38: Poor Little Smart Girl

38: Poor Little Smart Girl

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

Poor Little Smart Girl

A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows public opinion.

~Chinese Proverb

“So you’re applying to Harvard? Maybe Yale? Possibly Princeton?”

My guidance counselor barely took her eyes off her computer screen as she asked these questions. The boredom in her voice was obvious and her hand hovered above her mouse as if she was waiting to tick an appropriate box on the screen. I could practically smell the indifference wafting around the room.

“No, actually, I’m not.”

She didn’t miss a beat.

“Columbia? Perhaps Penn?”

“No.”

“Cornell?”

I studied her profile and realized that if I didn’t put an end to it soon, she’d just rattle her way through whatever list was designated the best of the best in that year’s college guides.

“No. I’m applying early decision to Providence College.”

That got her attention. She turned so violently that her short bob swished around her head and she had to brush a few stray locks down from her glasses.

“Excuse me?”

“Providence College. I’m applying early. I’m hoping to be invited to the Liberal Arts Honors Program.”

She raised a slim eyebrow, wordlessly inviting me to go on.

For my part, I didn’t think there was a lot left to say. I was an honors student at a world-renowned international school. I was secretary of the National Honor Society, on the board of the Social Services Club, a member of the Mandarin Honor Society, Captain of the swim team and in my spare time I was a lifeguard within the expatriate community. Combined with the fact that I did all of this while living abroad and managed to get much higher marks on my SAT and ACT than the average student, and I was well aware that on paper I was an ideal candidate for most colleges.

My guidance counselor shuffled some papers on her desk. I could tell she was stalling for time, but since I was just counting down to the bell, I had all the time in the world. After she gathered her wits, she launched into a spiel that I had come to know well. A spiel that I had privately dubbed “You Can Do Better.”

“You Can Do Better” generally started with an educational authority flattering me, telling me that I was a smart young woman and that I could do whatever I wanted to do. Then it moved along into cajoling me, making arguments that usually ended with “You see what I mean, right?” When I didn’t—as I always made a point to do—it moved along into threatening me, telling me that I would regret not attending the very best school that I could get into.

What everyone who pushed this talk onto me forgot to realize was that, as they were so fond of saying, I was a very smart young lady. I knew exactly which was the very best school I could get into, and it was the very best school for me, not the very best school in an annual guide or arbitrary alumni survey. I was also well aware that I didn’t want to go to most of the “major” colleges or universities, I wanted to go to one that was small enough to feel like a home, urban enough to provide an array of activities and dedicated enough to remain committed to undergraduate teaching. After all, if I was going to spend four years somewhere, I wanted someone to know my name. I did not want to be another face in the crowd or, worse yet, in a giant lecture theater.

Grasping at straws, my counselor reminded me that my high school had a long tradition of academic excellence. Alumni were astronauts and internationally known musicians. Students were routinely offered scholarships and internships. I stopped listening midway through because I’d heard it all before. Instead, I watched the leaves of her plants dance in the breeze of the air conditioner. I watched a bead of sweat trickle down the window glass. I counted along with the ticking of the wall clock.

“Do you understand?” my counselor finally implored, holding her palms open above her desk as if by that very act she was opening wide the gates of Heaven.

“You know, I’m a smart girl,” I finally said, and she nodded along. “And I know that a lot of students would love to be in my position right now.”

She continued nodding, her head bobbing up and down so passionately that I wondered if she’d hurt her neck.

“But this,” I spread my hands out across her desk, “this I don’t understand. I know where I want to go, and I know why I want to go there. I have my reasons and they’re good reasons.”

Her nodding faded, then stopped.

“So I guess really I do understand. I just wish everyone else could too.”

I gathered up my backpack and made as grand an exit as I could manage. For days, I arrived home each evening with a knot in my stomach, sure that my parents would have received a letter telling them that not only was I throwing away my future, but that I was being impertinent while I was doing it. That letter never came, but one day that winter a thick envelope from Providence College did. Inside was a letter admitting me to the college. Following that was an invitation to enter the Liberal Arts Honors Program. Following that was notification of an annual academic scholarship.

I never took these things in to my guidance counselor as some other students did. I tucked them into a folder and slid them into my desk drawer. I understood. My parents understood. My first choice college understood.

~Beth Morrissey

More stories from our partners