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?

Time to Enjoy the Gifts that Matter

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas Eve with Bob, the kids and the dogs, all under one roof, was the best gift.

Christmas has come and gone, and it was among the most easygoing holidays that I have remembered in recent years, because we did four things differently.

1. Our family, which includes five adult children and one teenager, decided to do a “secret Santa” instead of scrambling to buy gifts for everyone. That meant each of us was on the hook for one or two reasonably priced gifts for just one other person. Most were ordered online. We exchanged these gifts on Christmas Eve, and followed with a festive dinner and British-style “crackers” that dispensed small trinkets and silly paper crowns, which we wore with unabashed gusto.

2. We skipped writing out Christmas cards, sending out e-cards instead. I think I sent one to everybody, but I may have missed someone and if it was you I apologize. Some might call e-cards tacky and lazy, and yet another sign that technology is like General Sherman for thoughtful customs, and they are probably right. But what was interesting is that in years past we would always get a flood of paper cards about a week after we sent out ours. The flood did not happen this year, so now I know who has us on their B list! And that’s perfectly OK.

3. I baked only one batch each of two types of cookies. Neither required rolled dough or intense decorating involving tweezers or piped-on icing. The dough was just plopped onto a baking sheet, and finished result did not look like a holiday catalog from Williams Sonoma. Lightning didn’t strike. And fortunately, we received many fine-looking cookies as gifts from cooks with more patience and steadier hands. We proudly served these to visitors, and I beamed graciously when complimented.

4. We posted only half the photos to Facebook that we’d normally post, after a very candid conversation with our kids about how a focus on capturing the moment prevents us from enjoying the moment. Next year, I hope to post only one photo, or maybe even none. We don’t need Facebook to show ourselves or others that we are having a great time, but I did include two of the photos here.

Christmas is receding as swiftly as a port viewed from a catamaran, and pretty soon it will be a mere speck on our consciousness before it disappears. Like everyone else, we feel that having our children at home with us was the best gift of the season. Keeping the rest simple helped us do this. It was not easy to avoid falling into the trap of frantic, guilty shopping; of writing out scores of cards and baking dozens of elaborate cookies; of over-sharing on Facebook because “that’s what people do” at Christmas. The result is that the good feelings from the past holiday, the pleasure we had from being together, will linger long after the last of the decorations are put away.

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

Having all the kids on one sofa: priceless

Throwing Rosa Parks From the Train

The train conductor resembled how Lee Harvey Oswald might have looked in late middle age: white, wiry, angry-looking. He prowled rather than strolled the aisles as he took our tickets, wearing the wary and ready-to-shoot face of a cop looking for an escaped felon in an abandoned building.

The passenger was also middle-aged, but black, dreadlocked, overweight, and surrounded by nondescript shopping bags. Was she homeless, or just tired and disheveled? It was hard to tell.

I didn’t notice her until the conductor asked for her fare and she produced a bus token. What happened next still haunts me.

This was about a year ago when I was visiting my mom in suburban Philadelphia. I was on the SEPTA commuter train from her home in the leafy community of Jenkintown to its terminus at the Philadelphia airport, where I’d catch a plane home. The train went through some tony neighborhoods and some rough ones: Fern Rock, Wayne Junction, Temple University. The passengers were similarly diverse, and included sedately dressed matrons, people of all colors in casual weekend clothes, couples lugging toddlers in expensive strollers, tough-looking youths with headphones that did not totally drown out their music. All were minding their own business and lost in their own worlds as the train chugged towards its three stops in downtown Philly and to the airport.

I was thinking about going home, and feeling relieved that I had barely remembered to stop at an ATM for cash before I had stepped onto the train; otherwise I would have had no money for my fare. The conductor’s voice behind me woke me from my own reverie.

“Ma’am that token doesn’t work on this train,” he said loudly.

“But it’s a SEPTA token,” the passenger pointed out.

“I’m sorry, the fare is $7.50,” he said bluntly. “The tokens only work on the bus.”

“But I don’t have $7.50!” she replied. “All I have is this token.”

“Well, you will have to get off at the next stop,” Lee Harvey answered.

The passengers looked up from their Philadelphia Inquirers, from their IPhones, from their toddlers, and looked at one another incredulously.

“I’ve got to get to work,” pleaded the passenger with the token. “I’m a nurse and my shift begins at three.”

“I don’t care if your shift begins at three,” the conductor snarled back. “You need to pay the fare or you need to get off the train.”

He walked away from her for a second, and the couple in the seat behind me pulled out some money. The man stretched his arm wordlessly across the aisle, his offering in his outstretched palm. The conductor’s head whipped around and his face became angry.

“We don’t allow panhandlers on this train,” he said to the woman with the shopping bags.

A small vapor of disgust suffused the train, as passengers murmured among themselves, clearly not happy with the conductor’s attitude. The man behind me spoke up, in a respectful tone, to make it clear that he had offered the lady the money unasked. Another passenger, a black man, walked to the front of the train and tried to talk quietly with the conductor before turning around and stalking angrily back to his seat.

“I’ve got to get to my shift,” the lady with the bags kept saying. “I’m a nurse.”

In the front of the train the conductor was brandishing his radio. He contacted the Philadelphia police and asked for them to be waiting for the train at the next station, Wayne Junction. I heard him say that he was putting a passenger off the train.

The train pulled into Wayne Junction before the police. We sat there for several minutes. The passengers fumed silently. Finally, the black man who had tried before to intervene got up again, angrier this time.

“Excuse me sir…don’t you think this is a little excessive?,” he irately asked the conductor, who just shrugged.

We sat there some more, and mingled with my anger at the situation was the very real fear that I would miss my plane if this dragged on. I tried to squelch it and meditate on the thought that I was witnessing an injustice. Or was I? That train traveled through some dangerous neighborhoods, and I am sure that the conductor had dealt with some tough characters before. Maybe Lee Harvey Oswald was really a guy who had simply become jaded from the situations that arose on his train. The passenger could have been a vagrant, maybe somebody he had dealt with before.

Or she maybe she was just a harried nurse who ran out of time to groom herself before she got on the last train that would get her to work on time. Regardless of what she was, I concluded that she deserved the benefit of the doubt, and clearly other passengers did too, or they would not have offered to pay her fare or reacted the way they did.

Nobody said anything more as we waited. Finally three police officers came on board. They spoke gently to the lady who was maybe a nurse or maybe a vagrant. With a sigh she stood up, gathered her bags and walked heavily up the aisle with them, then stepped off the train. I felt the rumbling of wheels as the train began to move and I checked the time, relieved that I would definitely make the plane.

It was only later that I remembered that I almost had boarded the train myself without any cash. How would the conductor have reacted to a well-dressed white woman with an empty wallet? Would he have smiled and given me an address where I could mail a check for the fare when it was convenient? Or would he have put me off the train at Wayne Junction?

I felt angry at myself for not speaking up, for letting this woman get marched away even though others had offered to pay her fare. I was angry for letting thoughts of missing my plane overshadow the outrage that I was witnessing. How many of us chat about social injustice over pinot grigio in our comfortable homes but look the other way when it stares us in the face? How many of us don’t risk speaking out because it might make someone uncomfortable, angry or inconvenienced? On a holiday celebrating history’s most iconic champion of Civil Rights, it’s something worth pondering.