The College Essay I Wanted My Son to Write

Our son John has finally decided on a college – University of Massachusetts in Amherst. It was a decision that he agonized over but we are all glad that it has been made.

His college essay – finished before last summer thanks to his amazing AP English teacher Mr. Franchock, who coached them after the exams were over – was about his love for puns. It was drily funny, original and I could hear his unique voice coursing through every word and sentence. It was the essay he wanted to write. It was him.

I had wanted him to write about something else and was not shy about suggesting it to him. While this is water over the dam now, I wanted to share my thoughts, in part because it tells you a little bit about John and in part because I’ll probably never write a college essay again and I’m looking for a flimsy excuse to do one and feel young once more.

If I were John I would have written about his relationship with the trombone, which he has played since the fifth grade. He picked this unwieldy instrument up at a “petting zoo” for instruments at his school, which required all of its students to choose an instrument to play. While his friends gravitated to trumpets and cool saxophones, John – always the divergent thinker – pictured himself bopping his friends on the head with his trombone slide, a vision that was more Moe Howard than Keith Lockhart. I was thrilled because my own dad had played; one of my favorite old photos of him showed him at around age 18, shirtless, in khakis, brown curls tumbling and playing his trombone with a blissful look on his face.

John soon found out that the trombone was not as much fun as the Three Stooges. It was an unforgiving instrument, physically demanding to hold the right way and to generate the right notes, requiring plenty of strength from the arms and lungs. The honeymoon phase quickly ended, and practicing became a chore. Reading notes and learning phrasing and timing were very difficult.

Eventually we thought that the trombone might be a failed experiment; that John might have more fun and fulfillment playing guitar like his siblings did. Many of his classmates who tried certain instruments in grade school found other things they wanted to do as they got older. But we learned that our son, once he makes a decision, sticks by it even when it gets boring and difficult. My dad, who passed away 19 years ago, was the same way.

At times John complained that practicing wasn’t fun, and I found myself using a phrase that I learned from Amy Chua, the infamous “Tiger Mom,” just before she threw her preschoolers out into the snow for not practicing piano:

“Nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”

I was stunned to hear myself say those words because I’ve never been the type to drive my kids hard. But John was so determined to keep at it and I didn’t know what else to say to motivate him. I didn’t want him to be a quitter, but sometimes there is a thin line between giving up too soon and realizing you gave something your best shot but need to move on to something else. I still struggle with this.

So we encouraged him to practice without bludgeoning him; we attended all of his school performances and festivals; we replaced the fifth-grade starter trombone with a better model; we added the jazz station to the favorites on our car radio; we took the family out to listen to trombone god Troy Andrews, AKA “Trombone Shorty,” at the House of Blues in Boston.

A few weeks ago I heard John and his fellow high school jazz band musicians play music at their last Jazz Night concert, and I was blown away (pun intended). Nearly all of his bandmates had stuck with music throughout their middle and high school years and it showed in their effortless joy onstage…joy and confidence that came only after years of hard work. It was the same joy I saw on my dad’s face in that photo from long ago.

I thought long and hard about John’s journey as a musician, as a student and as a young man on the cusp of adulthood and doing more things for himself. And I realized that sometimes great things begin for all the wrong reasons. I chose my college, Penn State, because an old boyfriend kept talking about it. It ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. John’s college decision was more thought-out. He chose UMass because it has the best dorm food (only kidding, but this was a factor.)

John’s trombone career began with a slapstick vision of a funny-looking instrument that could be used for comic intentions, and ended up being a lesson in how commitment can lead to greater confidence and joy. What better lesson can a young person take with him into adulthood?

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