OPINION: Making A Back-to-School List, Checking it Twice

College Admission Office sign (Joy Brown/Shutterstock)

“Is the mattress included?”

I’m lying on the bottom bunk, while visions of inspirational wall quotes and questionably watermelon-flavored incense dance in my head. There’s a string of brightly colored lights to my left and a collegiately campy rah-rah display to my right so compelling it makes me long for a mini-fridge, a compact microwave, and mostly afternoon classes, because, if given the option, I’m relatively sure I’d never wake up before noon, like ever again.

“It feels a little soft,” I say to no one in particular because no one’s really listening. Jon is cross-examining our tour guide (a history major) who’s hopefully well versed on the Spanish Inquisition because, apparently we’ll be reenacting that here today, he has so many questions.

My older daughter rolls her eyes. “You realize you’re not going to college, right Dad?”

I sink into the display model, closing my eyes. It’s one of our first but easily far from our last on The Northeast Circuit (aka The Only Circuit) of higher ed institutions on which we’ll soon be hemorrhaging money we don’t have, and considering those fall deadlines are just around the corner, it doesn’t give me much time to pull off (from the looks of all those zeros) one helluva heist.

“You can bring your own mattress,” the young guide assures me, and while shopping for colleges is a far cry from shopping for a good night’s sleep, the side effects still leave me overwhelmed, gasping at the sticker tag and longing for a nap. So many choices, so little time, so very many vending machines … We can’t seem to escape them and they sell everything, and I mean everything — get your watermelon flavored incense and two-for-one Tampax while they’re hot, kids.

And it’s hot as I will myself off of the bunk and outside to the place where dreams come true: “And here, my friends…you’ll find the quad.”

This naturally seems the ideal location for Jon to continue that rousing Q & A, all to the tune of this somewhat socially-awkward sophomore soon to be asking for a work-study replacement.

I quickly lose myself to a decidedly detailed daydream featuring a 40-something freshman who sheds her fears and inhibitions and a good 40 pounds in the process, rewinding the clock a mere 22 years in the name of reliving glory days she meant to partake in but life kinda got in the way. And then, of course, she starts thinking about all that really awful shit she (like so many) went through in her 20s (and beyond) and suddenly, (even though she’d really like that college bod back), she’s not so much missing the, “Who am I, anyway?” aspect of things or late night studying or books you’re required to buy but never actually crack the binding on or any of the academic part because, does anyone really remember what they learned in Introduction to Finance? (Yes, I know I’ll get flack for this). I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast or why this college ended up on “our” list to begin with or why I shared the list with (of all people) Brinna who took no small pleasure in informing me that list sharing was such a big no-no, (clearly on par with the time I told her I was thinking of putting up a clothesline) because there are rules apparently and I’m breaking them. Sharing the list, not sharing the list, not having enough reach schools, too many reach schools, not having enough state schools, safety schools, too religious, not religious enough, not liberal enough, too liberal, not mattress friendly, too mattress friendly, too expensive, too economy (it’s not a motel) … Everyone, including Brinna, has an opinion, like sharing baby names in the first trimester. Brett Holden will forever be ruined for me.

I become compulsive, driven in my quest to highlight things, create spreadsheets, devoting copious amounts of time to honing the list, all while developing an acute case of stripes.

“You’re turning into a tiger mom,” my daughter says, “and why am I getting texts from all these schools? A bagpipe scholarship? I don’t even play the bagpipes!”

“You have a whole year,” I suggest. “Maybe you could start …”

I stop myself and hopefully another stripe from forming. This takes a lot of restraint and heavy drinking, (like so much of parenthood) on my part. I’ve always loved the bagpipes and really, I just want to help, to support, but mostly to keep her from choosing a school with too many vending machines.

“How can I help? I just want to help,” I say finally, even though it sounds so scripted that I’m sure I read it off a pamphlet somewhere, in the quad, circa the turn of the century, wearing a babydoll dress and pair of Doc Martens (a look I’d personally never care to relive).

She covers my hand with hers and for a split second, I want to burst into tears because I’m thinking, ‘It can’t be.’ It can’t be that 17 years flew by that quickly and it seems like just yesterday she was the size of a compact microwave and just like that, I’m beyond grateful (trigger warning: all the markings of a Hallmark card) that life kinda got in the way.

“If you could just like, get the mattress for me, that would be great.”

Columnist Lesley Kirschner grew up quiet, in the woods, and devoid of siblings so her hobbies quickly became reading, writing, and talking to inanimate objects. She also spent a considerable amount of time doing voice-overs for her dolls and watching too much daytime television–channel 3, sometimes channel 8, if the weather was good and the antenna wasn’t acting up. She was in attendance at school, graduated from a very much not notable college not worth mentioning, and was transplanted to Wilton with her husband, Ambler Farm‘s Farmer Jonathan and their (baby makes) three children almost a decade ago. Although she never quite found her calling in life, other than perhaps the doll voice-overs, which in hindsight were eerily convincing, she’s happy to try her hand at writing and is thankful for the support and community she found on Facebook’s Buy Nothing Wilton. Lesley realizes while this is all very exciting, she’s not winning a Pulitzer so she’ll wrap it up and be quiet. She’s had a lot of practice.