My psychology teacher was absent from school about a month ago, and a substitute teacher took her place for the day. During reading period, while my classmates chatted amongst each other, completed coursework, or dozed off into space, she interrupted our daily routine with the question that made us all cringe:
"So, where are you all applying to college?"
She began meandering through the rows of desks, pinpointing every individual student, asking everyone what he or she wanted to study, where the best programs were located, et cetera. But by the time she reached my friends and me, we had noticed how she scrutinized every student based on the response they gave her.
One of my best friends with a talent for drawing and painting is looking at art schools. After the substitute had my friend in her crosshairs, asking her where she's sending her applications, she criticized her selection of art institutions. The substitute remarked that one of her sisters has a son who graduated from art school only to land a job behind a deli counter at a supermarket. Great motivation, no?
When she asked me, I gave her the name of a made-up college to test her. Instead of asking me questions to find out more about the "unknown" school, she merely brushed it off, only to move on and interrogate the students who mentioned Harvard, MIT, and Columbia. She didn't care about my future, she just wanted to judge others based on their applications and be privy to their confidential information.
I'm aware that not everyone who poses the dreaded question does so malevolently. However, think of a student's college preferences to your family income. If a stranger came up to you and asked how much you make per year, you would certainly feel uncomfortable. Such information is extremely personal and isn’t something you would want publicized. Plus, whether the person chooses to or not, there's a good chance that he or she is judging you by sorting you into his or her rich, middle class, or lower class schema based on your answer.
The same goes for colleges. Because of our impressions of certain schools and the people who attend them, any response to this question automatically evokes prejudice. People draw unjust conclusions based on where students apply. The Ivy League applicant is overambitious. The state school applicant settles for less (which is certainly not true, seeing as though UMass Amherst has a world-class faculty). I've heard students tell others, "There's no chance he's getting into Princeton" or "Did you hear that Student X is applying to University of Y early decision?" People make assumptions based on what they hear.
And parents are the worst offenders of this. Christmas Dance pre-parties make an applicant's college information seem like a venereal disease. Parents talk amongst themselves about where every student (not just their own kids, but everyone) has been accepted, who's matriculating where, the schools to which people have sent their applications, and where students have gotten letters of rejection. The information keeps spreading, like a malicious rumor, and the students have absolutely no control over who hears what.
The community around us is so fixated on college that we simply can't escape from it. Nobody likes the feeling of being scrutinized, and the fact that others discuss our own personal information without our knowledge is even more unsettling. The instant a student responds to the question of death, the information circulates rapidly in the hostile world of parent and student gossip circles.
Next time you see me around (or any senior, for that matter), let's chat about the capricious New England weather, our plans for 2012, the Patriots, or music. There are so many conversation topics we can carry on aside from a trite, frothy college discussion. It's been rammed down my throat for the past year now. Can't we give it a break? I’m enjoying the heck out of my senior year. Ask me about that.