have to. I hate waiting to pick it up.”
This drives me nuts. “Don’t you get it? The airline is offering you a service where they relieve you of your heavy belongings the moment you enter the airport. Then, they make them available to you just before you get in your taxi-“
“I’m taking the train,” someone butts in.
“What the fuck ever, man, that’s not the point. If we all just took advantage of this service, then without the luggage we could all get on the plane about ten times quicker, and we could all get off the plane about ten times quicker, and we would shave off precious minutes in getting here! Yeah, you’d have to wait at the baggage carousel but just buy a fucking book and be a little patient. It’ll be worth it.”
“It costs to check multiple bags,” says some teenager.
“Then learn to pack better.”
I look around me to gauge how the rest of them are feeling about this. There are some approving nods, there are some scowls, but mostly there are people on their phone. One is recording me, so I’m sure this’ll be on YouTube. A wary security guard has an eye on me and a thumb on the talk button of his walkie talkie.
“Who’s with me? Check your bags! Check your bags! Check your bags! Check your bags!”
It doesn’t catch on.
I hop off. As I do, I notice that my suitcase is coming around. I grab it, and it’s really easy to get because I’ve asked everyone to step back. But as I walk away, I hear pandemonium behind me.
“Hey, you’re standing in front of me, I can’t see my bag!” “It’s a free country!” “But didn’t you hear her speech?” “Who the hell is she to tell me where to stand!” “That’s my bag! Get out of my way!” “I’m looking for mine! You get out of my way!” And so on.
As I’m lost in thought, a flight attendant asks me a second time, louder, “Would you like a snaaack?” Snack is a three-syllable word in her Long Island drawl. “We’ve got pretzels, cookies and snaaack mix.”
I opt for cookies. I saw enough pretzels last week, and now that I’m with Jaymes for good, I have a feeling I’m going to see a ton more.
“That’s five dollars on Visa, ma’am.”
They say life is a journey, not a destination. But sometimes it’s just about getting to the fucking destination.
Is the food in the dining hall good?
Because we were on different flights, the first time I see Jaymes isn’t actually until the cafeteria lunch on Friday.
“Heyyyyy! Congratulations!” we say to one another simultaneously at the salad bar.
“I didn’t think I should tell you that I had applied for the Admission Counselor job while we were at GLACAC, you know, in case it didn’t work out. And I know Mary Ann asked you how it went, and you must have said something good because, well, here we are!”
“Here we are!”
Now I understand the actual urgency of that late-night phone call with Mary Ann last weekend. I had unwittingly been Jaymes’ best reference by brushing off her questions with canned positive responses. It dawns on me: this is my fault.
The cafeteria is a free-for-all. Jaymes and I are just one pair of reuniting admission professionals.
“Are you in line?” someone asks, rhetorically. We’ve backed up the line at the salad bar.
“Would you give us a minute? We’re oblige-politing.”
“Go ahead,” Jaymes says.
So here’s the part where I’m supposed to invite Jaymes to sit with me so I can start introducing him to people I vaguely know. I’m supposed to take him under my wing and make sure he’s not feeling overwhelmed. I’m supposed to-
Jaymes cuts me off, “A bunch of us are sitting at that table by the window, do you want to join us?”
I look over at said table. It’s a United Nations-style spectrum of pretty men all 22 years old and perfect 10’s, including a couple that seems to have forgotten they’re in public. Or maybe they know very well they’re in public and think this level of cuddling is adorable to anyone else. If I sit with them, one of them will certainly tell me he loves Ellen Degeneres.
Then I spot Elaina just arriving at a sparser and much more respectably mixed table. I no-thanks Jaymes and head over there.
Elaina and I go way back. We met at the NACACAC first-timers conference the year we were both green and excited. The year was 2005, the city was New Orleans, and the wine was still an innovation to us 22-year-olds. It all seems so ridiculous in retrospect that we hooked up after playing footsy in a Marriott hot tub. The thought of those hot tubs generally provokes bile in my throat nowadays, but at the time we felt ambitious and bold and adult. We were employed and we were entitled to health insurance. I’ve been casually trying to pick back up with her without trying to seem deliberate or invested. But I am invested, and my strategy of being deliberately casual hasn’t worked. I was afraid she might be here - but in this case “afraid” shouldn’t be mistaken for dread; I’ve also been hoping like crazy.
And here I am, about to try to sit with her. Literally in a school cafeteria.
To my relief she sees me, and her eyes widen with excitement. She pushes her tray away, dabbing at her face with her napkin and trying to swallow the bite of food in her mouth so she can finally squeak out, “Marcy!” She’s actually thrilled to see me.
We hug and exchange cordialities and she introduces me to the people at her table. Jayne so-and-so from San Francisco something-or-other, Elizabeth (possibly? or Emily?) from I-think-it-was Milwaukee?, and a guy whose name starts with T at a college whose name I forget but I think is somewhere in Toronto. I don’t know, I’m half conscious at the moment. Elaina is loosely holding my elbow and I swear the contact is tingling with sex.
“Can we just go back to my dorm room? I don’t think I’m going to be able to concentrate until we’ve fucked.”
Finally we sit and I play normal. Elaina pulls a seat out for me right next to her.
“So what’s going on?” she asks, and I give her the abridged version of the Recruitment Season: Double Dash update and gently point towards Jaymes for reference. “You could have a worse companion, I’m sure.”
“But it’s not you.”
“What about you, Elaina? What’s going on?”
Elizabeth/Emily butts in at that moment with a knowing look and a blatant throat-clearing that Elaina disapproves of. “Stop!”
For half a second I worry Elaina’s about to tell me she’s engaged. Instead, she rolls her eyes and stares off to the side as she recites, “I was nominated for QAQAC president but I am not counting chickens. It’ll be fine either way.”
I pay her the obligatory “Oh wow!” and a few opportune nods and smiles as she describes the circumstances but really I’m just observing the way that her face has matured and she’s actually more attractive for it and then I remember to throw in the proper amount of “good luck!” as the subject peters out and we both know we’d rather talk about other things.
"And a little birdy told me that you've got some exciting news."
Elaina goes "hmmm?" a few times. I still don't know what she's talking about until she whispers, "Associate Director?"
"Yeah! I'm… overwhelmed." My attempt at diplomatic modesty has instead made me sound like a weenie.
"You'll be fine. You'll be great." she says.
Some intern who's evidently somebody's awkward red-headed nephew comes by and grabs Elaina from the table.
"I've gotta run," she says, "I'm helping at the opening event. I'll see you later!"
And she's gone. So I resign myself to small talk with Elizabeth/Emily, Jayne and T-something.
I enter professional auto-pilot for the rest of the night.
What’s the average class size?
For the first session, I chose to go to the trans-inclusivity conversation instead of the one about overcoming xenophobia because I work at a school that gets gay but doesn't get trans. The session is actually very thoughtful, and provides a glossary of terms and resources. I make a mental note to casually slip my attendance of this panel into conversation with Director for BGLTQ Student Life.
For the second session, I chose to go to the LGBT-friendly school panel because if I went to the one about civil unions / marriage, I'd start to feel bad for myself about being single. Also, Elaina was presenting.
"Hi, I'm Elaina Rodriguez, Associate Director of Admission at Pittsburgh Conservatory and advisor to Spectrum, their Sexual-and-Gender-Minority-interest student organization."
She acts like she didn't expect a smattering of applause at that mention.
"Hi, I'm François Jerome, Assistant Director of LGBT Student Services at Seidner U here in Québéc."
It always catches me off guard when a person interrupts their sentences with phrases in other languages in an unironic accent.
"Hey everyone, Tracy Nevins, Director of Admission at the Broadway Institute, which hardly needs its own Gay Striaght Alliance, HA HA HA HA HA HA!"
The belly laugh pulses down to our toes but no one joins in. I think I'm mildly offended?
"Hello, I'm Deb Kenney from Braemore University, a mid-size women's college in Boston. Oh, I work there as Associate Director. In Admission. Undergrad Admission."
It goes more or less as you'd expect. Elaina, François and Deb keep bringing up interesting points and Tracy prevents us from accessing them with any real depth. For example, Deb talks about how sexual orientation and gender identity are inseparable but distinct concerns, and how a trans student ran for student government president and was in hot water with the school's administration until he eventually withdrew from the college. Interesting, yeah? Tracy, a cis gay guy, puts the whole thing on hold.
"Wait a second. I thought Braemore is an all-girl's school."
"The phrase you're looking for is "women's college"."
"…and a transguy was going there?" He sounds disgusted, having tuned in right at the very end of Deb's account.
"Yes, I just finished talking about him while you were on your phone," Deb says, "but we can connect about it later if you want to hear about it."
Tracy shrugs - he doesn't want to - and goes back to Grindr.
Elaina talks about how Pittsburgh Conservatory was under scrutiny from its students when their application began to ask students to share if they identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual and if they used pronouns other than he/him and she/her. Some felt that it was a breach of privacy. Rather than combat their angst with administrative rhetoric, she sicced her "Spectrum" students on them with an evening of one-act plays, stand-up comedy and poetry addressing why those things mattered. The stunt received mixed reviews, which is a hell of a lot better than the uniformally livid criticism the school would have gotten if the response came directly from the admission office. I admired her chutzpah until the attendees started clapping as she wrapped up her story. She acted all bashful but then squeezed out a, "I have some pictures from the event if you want to see."
Wait a second, is she subtly campaigning?
Tracy pointlessly adds that Tony Kushner once taught a master class at the Broadway Institute.
Then it occurs to me: we're not talking about how we can all help make our schools more LGBT-friendly, we're watching PittsCon, Broadway Institute, Seidner U and Braemore all masturbate to their own successes.
Everyone's applause dies down, and I realize that my hands have been in my pockets.
- = -
For the third session, I go to "Beyond the Binary" so that I can come armed to Mary Ann with requests that will make our application more progressive. This was pretty sparsely attended, and actually had more to do with the programming side of overriding questions about sex and gender, so I was way bored. Everyone else went to the one about whether or not sexual orientation matters in college admission, but I already know that the answer is going to be, "kind of, sometimes, depending on certain circumstances, but you can't make it look like it does".
After that, it's the QAQAC College Fair. I break out my Drama (and its Disciplines)- specific literature which I requested specifically for this fair. Anyone who says that this practice is generalizing is welcome to take a look at our data. What you call “stereotyping”, we call “predictive analytics”.
Tinsel Aviation did not come to QAQAC, but my other usual neighbors are accounted for. Southern Texas Film University sent an androgynous-looking alum with tattoos and piercings poking out of every gap in clothing. Thompson sent Wilfred Jr., an exhausting 26-year-old twink who's so fabulous that his name transcends irony and somehow works for the Provincetown crowd.
Jaymes comes back with the barcode scanner. "It was the same guys at the scanner pick-up who were in Ann Arbor!" It's like he found all three differences in the picture in a Highlights magazine.
"No wonder it took fifteen minutes."
"You're funny!" he says as if it just dawned on him.
The attendees are the friendliest bunch of teenagers you could imagine - and how could they not be? They're a bunch of LGBT youth who are interacting with their LGBT peers for probably the first time ever. That, and they were loaded with carbs, coffee and quacker-kazoos before they came in.
Even I have a hard time getting jaded when a sixteen year old boy saunters by in a ball gown and quacks in my face.
Standing back and watching the kids file through is like a pride parade, but without the egotistical queens. They're just happy to be among people who understand them. I'm on the brink of sentimental when one of them breaks the fourth wall and asks, "How many books are in the library?"
Jaymes and I look at each other.
"Couple million, I bet."
"Really? You don't know exactly how many?"
Aaaaand we're back.
"How good is the dance team?"
"On a scale of 1 to 10? Soooooooo good."
"You should see for yourself on their YouTube channel: Thoreau it Down."
"What's the most popular major?"
"Popular? You mean which major sets all the greatest fashion trends? Which major throws all the best parties? Which major is dating the cutest boy?"
"The most populous programs are Business Studies / Practice and Drama (and its Disciplines)."
"If I have, like, a C-plus average do I have the same odds of getting in as someone with, like, straight A's?"
"Do you hear yourself? What do you think is the answer to that question?"
"The important thing is to have a strong finish to your senior year…"
A redhead girl bounded over our table. Definitely a First-Choicer. She and Jaymes started bantering back and forth about Musical Theatre.
Generalizing is an ugly practice and it is wildly unfair to make assumptions about people based on their physical qualities. That said, every red-head girl ever was interested in Musical Theatre when she was seventeen years old. Every year I read about a dozen essays that go roughly like this:
- My red hair used to make me sad.
- Then my read hair made me feel special!
- Then I auditioned for the musical. I had never been a musical before, so I was scared!
- But then I got the lead role!
- The show was Annie, so my red hair probably helped me get the role!
- This experience helped me learn that I'm born to be onstage!
- Who knows what I'll get up to… "tomorrow" ;-D
Little Orphan Annie asks, “Are there any scholarships for performing arts majors?”
“You’re entitled to the same scholarships as everyone else. There aren’t really any special ones for you. Stop thinking you’re special.”
“Yeah!” chirps Jaymes.
“Well…” sneaks out of me. Jaymes and Little Orphan Annie look at me. Well, now I have to go on. “Performing arts majors can earn all the same scholarships as anyone else. Which are primarily academic.”
“So there aren’t any scholarships based on auditions?”
“Yeah, ten of them for the entire Drama (and its Disciplines) department and they don’t go to actors because they’re a dime a dozen.”
“Yeah!” chirps Jaymes again.
This time I don’t have to say anything; my face betrays me. Little Orphan Annie asks me to explain. The teacher / apprentice dynamic of Jaymes and I is now pretty apparent.
“There’s just very few of them. We don’t usually advertise them.”
Little Orphan Annie looks like Daddy Warbucks just spotted a cuter, more musically-talented orphan and is reviewing Miss Hannigan’s exchange policy.
Jaymes, now realizing his role is to be good cop, adds in, “Look, between my financial aid and merit scholarship packages I basically got a full ride - and I was a B-minus student, so you never know what’s possible!”
Oh boy. I don’t know where to begin with this one. It is not productive for a high-need, artistically talented Black guy who squeeked a merit scholarship in for the wrong reasons to talk about his aid packages to an international White girl - especially because financial aid only goes to domestic students. At best, this pep talk is misleading. At worst, it’s boasting.
“Oh, wow! So you’re pretty liberal about giving merit scholarship!”
I burst out laughing and walk away to score some weed from someone in the parking lot and leave Jaymes in the dust while I blaze with a carful of complete strangers.
I say, “You can’t know until you try!”
Little Orphan Annie smiles, says thanks, has Jaymes scan her bar code and runs off to join her friends.
“How was that?”
“Practically a punishable offense.”
“We should probably workshop the answer to that question.”
“What should I say differently?”
“Let’s talk about it later.”
“No, I want to know for next time.”
“Let’s talk about it later. Just let me handle aid questions for the rest of the fair.”
A few more families come by and Jaymes holds back from them all. He excuses himself to the restroom, goes to the hospitality area to get us water, replenishes the table - all to avoid talking to any more families. As the fair slows down he asks me, again, what he should do differently. I’m acutely aware of the reps from other schools and the potential for us being overheard, but Jaymes is not going to let this go.
“It’s just that your… experience of… how do I put this…”
“… your experience of being both unusually talented and having desirable demographics doesn’t apply to a bunch of White girls-“
“…your experience was pretty exceptional, and given the fact that we are very selective about our merit scholarships… well… it can be difficult to…”
“-you’ve got to learn the difference between inflating their expectations and encouraging them to apply-”
“…adjust applicants’ expectations appropriately…”
“-so when they end up getting rejected they don’t call us, furious that they didn’t get in with a full ride because you suggested they might.”
Jaymes is still hung up on, “Exceptional?”
“Well, yeah. Not too many kids get in with a full ride like you did.”
“But I got a White scholarship with a B-minus GPA.”
I could white lie and tell him that it’s just gotten more selective. I could inflate his ego and tell him that he got it because of his audition. I could kill him with honesty. This is exactly why I wanted to call his merit scholarship something, anything, other than the White Scholarship.
“I have a feeling,” I tell him, as though I don’t know, “that a lot of your scholarship had to do with your being a strong actor from a desirable market.”
Jaymes swallows this. “What, being Black?”
“Being a talented male actor from a state we were trying to build our apps from and-“
“that certainly helps.”
“Wow,” he says. “Wow,” he says again. “I didn’t realize it was so… calculated.”
“Welcome to college admission.”
Why do I feel like I just told a toddler Santa Claus is dead?
Jaymes is withdrawn for the next family, and then a funny thing happens: he jumps back in for the family after that, and they have an uneventful talk about the Dramaturgy emphasis in Drama (and its Disciplines). I’m glad Jaymes is there because last time I talked about Dramaturgy, some sixteen-year-old laughed in my face for mispronouncing it.
What’s the guest policy in the dorms?
Now that I'm Associate Director, I've got two staff reporting directly to me - and with Jaymes glued to my side, I have to check in with the other remotely. Rather than arrive at the Awards Dinner on time, I take the opportunity to call her.
Gina doesn't pick up the first time I call her, but she calls right back. "Hey, sorry, I was in the bathroom."
She was partnered with Yul, who's been at Thoreau for four years. Part of the logic of pairing them is that Gina doesn't usually travel because she supervises our student employees and generally holds down the fort when everybody else is away - and Yul's territory is, very simply, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh which, given our proximity, is more than enough work. So there is a logic, it's just faulty. Sending Gina out of the office means the students are on their own; traveling within Pennsylvania is not the same as not traveling.
"Ummm… it's going fine." She sounds unsure.
"How's traveling with Yul?"
"Great!" comes a little too quickly and emphatically.
"Tell me it's a disaster. Tell me one of you's handing in your two weeks' notice. Tell me both of you are!"
"You were just thrown into traveling all over Pennsylvania with Yul and nothing of note is happening?"
"It only happened once!"
I'm about to ask what "it" is, but then it slaps me in the face. I sometimes take peoples' straightness for granted. Of course the well-mannered, well-groomed Yul would complement the eager-to-please Gina.
"But what about-"
"-they broke up. Last night."
Oh boy. We have a forbidden office romance on our hands. It occurs to me that this is actually an argument against Double Dash on a level I never would have dreamed up.
"What do I do?!" Gina says - it sounds like she's whispering from a bathroom. "No, I'm at my apartment, we're back in Philadelphia for the night."
"Wait, is he-"
"No! No, he's not here. What do I do, Marcy? I'm having an affair!"
"You let it get back to Mary Ann and then point out this never would have happened if you didn't spend hours in a car with a good-looking colleague."
"I don't think it's an affair unless one of you is married…"
"Whatever it is! What do I do? Do I tell HR? Do I keep it a secret? Did you watch The Office? What did Jim and Pam do? I’m trying to read Wikipedia summaries."
"I guess wait and see if it's anything significant and then take it from there. If it's a one-time thing, then maybe you just let it die. If you think it's gonna become a relationship… well… then we should regroup."
She makes me swear not to tell anyone. Then she confesses that when she said "it only happened once", she meant they only had sex once, but they fooled around two times before that. "Is that significant?"
I tell her everything's going to be fine. Then I ask her how Daisy's doing.
"Um, she's kinda cranky lately. Every time I leave for the night she throws up on my pillow."
"That's my girl…"
"Oh, gosh, I'm sorry."
"It's fine, I've just delegated a separate pillowcase for when I leave. But she's getting on fine with my roommate. She kinda fucked up the slipcover on my Ikea couch."
"I'll buy you a new one."
"You don't have to…" she says out of obligation. But I will, I'm not a monster. “By the way, I noticed a spot on her belly…”
“Oh, that’s her scar,” I explain.
Daisy is super interesting-looking. She’s mostly black but with a lot of white features, so she doesn’t look like, like, a Halloween Black cat, you know? Her paws and belly are mostly white, and her face has a bunch of white blotches. Oh, and she has this one weird white spot by her hips.
When she was little she got caught in a box of kitchen stuff and ended up puncturing a spot on her belly with one of the utensils or something. Literally, this was the scariest day of my life. I had to get her stitches and now she has a scar there.
I once tried to make her an outdoor cat, but she wasn’t into it and she started acting differently, so I gave that up. A few months later, she was still acting weird, and it turned out she had somehow gotten pregnant during the one week she was outside. Such a slut. Anyway, she had six kittens (which was an incredible thing to behold) and I got them all adopted by friends and grad students. She still kinda has the like stretched-out-pregnant-belly wobble, but she also might just be getting fat.
Lately she’s been getting little grey hairs at about the same rate I am. I pluck mine. I’m not allowed to pluck hers. She likes hers. I like hers too. I don’t like mine.
“Okay,” Gina whimpers, “I’m pretty tired.”
- = -
Next I call Adewale – not for any officially professional reason, but I consider him one of my best allies at Thoreau. Besides, I want to see how he's getting on with Aina. He picks up after a ring or two.
"Hey - everything all right?"
"Yeah, just wanted to see how you're getting on."
"I'm at dinner with Aina."
("Tell Marcy I say hi!")
"Aina says hi."
("How's she doing?")
"Aina asked how you're doing."
"Tell her I'm good."
"Pretty weird plan, huh."
Oh thank God, he hasn't completely drunk the Kool-Aid.
Our conversation is pretty brief. He tells me he and Aina are making a good team, which makes perfect sense, and I don't think he's just saying so because she's there. He adds that they had a hard time rearranging both of their individual travel plans; rescheduling high school visits is rarely successful and doesn't make Thoreau look awesome. They also sunk a lot of money in flights they had to cancel, and even more in flights they had to book.
"I hope we can all talk about this together in staff meeting in November," he summarizes. The thing I love and hate about Adewale is that he is completely on the same page as me but he's incapable of being anything other than diplomatic about it.
"All right, good night."
("Good night, Marcy!")
"Aina says good night."
"Good night, Aina."
"Marcy says good night."
"Talk to you later."
Are there fraternities?
That night it's time for the Awards Dinner. It occurs to me that the Awards Dinner is when they give two awards, but the main feature is the announcement of the QAQAC board, which is ostensibly an appointment, not an award. Further confirmation, to me, that this is a beauty pageant-style industry and more about status than responsibility.
Elaina invited Jaymes and I to sit at her table. Thankfully he obliged - and he is now the only guy at a table full of lesbians. Somewhere, a straight man is jealous.
My phone buzzes. Why can I not resist?
From: Mary Ann Banister-McCloskey
To: Marcy Brooks
Now that the hyphens are squared away, the morons in print services have taken to butchering the spelling of my last name. Here’s what they dreamt up this time: Mary Ann Bannister-Mccloskey
There are 3 things wrong with this spelling:
1) Banister contains one “n”.
2) McCloskey’s second “C” is capitalized.
3) This is the third time our office has needed to spend $50 to print my business cards.
Can you please try them again? I hate imposing, but you’re the only one who seems to be able to get through to them.
Like, did I really need to see that when there's a bottle of beer in front of me? I put my phone in my purse so I can't feel it buzz again.
Elaina's doing a really good job of acting collected. She's doing that thing where she's having path-of-least-resistance conversations. She started by talking with Elizabeth/Emily about JetBlue points, made her way to someone named Esmé and they're trading Thanksgiving traditions, and then makes small talk with Jaymes and asks him to tell her a little bit about theatre.
"…and I love Beckett even though I don't totally understand all of his plays, I still kind of like the tone, you know? My dream is to make it big as a musical theatre actor and then surprise everyone by taking a dramatic role. Now that I've graduated it's kind of hard to stay in shape - you know, vocally - but now that I'm moving back to Philly I'll be able to pick back up with my coach. Have you heard of Hilda Matilda? Oh, you haven't? She's like the premiere vocal coach in all of Pennsylvania. She's trained… oh, who has she trained…"
Elaina is nodding her head and taking measured sips of her wine. I'm positive that in her head right now she is rehearsing, "I'd like to thank my colleagues at Pittsburgh Conservatory…"
Dinner is fine.
Dessert is fine
Drinks are amazing. Not in quality, necessarily, but in principle.
The Awards Ceremony begins. I've been preparing for this. My trick when it comes to tedious events like this is to try to memorize something. Presently I'm working on the Periodic Table of Elements. I figure one day if I'm on Jeopardy or trying to impress someone at a bar, I wow them by being able to perfectly replicate The Table on a cocktail napkin.
"Welcome to the QAQAC Awards Ceremony everybody! Can I get a quack-quack?"
"Quack-quack!" everyone shouts back.
"Hydrogen. Helium. Lithium. Beryllium. Boron. Carbon. Nitrogen."
We get through the two awards - which includes about three minutes each of vaguely describing that person's work before actually identifying who they are. I think they do this to create suspense. I also think it's stupid because there's only a 2% chance we know who they are. Then there's the acceptance speeches; I've never wanted to hear an orchestra so badly.
I happen to spot Elaina glancing at index cards in her purse mouthing her speech.
Meanwhile I'm just slipping glances at the index cards in my own purse. "Aluminum. Silicon. Phosphorus. Sulfur. Chlorine."
We get through the appointments of the supporting board members: secretary, treasurer, vice president of communication, vice president of events. There's a shuffling of symbolic hats. I glance around me to see if other people are as uninterested as I am. Looks to be a mix.
Elaina has a shallow smile and is taking deep breaths through her nose.
"Oh my god, what comes after iron?"
"Now the moment you've all been waiting for," is a pretty gross assumption. Unsurprisingly the applause starts at the moment Elaina's identity is implied through the description that "next year's President has revolutionized the student experience at her institution of Pittsburgh Conservatory."
"Cobalt!" I say.
I've said it aloud. Fortunately, Jaymes is the only one who heard me, so I wave him off and join the applause. Finally the announcer gets around to saying Elaina's name and she gets up there and gives her acceptance speech. "…I promise to honor QAQAC through careful listening and careful communicating…" and so on.
As she wraps up, she holds the hat to her chest and looks to heaven as she shakes her head in amazement. You'd think she was Sally Field, shouting, "You like me! You really like me!"
And then she's back in her seat and gets kisses from all around the table. Finally she sits down and downs her drink. Elizabeth/Emily goes to refill her glass, and finally Elaina looks right at me.
I give her a thumbs-up and a stupid grin.
And I see her proud smile. Is she wanting to… run a victory lap with me?
And then I feel her foot on mine. Yes. Yes, she is.
Thank God I shaved my legs yesterday.
But I find that I don't think I'd care if I hadn't shaved my legs. That whole sex-pulse thing I used to feel when she touched me is dead. This time around, her toes are toes and I don't really like feet. Marcy of two days ago would kill Marcy of today, because Marcy of today isn't giving Elaina any feedback.
Elaina must have caught on, because after another round of congratulations with a colleague from another table, she's smiling at Jayne-or-whatever instead. The jealous pit in my stomach is noticeably absent.
- = -
I head to the bar to get myself another drink and am politing my way out of conversation with some guy who worked at Thoreau fifteen years ago when someone behind me says "Hey." It’s Jaymes.
The bartender hands him a glass of wine. The lankiest guy I’ve ever seen tries to pull Jaymes away but he waves him off, “I’ll be over in a few minutes.”
“So I hope I didn’t come off as too angry with you about the whole… financial aid, White scholarship thing earlier today.”
He’s looking down at my feet, clearly making an effort to articulate himself carefully.
“No, I get it. I’m sorry if I burst your bubble or something.”
“It’s unfair for me to get mad at you about something like that because it’s not like you represent all things… I don’t know… affirmative action-guilt. Am I making sense?”
He takes a sip of his wine and sits down. Maybe it’s the wine, maybe it’s his earnestness, but something tells me I can level with him.
“Look… you absolutely deserved the scholarship you got. And it’s probably a weird pill to swallow that part of the reason you got it is because of something out of your control.” I take a deep breath and plunge in. “I remember the scholarship committee meeting about you.”
“What happened?” he asks, staring at his wine glass on the counter as he twirls it around and around between is fingers.
“I requested that we establish a separate scholarship for students like you who were, you know, good fits because of their qualifications for the program. Which doesn’t always overlap with a strong GPA, no offense.”
He nods. He gets now that his high school B-minus is not meritorious by our standards. “So, not simply for students of color.”
“Not specifically,” I admit, “but for any student who has needed to overcome adversity.”
“Hm,” he says. “What’s it called?”
“It didn’t take. They weren’t into it.”
His eyes narrow. “That’s bullshit!”
“I fucking know!”
Then he swivels in his chair and looks me in the eye. I feel like I’ve earned his trust back or something. “I want to make that a thing. Can we make a thing?”
“We can try! I think I’ll stand a better chance if I have you backing it up.”
“Why, because I’m Black?”
“No - because you can lay on the guilt.”
“I am a youngest child…”
“Let’s do it,” he says, jumping up. “That’ll be our project.”
I feel the vibration in my beer bottle before I see that he’s clinked his wine glass to it. “Our project,” I repeat. And it feels nice, this feeling of being on a team with someone about something that makes sense to us both.
“All right, I’ll leave you alone,” he says, but somehow without passive-aggression. It makes me feel known.
But I also know him. And I know he wants to hug. Because he’s a theatre guy. So I jump up and open my arms and wave him in for one. He smiles and brings it in, and heads back to the lanky guy.
Shit. It occurs to me that I’m supposed to be sabotaging our partnership. I make a mental note to do that once we’re in Albany.
Elizabeth/Emily appears from nowhere. “Are you going to the cocktail hour? We're going to pregame in Elaina's suite.”
“I’ve just got to get changed!”
“Yeah, into my pajamas.”
I'd better get to Netflix now - I've got a party to skip tonight and a yoga class to skip tomorrow morning.
The thing about: staying in Marriotts too often
The day the concierge tells you you've reached Gold status is as close to coming-of-age as you get in the admission world. Yes, moreso than promotions. This is because your status in your school lives in a vacuum, but Marriott points are for life. Those belong with you. Wars have been waged in many a Human Relations office over those points.
I learned of my Gold status eight years ago in Cleveland. I was so green at the time, I didn't realize that this entitled me to access to a lounge area with crucial snacks and crucialler drinks. If you play your cards right, you could skip restaurants and wait-staff altogether!
But after a while your expectations lower; the more obscure your hotel is, the less likely it is they'll have a lounge like Cleveland's, and the less impressive your perks become. Maybe they give you a bigger bed (which I don't like because I actually dislike having even more emptiness in bed with me). Maybe they give you a coupon for a nearby restaurant (which I also don't like because, as I've said, I hate leaving my room at all). In one hotel my reward was not being charged for opening the Poland Spring bottle in my room (which just makes me mad that I would have been charged for water in the first place).
The pillowcases and sheets are sometimes scratchy. The pillows themselves are huge but give too much, you know, the way cotton candy dissolves. The bedside lamp is harsh. And all of the power outlets are accounted for by the hotel-designated lamp and alarm clock and anyway, they’re out of reach.
But my phone is at 6%.
I get on my hands and knees and go through the painstaking motions of sliding the bedside table out and craning my arm behind it to plug in my phone. It’s unusually difficult to pull out the plug for the alarm clock. It’s unusually difficult to plug the charger in, too. And when I finally push the bedside table back into place, the other end of my charger slips out of my grip and back into the narrow space between the bedside table and the wall.
It’s times like this as I groan aloud to an empty hotel room about my war against inanimate objects when I’m reminded both that I am single and why.
My last girlfriend was an MSW candidate named Addie (for Addison). We were together nearly a year, my longest relationship since undergrad. She came over one night during reading season last year. I’d set aside a few choice college essays to share with her.
“The writing level is below high school… the guidance counselor must have seen this and said, ‘Yes, writing about playing with a dead iguana is great fodder for a college essay’…”
That’s me. Addie, however, clicked around the application and looked at the personal details. “Poor thing,” she said, “he goes to a super underprivileged high school. His guidance counselor probably has a caseload of 600 students and probably doesn’t have the time to review all of her students’ essays.”
“And his parents both work two jobs each according to the family details thing here. No wonder he spends so much time with his pets, he must be so lonely.”
“Okay, but did you read the short essay-?”
Addie shook her head and said, “I just feel so bad for him. Is that why you showed this to me?”
“No,” I wanted to say, “I don’t want your psycho-analysis of them, I don’t need to feel bad for them, I just need you to validate my need to hate on seventeen-year-olds because it is the only thing that gets me through three and a half months of reading forty applications a day.” But you can’t say that to someone who spends her time helping underprivileged teenagers access resources that keep them sober, fed, off the streets, and without child.
My theory is that relationships crumble in the first year when partners can’t agree on where to draw the relationship’s starting line and/or when to cross it. Over and over again I wanted to quantify when the relationship began. Was it when Addie and I were “dating”? Was it when we were “seeing each other”? Was it when we “became exclusive”? Was it when we started calling each other “girlfriends”? Was it some future date when we were supposed to start cohabitating? Was it some hypothetical marriage proposal? Addie asked me to just go with the flow.
Poor Addie. She wanted a lazy river, she got a Super Soaker.
The ghosts of your failings always have access to you when you're in an innocuous room. Over the weeks the walls shift, the color scheme changes, the pamphlets are city-specific, but you're always bunking with the same loneliness sitting on your chest.
I try to put all this out of my mind so I can focus on the mixed blessing that is tomorrow morning: Jaymes and I fly to Albany, NY first thing tomorrow morning, which means he stays in a Marriott, and I get a few nights off from hotels.
I'm staying at my parents'.
4. Albany, NY
Allow me to paint the Brooks family portrait for you:
Mom and Dad met in college when they were both biology majors. Mom went on to medical school and became a gynecologist, Dad is her bookkeeper and was very much a stay-at-home parent to their three daughters, Mindy, me, and Molly.
My older sister Mindy is following in our mother’s footsteps - she’s just gone back into practice after a brief maternity leave. Her husband, Al Thorp (more attractive than his name suggests), is a software engineer but works mostly from home and is primary caretaker of their eighteen-month-old, Allison.
Our younger sister Molly is following Mindy’s footsteps in her own way - she’s been dating Al’s younger brother Nate for the last five years. They’re both in med school and every time she calls (all four times a year) I expect it’s with news of pregnancy and/or proposal.
Basically my family is a giant echo chamber, and I’m a swath of fabric that refuses to echo back. If all goes according to plan, I’ll one day be the last Brooks in a family of Thorps; the weird lesbian aunt with a job no one understands.
Tonight, I'm eating dinner with my parents and Molly (younger sister) who drove in from Rochester when she heard I was coming. I wonder why?
"Sooooo…" she hoots.
"Uh-huh?" Dad says as he puts down a big bowl of penne a la vodka on the lazy Susan and gives it a spin. "Bon appetit!"
"I have some news…"
"You just saved fifteen percent or more on your car insurance."
"Uh-huh!" Dad shouts, and I brace myself for it - not the announcement that Molly's engaged, but the inevitable Dad shout after. Somewhere in there is an "I knew it!"
Mom and I lock eyes. We're certainly excited, we just have a different way of showing it.
Hugs all around, yadda yadda. Mom dishes some penne onto his plate and starts in.
"Lisa!" Dad says, mocking her timing.
"Christopher!" Mom says, mocking his tone.
I help myself too.
"Let's raise a glass," I suggest. The kind of gesture that's more my pace. "To Molly and Nate."
"Here here," Mom says.
"That's not a proper toast," Dad says, "I had one saved just in case! Because I haaaaad a feeeeeeling…!" When Dad's very happy, he drags out her vowels and kind of tweets them.
Dad finds an earmarked and sticky-note-ful book called "Toastmastering" and finds the one he's looking for. "Everyone needs a glass!" he shouts. We all already have one. "Okay, okay. Here it is: A new chapter of your life begins," Mom instinctively grabs his hand because she knows the water works are about to begin. "You're about to begin the journey of a lifetime together. It's not easy for a father to watch his daughter grow up - to see her learn to crawl, then walk, then ride a bike, then drive a car." He snarfs all over his sleeve. "But I can't imagine a better man than Nate to share her life with."
"To Molly and Nate," I repeat. And we drink.
It all makes sense now why she drove all those hours - so she could tell us all at once.
Molly reviews the details of the proposal (they were watching the sunrise from their porch on the morning of their anniversary), the plans they've laid out so far (they'll looking at venues around Albany for August 8th), the people they've told so far (very few, she assures us), and the handful of details they're committed to (Molly's best friend Mia is the maid of honor; Mindy and I are the bridesmaids; Al is the best man; two of Nate's cousins are the groomsmen).
"But I came here to see Marcy," she says, "we've been talking about me this whole time. What's up with you?!"
Mom and Dad swivel to me.
What am I supposed to do, tell them I've been promoted and feel like I'm trying to match an engagement?
"Nothing compared to your engagement, Molly! I want to hear more about that!"
"Well, didn't you tell me on the phone they were going to promote you?" Dad offers. I think he thinks he's being helpful.
"That's awesome!" Molly says. "So what does that make you now?"
"Associate Director," I mumble.
"And what new things will you be doing?"
"Wait," Dad says. "What's the color scheme?"
I stealthily make myself scarce by making myself useful: I refill the glasses and let Molly stay in the spotlight. I honestly prefer it that way; I'd rather hear about good news than my own shit.
Who does our laundry?
I pick Jaymes up from the Albany Marriott bright and early. We've got a full day ahead of us: four high school visits and a college fair.
"Hold on," he says, "could you take a picture of me for my mother? She wants to see my outfit for my first day of recruiting."
It takes a guy with a certain kind of build to pull off a sweater vest. Or a lesbian. With horror I realize that I'm wearing one too. I'd take mine off out of shame if this fashion crime alone weren't evidence enough to dismantle Double Dash.
Look out, Albany, we're fresh from QAQAC and here to bring your children onto our team.
Our first high school visit is delayed as Owen, our harried host, rushes in bemoaning traffic but toting a brand new Dunkin' Donuts iced coffee. Oddly, the name scrawled on the on the side is "Renée". Traffic was bad enough for him to be late, but not bad enough to prevent him from making a pit stop to steal some poor woman's coffee.
"Which school are you from?" he asks me, and I tell him.
"Which school are you from?" he asks Jaymes, and he does as well.
He looks from Jaymes back to me. "Oh, you're together. Is that the Thoreau uniform, or?"
"All jabs at the awkwardness must be submitted in writing to Mary Ann Bannister-McCloskey, that's Mary Ann, no hyphen, Bannister with two N's-"
Owen brings us to a conference room to speak with a trio of prospective students and then makes to return back to his office and leave us alone with them. "Well, one of us can speak with you and the other can stay with the students. That's the point with this whole double-team travel." Does my tone betray how much I hate this idea?
Owen looks back at me, like he's been caught with his hand is in the cookie jar. "I have… a meeting. With a student." It kind of sounds like a question. Or, you know, a lie.
I hate when guidance counselors don't see a problem with college reps coming to only speak with students. I hate it as much as when they don't see a problem with college reps coming to speak only with a guidance counselor. In theory Double Dash would rectify that, but really this problem can only be solved by a cooperative guidance counselor.
"If there's time after my appointment, I'll come back to chat. Safe travels!" And he's gone.
Our second high school visit involves another one of those signs telling visitors to go to the main office. The first student we ask for directions shrugs and mumbles something resembling, "I don't know." After some shuffling of a parking pass and a guest pass and another bug-eyed response to Double Dash, we're in an office with one counselor and one student.
Alexandra, the counselor, looks affronted when we suggest dividing and conquering. "Nnnno, I kind of like to be a part of the conversation."
"That's because you're a good guidance counselor."
Though apparently not, because when Jaymes asks the student what he's interested to study, he says, "Bio-engineering."
Alexandra looks back at her notes and goes, "Ohhhhh. I think I mixed you up with another school."
"I think you did."
School three is slightly more productive than the others. It's the first time we actually successfully divide and conquer: I give a somewhat formal schpiel for a room of eight students.
I first realize something's gone wrong when I notice Jaymes sheepishly appear in the back of the room with the counselor, Jess. I get through the rest of my presentation, field some questions, and the students hurry out when the bell rings.
"Sorry, Marcy - could you field some of Jess's questions? She asked me a bunch of things I didn't know."
"Right, of course. Because no one's offered you a formal training. Did TC think of that before he sent you out with me or did Mary Ann just expect me to train you without any instructions?"
So I rattle off our retention rate, graduate employment, percentage students of color and international, gender ratio, and 6-year graduation rate.
By the way: why, oh why, do schools not calculate their 4-year graduation rate? And why, oh why, do guidance counselors keep asking for it? Don't they know?
Jaymes is taking notes as quickly as he can.
At our fourth and final visit, I tell Jaymes I'll field the guidance counselor questions and let him chat with the students. Naturally, the counselor, Noah, runs off because he also leads Guitar Club, so I tell Jaymes I'll sit back and let him take the lead.
I respect Jaymes' noble effort at recreating my presentation. Here's the thing: when someone, anyone, tries to repeat someone else's presentation complete with word choice, tone and anecdotes, the end result is awkward. A no-nonsense young critic threw him several unforgiving what-does-that-means and that-doesn't-make-any-senses.
"Would you give the man a fucking chance?"
But as painful as it is to watch, I realize that this means that all this pain is necessary if I'm going to leverage Jaymes against the unfair position Mary Ann and TC have put him in.
Jaymes puts his face in his hands when we get back into the car.
It would surely push him over the edge if I were to ignore it and just put the key in the ignition, and while that might be the more strategic thing to do, it's also inhumanly shitty.
"You all right?"
Jaymes takes a deep breath, then sits way back in his seat. "Yeah, fine."
But of course he's not, I'm no idiot.
"I'm sorry," he says, finally.
"You're not the one who needs to feel sorry."
But no, that's not helpful yet. For now, "You have nothing you should feel sorry for," will do.
"I feel like I let you down. I don't know any of the things I'm supposed to, I totally fucked up my presentation… I haven't studied up on the on the school. I've been cocky, I figured I would know everything just because I graduated but…"
"That's not your fault."
"But what would I have done if I were alone? What if they sent me here without you?"
A scary thought indeed.
"I'm going to spend all night reviewing the admission page and reviewing my notes from today so that doesn't happen again."
"You know what you should do," I begin, "is ask for training materials."
"Yeah! I never got any."
"That's because there aren't any."
There's two hours before our 6pm fair, so we stop off for an easy dinner at Panera and work on e-mails. Jaymes composed this e-mail, with some guidance from me.
To: Mary Ann Bannister-McCloskey
From: Jaymes Jerome
CC: Marcy Brooks
Hey Mary Ann-
Marcy and I just finished our first day of high school visits today, and it went all right. I definitely learned a lot, but I definitely have a lot still to learn. I realized that I never got the training packet from you, probably because it's in the office. Can you send it to me as a PDF? What's in it, by the way? Marcy said she wasn't sure because it's been so long, but I kind of want to know what information I need to know that guidance counselors might ask, what the official marketing talking points are and what the expectations are for my presentation. Marcy says that everyone does them differently, but I kind of want to know what's an absolute MUST. I feel like I need to know what I need to know. I know that's a vague request, but I'll feel a lot more prepared if I have something to review.
While he worked on that, I silently worked on my own e-mail to TC.
When is parent weekend?
"We'd be applying from New York, so does that qualify us for some kind of dual citizen-thingy?"
"Despite the fact you're apparently residents of another universe…"
"Nope! Dual citizenship is only usually a concern for applicants from outside the US.”
"What's the best font for my recommendation letters?"
"Wing Dings. Definitely."
"I'd say that's a stylistic choice - but we do recommend text be no smaller than a size 12 font."
"If I earned an award for the school newspaper I write for, is that the kind of thing I should include in my resume?"
"Right next to your ability to humble-brag by asking a question you already know the answer to."
"That's exactly the kind of thing we'd love to see!”
This fair is in a high school gym with tables set up in neat wide rows. It's actually pretty inoffensive as far as fairs at high schools go -- they even have a "reps only" table with snacks, water bottles, and lozenges. Someone here knows what's up! It’s also only 90 minutes long, which is great news because I have never once heard anyone say, “The last half hour of that two-hour high school fair was crucial.” More often they’re glancing shiftily around to watch someone else make the first move to start the Slow Pack.
We're completely outside of alpha order, so when I happen to turn around I see a school I've never seen before called the Fisher School of Mortuary. The rep has the color scheme of the Queen of Hearts: black hair, white skin, red lipstick, gold jewelry. She's actually very pretty and has a very sincere smile. She's not getting a ton of traffic but it doesn't seem to be any fault of her own. When I first saw her I thought, "How inappropriate!" but the more I think about it, the more I realize that when I or anyone I know is gonna get embalmed, I'm going to want someone with a certificate in mortuary science to be the one holding the cotton balls.
The Queen of Hearts smiles politely at me and straightens her pile of business cards - which are arranged lovingly in a tiny coffin on her table - when an overzealous voice behind me half-sings, "I want to know more about your schoooool!"
I turn around. "Dad!? What are you doing here?"
Evidently I left my itinerary out in my bedroom.
"Oh my gosh, is this your Dad?" Jaymes asks.
"Chris Brooks," meets "Jaymes Jerome".
"You look like you could be an actor."
"I am an actor! Did you tell your father all about me?"
And now Marge from Southern Texas Film University has overheard and is coming over.
"Turn your ass around and do not make this worse than it is."
"I remember you telling me that you grew up in Albany!" Marge says.
Why is it that everyone else is so good at remembering personal details about my life and I can't manage to even pretend to give a shit about theirs? Great, and now my father is kissing Marge's hand.
“What school do you work at?” he asks her.
“STFU,” she tells him.
Oh my God. How did I not see it until it was pointed out to me?
"So this is a college fair, huh. How does it work? You all get a commission for each student you recruit?"
Dad's scoping out the situation, surely nostalgic for the good old days of having high school-age daughters. He even asks, “Is your friend Joan here?”
“Joan works in Portland, Oregon,” I remind him, “she’s a college counselor, not an admission counselor.”
Marge, I remember, is a widow, and is currently smiling wider than I've ever seen her.
"College fairs keep me young," she's telling him, "my favorite part is looking at the family resemblance!"
"What do you think of me and Marcy?"
Marge looks from Dad to me, then back to Dad again. "She gets her best features from you."
I walk over to the Queen of Hearts and ask, "Is there somewhere I can sign up to be a volunteer subject for your students?"
- = -
Molly knocks at my door. One-two. Three.
She comes in looking bashful and sounding overly polite. “Hope I’m not disturbing you.”
The more things change the more they stay the same. The relationships I have with my family sits secure on tectonic levels of love and nosiness. We practice wearing this exhausting veil of “adult” behavior, but there’s no changing the fact that this is the little sister who broke my wrist, who came to me sobbing when she shat her pants, who kept my made-up secrets. We retreat into our own lives when we’re apart, but once together, we’re back in our unspoken shorthand.
“What’s going on?” she asks.
I know she’s not asking about the book I’m reading, or what’s going on at work. She knew from dinner last night that there’s something going on behind my eyes, even if it’s not something I can articulate.
“I’m deeply unhappy and I feel like I don’t have control of my life anymore.”
“Nothing, just finishing this chapter.”
She skims the contents of my desk. Not much has changed since the day I left for college. Sure, I’ve come back for holidays and occasions over the years, but I never did that whole post-college-home-coming bit. She grabs the rolling chair and knows to yank it up to pull it past the end of the rug. She sits in the chair and lays her head on the edge of my bed. I withdraw from my book and lie on my side facing her. I’m sure it looks juvenile, but here we are.
“I can’t believe I’m engaged.” She’s not bragging, she’s terrified.
“How do you think I feel?” I’m trying to suggest sarcasm but we both know there’s some real bile in it.
“It all feels so adult. We have a niece who’s walking, I’m gonna get married, you just got promoted to a senior position. All of us are so accomplished.” She grabs my stuffed rabbit and tugs at his tail absently. “I’m so proud of us.”
I’m too tired to feign enthusiasm. After a minute, she readjusts and faces me. “I thought you fell asleep or something.” I sigh. “What’s going on, Marcy? Aren’t you excited about your promotion?”
My sigh answers the question.
“So if you don’t like it, just quit.”
“It’s not that easy. I’m not qualified to do much else, I need the health insurance, and working at Thoreau is better than working at some other school I know nothing about.”
“Also the crippling sense of failure is too much for me to bear.”
“I find it hard to believe you don’t actually like it. You’ve stuck with it for so long! And you’re obviously good at it… how can you be good at something you don’t like?”
“Come to a college fair and find out.”
I’m not saying much to her.
“I’m getting tired,” I lie.
She tosses the stuffed rabbit at me and whispers, “Fuck you.” then she lies down next to me in the bed. “Talk to me.”
There’s not much to say.
“What do you picture your future as? Do you want a new job?”
“I do, but I’m not qualified for anything else. I was an idiot and stuck with the easy job rather than put myself out there and try something new, and now I’m paying the consequences of it and I’m being ungrateful and feeling sorry for myself and it makes me a shitty person to travel with and it’s turning into me literally turning students off of Thoreau which is the whole point of my job-“
“Would you cut it out?” Molly snaps, a little too loudly. She shoves me to prop herself vertical and faces me square. “You’re being really mean to my sister right now.” I realize she’s talking both to and about me. “You’re really good at being critical and calling it like it is with everyone and everything else, but you can’t do that to yourself. It’s unfair.”
I know I’m giving her nothing to work with as I shrug. As much as I can while lying on my shoulder.
“For what it’s worth,” she says, “I’m proud of you.”
“I’m proud of you too, Molly.” And I am. Molly had a rough go of it in high school - always a hard time making friends. She withdrew for a semester from college because of anxiety. Then she pushed through and managed to still graduate on time. Her boyfriends were always vaguely abusive; Dad even had to step in with one of them. But then she met Nate at Mindy’s wedding and it was pretty textbook from there. But throughout it all I know that even as she’s proceeding through a healthy relationship, she’s doing it while putting on a brave face and facing her fears of rejection - and you’d never know it.
For the rest of my time at my parents’ I forget what I’m in Albany for. I’m glad to be Home for a little while instead of in a Marriott. I’m glad my mother still misses that the milk expired and that my father hasn’t taken the hint that I don’t need him to buy three dozen eggs any time I’m home. It’s all a healthy reminder that the world does not begin and end with college admission. There’s more to it.
There’s more to me, too - if I can find it.
Do you get a free computer if you’re accepted?
I'm standing in line at the gate for our flight to Houston with Jaymes behind me when I read the following e-mails.
To: Marcy Brooks
From: Alice Zumbo
Thanks again for attending the Ann Arbor GLACAC fair. We received your feedback form and were surprised to find some quite strongly worded criticisms of the way the fair was run. I wanted to reach out to connect a little further about some of your concerns and suggestions that we are out of touch with college recruiters; I left several voicemails on your office phone but haven’t heard back. Please let me know when you have the chance to take a phone call.
President Elect, GLACAC
- = -
To: Marcy Brooks
From: Joan Chu
Hope the road’s treating you all right. My same old office is the same old. Grass is greener, huh.
Thought you’d appreciate this: one of my students handed this in as a rough draft for her college essay. I’m trying to talk her out of making the argument that her red hair would contribute to a college’s diversity. Figured you could use a laugh.
Archive for later.
- = -
To: Marcy Brooks
From: TC Schenone
Great questions! Boy, you know how to keep me on my toes! I've answered all your questions below, in italics.
> Hey TC -.
> Jaymes and I just finished up our first day of high school visits > together and it raised a lot of questions. I'd be interested in your > input.
> 1) I appreciate that the goal is to have us divide and conquer > so that one of us can speak with guidance counselors and > the other can talk to students. This is a) not always possible, > b) not always welcomed by guidance counselors, c) not > necessary (as evidenced by decades of reps going solo). > You know the reality of high school visits… how do you think > we should actually approach these visits? I've only heard > about your ideas briefly over the phone in our last > conference call, but you haven't sent any directions.
1) I'll get back to you about how we plan to do paired high school visits. That's weird that some counselors aren't welcoming to having two of us there. I bet that's just a fluke.
> 2) Given that Jaymes is brand new, he's not yet comfortable > speaking one-on-one with guidance counselors and I don't > blame him; he's extremely knowledgeable, but has a lot of > gaps in knowledge because he has never been to campus > for a formal training. How shall I utilize him effectively in the > weeks to come? When will he be trained? Who is > responsible for his training? I know we have a method that > we use with new counselors on campus, but with us being > on the road, it looks bad if he's training while simultaneously > trying to make progress in our recruitment, especially given > that this was not my expectation when I planned eight weeks > of travel.
2) Jaymes should shadow you for now. Mary Ann showed me an e-mail that he sent and it sounds like there are a lot of things you haven't gone over with him. For the time being you should train him. Sorry! I know you'll do great :)
> 3) Jaymes has not yet been given a work credit card, but you > have us planning to have him with me in Houston, Raleigh > and Montgomery. Are you planning to arrange his flights and > hotels? I'd book them myself, but as you know, I'm quickly > approaching my card's limit. Also, I'm concerned because I > was able to get reasonable rates on my own flights because > I booked them in June, but we won't be able to get him on > flights at a reasonable rate given that some of these trips are > as soon as Thursday.
3) Another good point. You should get him on your flights, and don't worry about the expense. I never do, when Thoreau's buying! ;)
> Hope you're enjoying Paris .
Paris is great. Jordan and I just got back from the Louvre. did you see my Facebook album? Are we even Facebook friends? Have fun in Albany!
Growing pains necessary to growing strides! :)
Behold the art of fluff. TC managed to reply to every one of my concerns seemingly without understanding a single point, answering a single question, or addressing any real concern. He's checked my arguments off his mental checklist and is probably searching for "absinthe bar" on Yelp at this very moment.
Part of me had hoped that he would have ignored my e-mail and we'd get all the way to the day we're supposed to fly out of Houston before shit hits the fan. Now he's passed the buck and made it look like it's my fault… unless I go over my credit limit. I rattle off a quick e-mail thanking him for permission to go over my limit.
He ignores that one.
5. Houston, TX
“I’m positive it was here,” I tell the concierge.
We’re standing in the Marriott parking lot in Houston. We are in the third row of cars from the front entrance, directly to the right of the anachronistic palm tree. I made a mental note of this location. My rental car was a red Ford Fiesta. There is no red Ford Fiesta in sight.
“It must have been stolen. Do you have a security camera in the parking lot? You have to have a security camera in the parking lot.”
She takes a deep breath. Her Marriott nametag gleams from the reflection of the hung-over sunrise. “I could request the tape, but it takes a while to access.”
I catch her looking around for a red Ford Fiesta somewhere else.
“I already looked,” I tell her.
Because when you’re missing something, you go through several phases. Right now she’s in denial. I’m long past denial. I’m past hyperventilating, I’m past getting angry, I’m past realizing that Thoreau will be the one to foot the bill, and I’ve arrived at doing something about it. All I wanted was to get Panera before my day was wrested out of my grip and handed over to the randomness of recruitment travel. I just wanted an egg and sausage sandwich on an everything bagel and a hazelnut coffee. And I wanted to enjoy it alone and without ceremony.
Somewhere there is a Panera Bread location, and while Panera is not aware of it, it is actually the Marcy Brooks Panera Bread. It is thus designated because its construction and all other costs associated with its establishment are all paid for from the millions of dollars I have pumped into Panera over the years. Sure, the money came from my Thoreau credit card, but it was my lazy judgment that resulted in my eating one and sometimes two meals a day there every recruitment season for the last nine years.
“It was a rental?” she asks. Then she asks for the license plate number.
“I don’t know the fucking plate number, I just told you it was a rental.”
“Usually the plate number is on the key they give you.”
I pass the key to her and she glances at the tag. An eyebrow shoots up. Then she pushes a button on the key ring and the Blue Mazda Protegé in front of us lights up and blips in front of us.
“Red Ford Fiesta?” she asks, pointlessly.
Right. That was my rental in Albany. It occurs to me I shouldn’t be looking for my Albany car when I’m in Houston, Texas.
“I am so sorry,” my tirade begins. She waves it off as if this has happened three times this week. The shade she could throw is so self-evident that it doesn’t need to be audibly implied. “Anything else I can help you with.” There’s no question mark at the end of this question.
“Yeah, you can stoop over just enough so I can smack the hospitality off your face.”
Just then, Jaymes emerges out of the hotel looking uncaffeinated and tender. He spots me right away and asks where I’m headed.
“I was just about to figure out breakfast too! Do you mind if I join you?”
“Yes, I mind. This is my time for me this morning. And part of the reason I need my me-time is because of you and your questions and your naiveté and that look you are giving me right now.”
“Sure. I’ll drive.”
The thing about: e-mails
Here’s my game:
- Drink when a prospective student calls herself a “perspective” student.
- Drink when a guidance counselor asks you to send a “pendant”. I want to wear a pendant that says, “Those little flags with college’s names are called pennants.”
- Drink when a staff member asks you to come participate in an interview with a “potential candidate” for a staff position. “Potential candidate” is an oxymoron; they were a “potential candidate” when they were considering applying for the job, but once they clicked “submit” they became a candidate. They’re a potential employee, but they’re definitely a candidate.
- Any time you’re asked a question for the third time, add your answer to the “Frequent Questions Answered” word document on your desktop. Then, any time you copy and paste your answer from it, drink.
- Go get a shot any time someone doesn’t include the attachment they’ve alluded to.
- Have a sip of water any time the sender’s question is not your job. Forward the e-mail to the right department.
- Drink when TC replies to an e-mail. Drink water when he doesn’t. Reply to your own neglected e-mail, passive aggressively. Drink every time he makes an excuse.
Of course, though, I’m at Starbucks when I play this game, so “drink” refers to coffee and I’m desperately hyped up by the time I finish, and the people around me think I’m suffering from a UTI based on the sheer frequency of my bathroom breaks.
Another thing that senior leadership doesn’t get is that when they send you out on travel recruitment with the aforementioned unrealistic expectation of four high school visits in a day, they also seem to think you’re sitting at your e-mail the whole time. Your inbox reflects several patterns: the steady drip of Gina’s questions, the sputtering splats of TC selecting what he wants to reply to, the occasional geysers when Mary Ann gets a new idea, the jazzy rhythms when Adewale steps in and artfully counters wayward reply-all’s, and always always always the stream of
Can you please let me know when you get Shanaé’s recommendation letter for me?
My daughter applied to your Musical Theater program and I’m wondering when she will receive her audition appointment.
Is it possible for me to apply Early Action for next year? I’m a junior currently.
Save the Date: South Side High School’s 5th annual college fair on December 15th!
Did you receive my SAT score? (No name or identification on this one.)
I can’t find on your website whether or not you have a nursing program.
Can you tell me a little more information about your university? I’m very interested to apply.
Please schedule an appointment for me to meet one of your professors of business.
Are there any-
Dear Ms. Brooks-
Greetings Mrs. Brooks-
To Whom It May Concern-
I’ve made a new rule. Once I’ve used a Starbucks bathroom three times I have to leave. Usually I go to another Starbucks. Sometimes I mix it up and go to Panera instead.
Do you have a school newspaper?
Beard and Belly, the barcode distributors, have haunted me all the way to Houston. The line to pick up has extended across the conference center lobby and is now spiraling inwards. Reps who are just arriving try to figure out a way to get to the back of the line. I’m angry at everyone.
When I finally pick mine up, Belly asks, “Do you know how to use them?”
“I point the light at my eyes, right?”
“Uh… no,” he tells me very matter of fact, “you scan the bar code.”
- = -
I’ve been keeping my eye on a Journalist who is making her way down the row, spending five minutes at each table, filling out her stupid form, and moving on. As I watch, I realize that I’m trying to remember what the eternal punishments are. Is there a finite number or something? I know one of them is counting all the grains of sand on Earth, and one of them is pushing a boulder up a never-ending hill, and one of them is planning a wedding. Whatever the deal is, this Journalist’s partly self-imposed task of drilling every single table with the questions is up there.
She makes her way to us and turns to a fresh blank questionnaire and, without looking up, asks what the name of my college is.
“Thoreau,” I oblige.
“College or university?”
“Do you know the difference? Do you also know that it’s plastered on our materials?”
She jots this down. “How big is the school?”
“Four acres. Just kidding, I don’t know how big an acre is.”
“Four-thousand students and change.”
She jots this down. “What sports do you have?”
“You don’t look like an athlete - why are you asking me about sports?”
Maybe it’s exhaustion or maybe something breaks in me, but I somehow don’t have the patience in that moment to pretend I think this is okay.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
She tosses “Christie” over her paper.
“Christie - where did you get that form?”
“My guidance counselor makes us do it,” she mumbles.
“Okay. Christie, those are all bad questions. You are not getting to know these colleges as you go around asking them these things.”
At this point Christie finally puts down the form to look at me. Jaymes can’t believe his eyes and ears and has not yet formulated a response.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asks.
“Ask us about things that are important to you. And then figure out if it’s the right college for you.”
“That’s what these questions are for.”
I grab the sheet from her and skim the list.
“Do you know what the difference between a college and a university is?”
“Then don’t ask. Do you play sports?”
“Then why does it matter? Do you actually want to join a sorority?”
“Okay, that’s something. ‘What city are you nearest to?’ You should just look at the table banner, asking it out loud is dumb. ‘What’s your graduation rate?’ That’s a bad question for a lot of reasons, but do you really care? ‘What are your most popular majors?’ That’s not actually a question.”
“So you don’t think majors are important?” Christie shoots at me.
“Of course I do! But what do you want to study?”
She shrugs. “Something in science.”
“Great!” I practically shout. “We don’t have any, but now you can at least start by looking for schools with science majors, then you’ll pull up closer to the right school.”
“I would have figured it out with the form.”
“Yes but only after spending precious minutes at each table asking us about…” I look at the form “…how many dining halls are on campus.”
Christie seems to get that this process is tedious but still doesn’t seem to appreciate that I’m trying to do her a favor. She looks around and stomps her feet and groans, “But how do I know who has science?”
“You go up to the table and ask smart questions.”
I look around for someone harmless behind another table. One of the Chads from Tinsel Aviation - hell, no. Someone other than Marge from STFU - not worth the risk. Paul with the scraggly beard is here from Thompson University. He’ll do.
“Try Thompson,” I tell her.
“Do they have science majors?”
“I don’t know!” Honestly, I don’t.
“So why are you telling me to go there?”
Jesus Christ. “So you can find out.”
Christie leaves her form on my table. I’m almost annoyed that she left her crap on my table, but I’m too glad she’s abandoned it. As she makes her way to Alex, Jaymes asks me what I’m doing.
“I’m… counseling,” I make up.
Faintly I hear Paul say, “Yeah, we have a few science majors - biology, biochemistry, chemistry, physics, environmental science, neuroscience and behavior…”
“What’s biochemistry?” Christie asks.
Hey, you know what? That’s not a dumb question. I certainly don’t know.
What advising services does the school have?
Jaymes asks if I can get a drink after the fair.
“If I can? Yes, Jaymes, I can, in fact I must.”
Between sips of wine he tells me, “One of my friends from my BFA class lives in Houston and she invited me to see a show here so I’m meeting up with her when she gets out of her temp job so I had an awkward amount of time to kill.”
I’ve noticed that kids in Musical Theatre programs never identify their program by name, only by title. I wonder why kids who earn their BS in Biology don’t do the same?
It’s freshly October, so I order a pumpkin beer. Jaymes orders, “What she got,” but I can tell he regrets his decision both the second the words come out of his mouth, and the second the beer goes into it.
“So I wanted you to know that I broke up with Robby.”
Fortunately I have the bottle to my lips, otherwise my face would have betrayed me with “Who?”
“You know, the guy I told you about when we were in Ann Arbor. The guy in Detroit.”
The bartender psychically senses Jaymes’ affinity for pretzels and puts a little bowl of pretzels in front of us. Jaymes scoops them by the fistful and sprays salt as he goes on. “I was thinking about what you said, about how I wasn’t placing enough value on what I want, and if I’m being honest, I wanted to be with him for all the wrong reasons. Like it’s not that he’s not nice or that he’s not attractive or anything, but that’s not what mattered. What matters is that he was really emotionally unavailable to me, and anyway I’m traveling all over and when it’s all done I’m moving back to Philly, so it’d never work.”
“You look like you want me to congratulate you on making an obviously beneficial decision. One that I don’t need to know about,” I want to say. But I remember what it feels like to be twenty-two and to still have the fresh smarting of your flesh being burned by love the first time. The groping blindly around for validation, any validation that I was worthy. The steps, the endless steps forward keeping my chin up - every single one of them an effort and an accomplishment.
And who am I to claim I’m far past all of that? After all, it was only two weeks ago I overcame the spell of Elaina’s feet under the table.
So I simply say, “That’s big.”
We sip. We glance at the TV but it’s the first game of the World Series and we didn’t even know Kansas City had a team (and anyway, which Kansas City? Never mind, I don’t care.)
“And I don’t want to say I did it because of what you said but that really helped get me there. Even though…” he scans my face, maybe gauging my mood, before plunging in, “…even though it really actually pissed me off at the time. But you’re kind of the quintessential tough-love-giver.”
“Be careful with the word quintessential, Jaymes - we’re in Texas and you’ll blow our cover in this sports bar you dragged me to.”
He takes out his phone and pulls up a picture of Robby. I’m not sure what he wants, “You’re better-looking than him”? “It must have been so hard to break up with someone with such a great jaw line”? I’m just nodding my head. He pockets his phone and sighs.
“Do you think I should unfriend him on Facebook?”
Adult conversation, you know?
Eventually we get off of Robby or whatever.
“I’m really glad I ended up getting this job,” Jaymes says.
I grab his beer and chuck it on the floor, then grab his collar and make him look me directly in the eyes. “Run,” I say.
“Run,” I say again. “I’ll make up a cover, but you have to get yourself out before you get in too deep! You’re better off trying to make it as an actor in New York. Or going back to Robby. Or working at Whole Foods. Whatever you do just don’t work in Thoreau admission!”
He backs up away from me and off the bar stool with terror in his eyes.
I point to the door at the bar. “Go!”
Jaymes doesn’t break eye contact as he grabs his trendy leather man purse thing, his hat and then finally tucks tail and bolts to the door. I follow him there shouting, “Take care of yourself! Don’t ever look back!”
Jaymes darts from one pool of street light to another and I stand silhouetted in the warm light of the sports bar, hoping to become a distant memory to him. Elsewhere a wolf howls.
Jaymes tilts his head. “You don’t look convinced that I’m glad for the job.”
Where do I begin? “I’m just surprised, is all,” I admit. “I just figured, you know, with you being an actor, this would just get in the way for you know, you know?”
“Well, the way I see it, I’m the only one from my BFA class-“
“-Musical Theatre program-“
“-who’s entitled to health insurance and making a regular income. So I can build up my résumé doing fringe stuff in Philly for a while. Meanwhile… I don’t know… I like making a difference with the Performing Arts applicants! I feel like I’m making a difference by helping them navigate the application process. And, I don’t know, maybe one day I could be a college audition coach, once I know a little more about the process.”
I nod my head and say, “Okay!” but not convincingly enough, it seems.
“Nothing’s ever simply one way with you; you have to qualify everything.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
He puts down the beer and swivels in his chair. “Nothing can be just nice to you, it has to have some like, undesirable consequence too. And with, like, everyone you meet, you have something you want to change about them. No one’s good enough and no idea’s functional enough and no question’s… not-dumb enough.”
“You mean “smart”?”
“Like just now!” a feel a little fleck of spit on my cheek. “You’ve got this look on your face like “you should have said ‘smart’ instead of ‘not-dumb’,” I can tell!”
“Honestly, I think I just have resting-bitch-face.”
“But I’ve heard what you think already about like, every prospective student and every college rep and every guidance counselor.” I can’t argue with him. I know I hold them all to a high standard of my own design. “And, I don’t know. I just get the feeling that you don’t like me either - which would suck - but at least that’s better than the alternative.”
“That you’re really just sad.”
He checks his watch, maybe wanting to end it there and go find his friend.
“Jaymes, it’s not as simple as that…”
“Didn’t you tell me I should break up with Robby because I wasn’t focusing on what I wanted?”
“Are we back on that?”
“No, I’m making a point. You’re in an abusive relationship with your job. I think it’s time you focus on what you want. Because you’re a pain in the ass to deal with the way things are now.”
Now he grabs his bag and hat.
“Sorry if that was harsh,” he says.
“We’ll talk later.”
And he goes.
I stick around a bit longer to kill my beer. At one point I impulsively check my phone. I have three missed calls and four text messages from Gina, but I’m not ready to talk to her yet.
“Why do you only call me after, like, eight?” Adewale asks.
“Because that’s the only time we’re not working,”
“That’s true, actually.” He sighs, then plunges in. “Traveling with Aina is great but it’s a lot. It’d be a lot with really anyone, so it’s not anything personally about her.”
I tell him about my recent heart-to-heart with Jaymes and he’s quiet for a while. “That’s not good.”
“Thank you, I know.”
“You’ve just got to push through it. I know it’s hard, but it’s our job.”
This isn’t the relief I wanted so I pull myself out, white-lying that I just got the messages from Gina.
“Maker’s on the rocks,” I say, and call Gina back.
She doesn’t pick up the first time, so I’m sipping on my whiskey when I hear her crying.
“I don’t know what’s wrong, Marcy, I don’t know if we did something wrong or what but I followed your directions exactly…”
Oh Jesus. Shit with Yul? Or Double Dash? The student staff?
“What’s going on?”
“Daisy’s not doing well. We just left her overnight at the cat hospital.”
“I’ll be on the next plane,” I say, without having even thought it through. But you know what? TC built in my understudy, so I’m going to take advantage of it. Jaymes will be fine on his own recruiting in Raleigh and Montgomery… right?
6. Philadelphia, PA
I put Daisy to sleep, which was eleven kinds of awful. She had developed a tumor on her spine that obviously wasn’t anybody’s fault - but of course Gina blamed herself.
I know I’ve talked about enough gruesome things here, but putting my cat to sleep is a step too far for me to talk about.
During my last year at Thoreau, my parents told me having a cat would make me less mobile in case I wanted to move. And plenty of things seemed desirable: moving, having a girlfriend, traveling around Europe for a while - but having a cat trumped them all. So against all advice, I got her for myself as a graduation gift, and she’s been my companion ever since. I’ve had to find a different cat-sitter each year I traveled, but when you work at a college, there are droves of willing undergrads and colleagues, so you really have your pick of the litter for your pick from the litter.
Gina was my first repeat-sitter. She insisted on meeting me in my apartment when I got back, and was smiling weakly next to a giant swath of lilies when I came in. She’s one of those people who gets it. She knew it’d be too much to come back to a totally empty apartment. I brought lunch and we got tipsy off wine even though it was mid-day on a Sunday.
We talk about everything other than Daisy and the whole thing feels like a blur.
“Yul’s going to apply to jobs at other schools,” she tells me, “he wanted to leave anyway, but it looks like we’re getting serious, but we don’t want to face Thoreau’s HR.” A fair point, a solid plan.
“And you’re going to stick around at Thoreau?”
She nods. “Especially now that I’ve been promoted. I actually really like admission.”
“Why?” I try really hard to make it clear that I’m honestly interested to know.
“I thought I wanted to teach and stuff, but I realized that I actually just care about, like, access to education. And I want to eventually get my masters and you know, do stuff like figure out how to bridge the achievement gap. But if I want to do that, I need to have a few years working in higher ed under my belt. Maybe I’ll bounce around higher ed – get some experience in financial aid or college counseling or academic advising too. I don’t know, I’ll figure it out.”
It strikes me that when she talks about this, she loses the unsure-little-girl act she often puts on and assumes a comfortable-with-uncertainty tone.
“Right on,” I say, “you’re super responsible and motivated. Once you learn to stand up for yourself, you’ll do great.”
“Gee, thanks. I think it kind of helps that I got this promotion. Now I have a little bit more power. Now I can maybe do things, you know?”
We wrap up our little hang out and she picks up that I’m ready to be alone.
I close the door behind her and go straight for my couch and sit still, listening to my Felix the cat clock tick and tick and tick.
I’m alone. For the first time in nearly two months, I felt truly alone. No Jaymes. No college reps. No college applicants. No parents. No cleaning lady knocking on the door.
Felix continues to tick and tick and tick.
Five-thirty. Jaymes must be arriving at the college fair by himself now. I’d covered my bases - Jaymes, Mary Ann and TC all knew that I had come home. TC sent me a hugely insensitive e-mail to tell me to take care of things with Daisy and then meet back with Jaymes in Raleigh when I was ready. Which assumes I’d be ready while he was still in Raleigh and prepared to pick up at that awful place where we left off.
The thing about: coming back to the office
When you get back to the office from being away for a long time, the staff from Operations, Marketing, Financial Aid and all the various and sundry Office Assistants suddenly want to make small talk.
“How was it?” they ask.
“It was travel recruitment again, what do you think?”
“What was your favorite place you visited?” they ask.
“What else is going on?” they ask.
“My cat died, so please fuck off.”
Eventually you can push through them all and get as far as your own office with the blinking red voicemail light, a pile of mail with a one-way ticket to the recycling bin, and a garbage pail with a fresh bag that’s been there since mid-September.
But your desk isn’t what you came for, so you put your purse down, check your hair, and make your way towards the rest of the Undergrad staff offices.
There are more people from other offices to push through, though.
“Vicki got engaged!” they tell you.
“That is surprising to no one.”
“We put up some new art!” they tell you.
“Those are production photos from shows our students put on six years ago.”
“Did you meet the new grad assistant, Sheldon?”
“I never remember the grad assistants and, if all goes to plan, this is the last time I’m going to be seeing you, Sheldon.”
I’m disappointed to see Adewale’s office is empty.
I’m disappointed to see Gina’s office is empty.
But I’m thrilled that TC’s is empty too.
Quickly I glance around to make sure the coast is clear. I’m right by the office kitchen and notice that someone’s sandwich lies half-eaten in the trash. Tuna. Perfect. Carefully, and with a paper towel, I extricate the sandwich from the trash and bring it with me into TC’s office and shut the door.
In the TV show I saw, a furious young woman accomplished this trick by slashing a hole in the bottom of her cheating ex-boyfriend’s mattress and slipping the sandwich in there. I don’t have the luxury of a mattress, but it is one of those ceilings with square panels that easily lift up.
Standing on his desk, I accidentally knock over a picture of TC’s dog. I push the nearest ceiling tile up and am surprised to see that the space is already occupied. I’m unsurprised, however, to see that it’s occupied with tequila and rum. I try a different tile and put the sandwich there.
That should start to rot right around the time he gets back from the Virgin Islands.
I carefully hop down, slip back out of his office unseen, and head to Mary Ann’s.
How many letters of rec should I send?
“I’ve got to give in my two weeks.”
Mary Ann returned that news with one of those searching blank stares. Searching for the social acceptable reaction. Searching for the carefully-worded response. Searching for the quickest way out of the most awkward conversation you can have with a colleague. Or so I thought.
Instead she simply said, “No.”
And then I’m sure I repeated her reaction back to her. “Sorry?”
“No, Marcy. That’s not good for anyone, least of all you.”
I tried my best to vary up my language when I reiterated how unhappy I was in my job, how badly I’d fucked things up with Jaymes, and how poor a fit I am for college admission. There’s only so many ways to thesaurus-ize these things.
She said, “No” again. “You’ve given nine years to Thoreau. That’s about three times as long as the average tenure in this field. You’ve trained some of the best staff who have come through here. I’d list your accomplishments but I know you’d rather die. You are too talented a professional for me to let you throw away your career by resigning without having something else in place.”
“Mary Ann… you see me. You know how unhappy I am here.”
“I’m more savvy with what goes on in this office than you think.”
“Then what the fuck is Double Dash?” I say without thinking.
“What’s Double Dash?”
Oh, right. I explain the nickname.
“Well… you know TC. He’s always looking for an opportunity to insert himself into a position of higher power and lower responsibility. And when I told him I thought the idea was questionable, he went over my head and brought it to the VP.”
“Nooo!” I say in a voice that sounds eerily like someone who gives a shit about office drama.
“Yes, and so I let it go. TC thinks sixty is code for near-retirement but I’m not going anywhere. So I’m going to sit back, watch the idea burn, and then watch TC get bored and move on like he always does.”
Whoa. Mary Ann had the same idea.
“So. Now that you know I haven’t had a complete moment of abstraction, let’s figure this out. I know you’re not long for your job. So. What do we do?”
I assured her there was nothing the office could offer me that I would want. I want out of admission counseling, not a slightly adjusted job description. “But something attracted you to this job in the first place, right?”
“Yeah, health insurance.”
“…other than health insurance,” she added, smirking. “When you think back to all of the things you’ve done here, what have you really enjoyed?”
I must have looked like a disgruntled teenager when I shrugged. To be honest, I was keeping my mouth shut because I knew if I tried to speak my voice would be choked up and that’s uncomfortable for everyone. Mary Ann continued looking at me and through her overly eye-shadowed gaze I realized that she was asking me these questions in earnest. Because she cared for some reason. It was like staring into the sun. She pushed away from her desk and stood up, and bent over to dig through her filing cabinet. While her back was turned, I quickly dabbed at my eyes with my sleeve lest I blow my cover.
“Here.” She passed me a letter on Thoreau College stationary.
To Whom It May Concern;
(I resisted mumbling, “That shouldn’t be a semicolon.”)
I have had the unique pleasure to work with Marcy Brooks in Thoreau College’s Undergraduate Admission office for the last four years. In that time, I have been her supervisor, but she has been my teacher. She is an outspoken advocate for every large and small concern she believes in, and is well-liked by her colleagues and by applicants to the college. On multiple occasions I have received feedback that her candid words with a rejected student have been inspirational and empowering.
I skimmed a bit, not wanting to stew too long in this particular moment. The middle section caught my eye; Mary Ann employed the usual trick guidance counselors do where they include quotes from other school community members.
“Marcy makes us laugh every day in the office. She takes work seriously without taking herself seriously – I love having her in my corner, no matter the issue.”
- Adewale, Senior Assistant Director
“I came into this job a nervous wreck. Marcy taught me everything I know about how to stay firm in a kind way, especially during difficult conversations. I honestly feel like I’m a better admission counselor and a more confident person as a result.”
- Gina, Admission Counselor
“I don’t always agree with Marcy, but unlike every other person I disagree with, she actually takes the time to hear my ideas and thoughts and respond to them in a thoughtful way. I always feel understood by Marcy.”
- Pierce, Admission Marketing
Mary Ann slid her computer monitor towards me. “I wasn’t too sure about Pierce’s quote, so I’m thinking of pulling something out of this e-mail from Jaymes.”
“Would you just forward it to me? I’ll read it later.”
“Sure,” she says – but then she starts reading it: “Marcy helped me figure out who I am and what matters to me-“
“I said I wanted to read it fucking later.”
“-she has totally shaken my foundation of everything I thought about higher education. No one else has caused me to think as critically about how I define success.”
Mary Ann took off her glasses and looked at me. “So clearly you’ve done something right. No one accidentally makes a huge difference in something they completely hate. So think back. Really think critically at what you’ve been doing, the way you’ve helped Jaymes. What about your job has felt right to you?”
What was this, guidance counseling? Am I really going to think about all the ways that I failed as an admission counselor by not engaging enough with NACAC and GLACAC and QAQAC and all that pageantry Elaina’s so good at? Was she expecting me to think about regurgitating information about Thoreau and inadvertently convincing students to go a different college that’s better for them? Am I supposed to sit here and think about training Gina and Jaymes and all the rest and how they’re all on track to find jobs they love?
“Well,” I sighed, “come to think of it, there are a few things I’ve kinda dug.”
7. Portland, OR
The following October
It was a pretty strange feeling sitting across the same desk as Joan a year later. Mostly the same posters hung on the walls. The same hum and clang of students migrating outside the door. Joan hadn’t aged any noticeable amount, and I hope I hadn’t either. I very may well have been wearing the same outfit, I’m ashamed to admit.
There was one significant change this year: we were sitting on opposite sides of the desk.
“That’s interesting, putting the desk over here.”
“Yeah, I wanted to be able look up quickly from my computer when someone walks in, I don’t like being snuck up on.” I hoped I didn’t sound like I was being critical.
“I wish I’d thought of that…” she relented. I like Joan. Joan’s the best.
Last year after our come-to-Jesus meeting, Mary Ann made the suggestion. She knew I liked Portland because I mentioned once that it was gay-friendly and had good food; she figured I might like college counseling because the major thing I liked about my job was advising students and training my direct reports; she noticed that Joan was applying to jobs in admission and knew the job was vulnerable. She’s so thoughtful it almost makes me angry. Two months in and I’ll admit it: I’m loving it. And I’m making several thousand more and while that’s not what matters most, it sure fucking matters.
Not that I needed the validation, but I did feel validated when this popped into my inbox:
From: Mary Smith
To: Marcy Brooks
I just wanted you to know that I’ve split with Seamus. It’s for the best. So while the business cards on my desk are finally the way we ordered them, I’ve decided to lose the stupid “Mary Ann” nickname Seamus liked so much and reassumed my maiden name. We miss you at Thoreau and hope you’re enjoying the other side of the desk— let us know if you’re ever in Philly!
Director of Undergraduate Admission
Smith? After all that, of all names, Smith‽
I have three pictures on my desk – there’s one with my sisters and I at Molly’s wedding, which really was a lot of fun even though I went stag; there’s one of Daisy; and there’s one of the Thoreau crew at my going-away party. Gina and I have our arms together, Mary Ann’s posing with a cake from her family’s bakery, Adewale’s flashing a handsome smile, Jaymes is carefully pointing his chin in the way someone must have told him looks good for headshots or something, and TC’s been cropped out. Incidentally he cropped himself out of the Thoreau picture and got a job as the director of graduate admission somewhere else. I figure he’ll do less damage there.
Jaymes covered Raleigh and Montgomery just fine on his own (after Mary Ann strong-armed TC into giving him an emergency training session over Skype). He and I had the chance to debrief from our spat in Houston after that, which was okay. Then when TC left (which was right before our Early Action decision release, by the way), we had another, more honest and satisfying debrief about Double Dash and about admission in general. Jaymes may be a talker, but he’s also a really good listener as it turns out.
Anyway, Joan was visiting today as her first stop on The Slider Route.
Let me tell you about The Slider Route. Nothing would give me more pleasure:
The Slider Route is my brainchild: Admission counselors fill out an online form, and I assign them one of several “routes” which automatically signs them up for visits with me at Babbling Brook, and my counterparts at Green Street Academy, Trent College Prep, and Wilson High School – all of them high schools within a five-mile radius. Depending on the route, their order will change, but there’s always a lunch break at a sandwich shop (hence “Slider”) between schools 2 and 3. I even hook them up with a 25% off coupon. The Slider Route helps spread out the volume of appointments, admission counselors don’t have to stress about scheduling four individual visits, and it helps with exposure on both sides of the desk. It’s brilliant because it just makes fucking sense.
Principal McMurtry gave me a hard time when I first proposed this, and declined to approve the additional costs associated with new print materials for the increased volume of admission counselors. She was never supportive of the program on grounds that it might overwhelm high school students and cause them to feel stressed about the college admission process.
I had opened with, “The college admission process is stressful, and nothing I or any other guidance counselor does is going to reverse that. And I’m aware that making these maps is an extra cost, but this is a goddamned brilliant plan that’s going to be very popular with admission counselors, believe me, and it’s going to expose our students to a ton of colleges they might not have considered. You can’t have it both ways, Linda, you can either spend a little extra to keep our alumni going to good schools and keep your precious status as principal at a top-ranking high school in American Education Weekly, or you can be frugal and give our students the message that their future matters less than new athletic uniforms.”
She looked at me with fish eyes, evidently asking herself who the hell she had just hired. I don’t think she’s used to being spoken to bluntly.
“Let me see what I can do,” she gulped.
“Thanks! Just doing the job you hired me to do.”
To her credit, this was my first day on the job, and two hours later, the Slider Route was funded. She invited me to her big Christmas party and I politely declined, so we’re at the exact level of friendship I want to be on with her.
“That’s exactly where you want to be with her.” Joan agreed as I passed her her coffee (black, with cinnamon). “At an arm’s length.”
“And tell me, what’s new at STFU?”
Yes, the institution that won Joan Chu was none other than Southern Texas Film University.
“Oh, there’s a new Game Design specialization, some young alum just got hired by Blue Fog-“
“I have no clue, but every time I tell a prospective film student he goes nuts.” Then she lowers her voice, “Oh, and we hired a new agency to handle our print marketing and we had a bunch of prototypes of new materials to try out before travel season. A lot of it got rejected, but I grabbed a little present for you.”
She rummages through her travel case and pulls out a bumper-sticker sized sticker that reads, very simply and very boldly, “STFU”.
“I love you I love you I love you.”
“This is, without a doubt, the best present I’ve ever gotten.”
“You’re welcome. We were this close to distributing these en masse until one of the new staff opened his big mouth and told our director what “STFU” usually stands for. Now he’s trying to change the name of the whole college to “Febres University” after the guy who founded it, so stay tuned if we just become “FU”.
This is probably my only STFU sticker I’ll ever get, so I think carefully of where I could put it. If I put it on my car, I’m sure some leader of a family values coalition will slash my tires; if I put it anywhere visible in my office, I’m sure Principal McMurtry will have something to say about it; if I put it on my forehead, it’ll lose its stick when I shower. Then I spy a wayward ping-pong paddle some other college rep gave me last week. The sticker fits perfectly, and I find a nice convenient spot to place my new “STFU” sign so that I can grab it right next to my keyboard whenever I need. The thought of whipping that out at an opportune moment actually causes my eyes to fill with giggly tears. “Thank you, Joan,” I manage.
“So what’s on the docket today?”
I tell her we’ve got one student signed up to speak with her and I can tell from the way her lips purse just a little that this feels disappointing.
“Okay, but you don’t want to meet seven students who aren’t good for the school. You want to meet the one who’s perfect for it. I invited her personally.”
She perks up at “her”.
“But what about all the seniors in the Film Studies course? Aren’t there supposed to be-“
“-twenty,” I finish for her, “but hardly any of those boys has above a 3.0, except for the ones whose parents will never let them apply to film school, so I’m gonna work them into a larger university where they can change their major sophomore year. You’ll meet Liz and you’ll know why she has to go to STFU: she’s ambitious, she’s got a good head on her shoulder and will hold her own surrounded by boys.”
“All right. I just figured with all your innovative methods of arranging high school visits you’d be getting more students through the door.”
And I get where she’s coming from. I do. When you’re trying to recruit, it can feel like your goal is to meet the highest volume of students and come back to the office with stacks of inquiry cards stretching their rubber bands until they burst. I know, I’ve been there. But not all colleges are necessarily gunning for the valedictorian overachiever; not all students have an interest in Harvard. Everyone wants you to think that college admission is a beauty contest, but I’m of the mind that it’s more like match-making. We all define success in our own terms, even in our adulthood. And, as I see it, matching Liz with STFU rather than getting a roomful of boys in the room with Joan based solely on their shallow action-movie-inspired dreams of filmmaking is a waste of everyone’s time. I’ve got other plans for them.
Liz knocks on the door just then, and introduces herself and makes eye contact with Joan and basically ignores me, which is exactly how I like these meetings to go. I tell students, “This is your process, I’m just a facilitator.” When I first met them, they asked cursory questions like, “What’s your average SAT?” and “What’s the best thing about your school?” Liz asks Joan what makes STFU’s film classes special, and to name some accomplishments of recent alums.
“Blue Fog‽ Seriously‽” Liz practically shouts.
If a shrug could be a glance, that’s what Joan and I exchanged.
“All right, you’re due at Trent in twenty minutes, you should get going soon.”
I know this because the Slider Route is so brilliant. And because the conversation was reaching its natural end, which I knew it would because these visits never need to be more than forty minutes if you do them right.
“Who are you seeing next?” she asks, and I don’t have to look at my calendar because I’ve been anticipating this one for weeks.
“Wipe off that smug look, I’m actually looking forward to catching up with my old tribe.”
“It’ll be interesting,” I say.
I’ve been ready for this one; three students are on their way from their theatre class, and I’ve stocked my snack cabinet with pretzel logs. When he made his appointment, Jaymes told me he has an exciting new development called the Hilda Matilda Scholarship. I think I know where this one’s going.
One of my students knocks on my door. “Ms. Brooks, sorry to interrupt, I’m filling out the rec letter request form and I have a dumb question.”
“Come on in, Dana. There’s no such thing as a dumb question,” I lie.
MJ Halberstadt is a playwright and proud alumnus of Emerson College and Boston University. Full-length plays include i don’t know where we’re going but i promise we’re lost (Boston Teen Acting Troupe), The Launch Prize (Bridge Repertory Theater), not Jenny (Bridge Repertory Theater) and That Time the House Burned Down (Fresh Ink Theatre). He is a playmaker with Bridge Repertory Theater and a proud member of the Dramatists Guild of America, Inc. His work has been acknowledged with honors and invitations from the BCA / CompanyOne PlayLab, Boston University Creative Writing Global Fellowship, Elliott Norton Award for “Outstanding New Script”, and Last Frontier Theatre Conference. That said, his most widely presented script is the 2013 Emerson College On-the-Road Information Session which enjoyed revivals for two years and received such praise as, “very informative”, “actually pretty entertaining”, and “for a presentation about a communications school, I was disappointed that the projector cut out.” He has since resigned from his Muggle job in college admission, and works as affiliated faculty at Emerson College. Learn more at MJHalberstadt.com.