MY DAUGHTER MARCY’S EYES ARE FIXATED ON ME, all her senses attuned to the slightest nuance of emotion. I keep my face carefully composed as I read down the sloppily scrawled draft she’s handed me. Can no one under the age of 20 write legibly anymore? Then again, what’s the point of penmanship when you can communicate on your cell phone by twiddling your thumbs?
I finish reading and start again at the beginning. Marcy isn’t patient. “Well? What do you think?” she demands. I hold up a finger for her to wait. I have a pretty good idea what I think. But I need time to figure out how to tell her without triggering a tsunami of tears. So I reread the words while my mind races to thread a path between too-stark honesty and hollow praise.
“Well?” she asks again.
I feel my lips tighten.
“You hate it,” she says instantly.
“No, no! I don’t hate it.”
“But you don’t like it.”
“I … ”
“Oh God. Oh God. I knew it. I suck. I totally suck. No college is going to take me. None of them are going to take me.” She’s on her feet, flailing her arms, her voice rising hysterically.
“Marcy! Get a grip! There are parts of it I really, really like.”
“But mostly, you hate it.”
This is the soft, puckered underbelly of a generation raised on the high-fructose corn syrup of self-esteem. What a great effort, honey! Wow, you really tried hard! You did your best! But what I hold in my hand is Marcy’s “Short Answer” for her online Common Application for college — “In the space provided below, please briefly elaborate (150 words or fewer) on one of your activities (extracurricular, personal activities, or work experience)” — and frankly, it’s a mess. If Marcy were one of my colleagues at the magazine, I’d get out my red pen and go to town, excise that dangling participle, tidy up that metaphor, shape and nip and tuck until these 150 words or fewer were as sleek and taut as the new Ashlee Simpson. But this is my kid. This is for college. I can’t just fix her Short Answer — can I?
“Don’t be naive,” another mom says grimly when I voice this uncertainty. “Take any edge you’ve got. If you knew someone in Admissions, you’d call them, wouldn’t you?”
“What about those one-on-one SAT prep courses?” a different mom asks. “Five thousand bucks for a guaranteed 300-point gain — wouldn’t you do that if you had the money?”
I don’t know. It seems to me there’s no point in pumping your kid up just to get her in over her head. What if I do buy Marcy an extra 300 SAT points? What if that gets her into Penn, where she’s in classes with kids who scored what she did and didn’t need tutors? How will she feel about herself then — better or worse than if she’d never gotten in?