26: Under Pressure

26: Under Pressure

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

Under Pressure

Some mothers are kissing mothers and some are scolding mothers, but it is love just the same, and most mothers kiss and scold together.

~Pearl S. Buck

My mother never read the annual college reports that came out in all the magazines. She didn’t need to. When we came to America ten years before I’d be applying to college, she learned the names of the top ten universities and that was all she needed to know.

Destiny, according to her, lay at one of those tony schools. And the thousands of colleges that didn’t happen to be in the top ten? She hadn’t heard of them, didn’t care to learn their names and, to her, at least, they did not exist.

The names decorating my college applications read like a prep school wish list. At the very top was Stanford. We lived fifteen minutes away from it and my father had once gotten a fellowship to teach there. It was always around and my mother assumed that, naturally, I would want to go. And, more importantly, that I would get in.

Swaddled in maroon sweatshirts from an early age, I wrote with pencils from the Stanford bookstore and rode my bike on the sprawling campus, learning my first tennis chops on the courts beneath its august palm trees. While my mother had a burning desire, I had a burning secret — I didn’t want to go there.

The fights we had on the subject were long, painful and frequent. “I don’t want to go,” I’d yell.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t want to go there.”

“You don’t want to go to Stanford? How can you not want to go to Stanford?”

“I just don’t.”

“That’s not a good reason.”

“I don’t!”

My reasons were many and I couldn’t articulate just one. I thought Stanford was snobby and huge. The campus looked more like a town than a college, with its own lakes, woods, towers, fields and little villages. I wanted something smaller, more intimate. I’d come from a private high school where I knew everyone and everyone knew me. My favorite teachers and I laughed and joked in the halls. I’d been reading up on it and I wanted a liberal arts school.

None of the top ten that my mother had memorized, however, could be called “liberal arts.” She looked at me like the Queen of England staring down a wayward chimney sweep. “Liberal arts?”


“Why liberal arts?”

“I want something...”


“More, well...” I’d learned the buzz word but not what it entailed. “It’s too big!” I blurted finally.

“I think you’ll manage.”

“I hate you!”

“You’re grounded!”

Etc., etc.

All personal preference aside, there was also the nagging, awful worry that I wasn’t good enough to get into Stanford. That, even if I wanted them, they wouldn’t want me back. I played varsity tennis, sure, but my only extracurricular was theater and my numbers didn’t add up to 2400 and 4.0.

The fall of my senior year, my mother decided that I would apply early decision. Staring down at the application made me break out in hives. Early decision meant “I really want to go here, more than anything in the world!” Writing my application, I tried not to look like a total liar. I didn’t want to go there, not for anything, and it seeped into every word I wrote. The day I sent my application off, my mother beamed with pride. I smiled, went upstairs and started my other applications.

Since my mother worked at home, it was hard to get the mail before her. I felt like the bully, trying to intercept the inevitable letter from the principal. I knew what was coming—I knew that my heart hadn’t been in the application and the committee would see it.

One day in December, though, she was out running errands when the mail truck pulled up. The envelope from Stanford was thin, almost famished. I didn’t want to open it — I wanted to take it to brunch and buy it chocolate chip pancakes. I smuggled it upstairs with my heart pounding and ripped the top. They regretted to inform me, it said, that I would not be joining the class of 2006.

“Shouldn’t you be hearing from Stanford yet?” my mother would ask.

“Any day now, I hope.” I tried my best to smile.

“Have you checked the mail?”

“No letter, not yet.”

“Maybe that’s good. They always send the fat envelopes after the skinny ones. It takes them longer to put together that acceptance package.”

I couldn’t take it anymore. One day after school, I put on my best weepy face and walked into her office. “I didn’t get in,” I told her.

“Are you sure?”

“That’s what the letter says.”

She didn’t even ask to see it. At dinner that night, she didn’t seem too sad. I thought the whole storm had blown over. I got into another school, a small, liberal arts program about twenty minutes from Stanford, called Santa Clara University. They gave me a near-full scholarship. I was so excited.

Then, a few months into school, my mom’s mild reaction to Stanford made sense. She dropped the bomb. She didn’t think Santa Clara was good enough for me and she wanted me to start working on my transfer application. To Stanford. It was a nightmare. If my lack of enthusiasm came through on my first application, I knew that it glared obviously from my second. I sent it off. Needless to say, I didn’t get in. Again.

As I followed my passion at Santa Clara, I worried that my mother would never be proud of me, because I didn’t get in to Stanford. We’d spent my teen years warring over it. Her message had been clear—she just didn’t think success was possible anywhere else.

Well, I misunderstood. She wanted me to have the best shot at happiness. She wanted to make absolutely sure that I would succeed in a life that she had worked so hard to give me. All this time, I thought it was about the prestige.

As I was finishing up the school I’d chosen, it finally hit me. It wasn’t about Stanford; it was about a guarantee for my future. All I had to do was show her it was possible no matter where I went.

When I graduated from Santa Clara, four long years after the Great Battle of the Cardinals, my mother was ecstatic. Now she defends good ol’ SCU to all her friends and brags about every single thing I do.

In following my heart, I helped her learn about an awesome school that was never on her list to begin with. Now it’s at the top and she proudly thanks me for it. And success? Yeah, it’s possible outside the top ten box.

~Mary Kolesnikova

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