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opinion | Debra Spark

Why do you have to be so accomplished to get into college?

wesley bedrosian for the boston globe

I graduated from Yale in 1984, although I’d never get in today. It occurs to me that I’d also not likely get into Colby College, where I have been a professor for almost 20 years, or Tufts, where I worked as an adjunct for seven years before that. After all, I was just a smart kid. I got good grades and did well, but not extraordinarily, on the SATs. I was the editor of the school literary magazine and wrote for the school newspaper. I didn’t play any sports. I thought of those in need with distress but that was the sum total of my humanitarian efforts. I babysat a little, read a lot. The only thing I really excelled at was having no friends. But being a bright, socially awkward teenager won’t, it seems, get you very far anymore.

Why do you have to be so accomplished to get an education? Isn’t that the point of an education? What is all this achievement supposed to bring a person?

Behind my thoughts is my worry about my 14-year-old son, Aidan. He’s smart, and in the school’s “gifted and talented” program. Recently I was in the supermarket, when a mother, whose son is headed off to the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in the fall, asked me what Aidan was going to be.

“I don’t know,” I said, stumbling some.

“Something creative?” she suggested.

Possibly, he is super-verbal, can read a book astonishingly fast, but he doesn’t like to write like his mother, and though his father is a painter, art doesn’t interest him, though he’s been reprimanded for doodling during class.


Finally, because it felt I needed to offer the mother something more, I said, “He’s still just a kid.”

What does Aidan really like? Well, playing games on his computer and building LEGOs. He just attended a LEGO convention for which he had been building military models all year. He also likes Dr. Who and anything funny.

It’s not that I worry about how Aidan will do in college. I see quite well how he’ll do. This fall, he sat in on one of my creative writing classes and held his own while we discussed Hemingway. I’ve brought him to various events at Colby. He also attended a reading by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret and a talk by NPR reporter Quil Lawrence. Aidan immediately wanted to buddy up with Keret, so he could make absurdist jokes akin to the kind of jokes Keret makes in his own fiction. His hand shot up after Quil Lawrence’s lecture to ask the reporter about his experience reporting in Baghdad and Kabul.


Recently, my son saw a young man with long, blond hair cinched back in a ponytail who works at the hobby shop where Aidan likes to go play games with names like “Warhammer 40K’’ and “Magic: The Gathering.” The man is taking a gap year between high school and community college. For the time being, he’s painting figures for the games that kids play at the hobby shop.

“I want to be like him when I grow up,” Aidan said. This is not my fantasy for him, but what of it? He will grow out of this desire or perhaps fulfill it. Later the same day he tells me he wants to be a helicopter pilot.

I am sure of only one thing: He will be someone who will benefit from a good education. Wouldn’t all young people?

I have a fantasy of sending my teenage self’s accomplishments to the admissions director at Colby and saying, “Here’s the daughter of an old friend of mine. Here are her SAT scores, her grades, and her extra-curriculars. Should I encourage her to apply?”

But why bother? Why not just mail myself a disappointingly thin letter that begins, “I regret to inform you” and then mull over my failures, how I was never the best, best, best, only someone who liked to learn. Where did I expect that to get me?


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Debra Spark is a fiction writer who teaches at Colby College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. Her most recent book is “The Pretty Girl.’’