52: Fate’s Compass Points South

52: Fate’s Compass Points South

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

Fate’s Compass Points South

A wise man changes his mind, a fool never.

~Spanish Proverb

The sun shone warmly as we loaded luggage into the coach bus for our senior-year orchestra competition in Virginia Beach. I’d worked hard in high school, and my worries were coming to an end, save one looming anxiety—college acceptance letters.

The air was ripe with the fruition of a long college application process. Notification letters would soon start trickling into mailboxes. Everyone knew the deal—a thin letter was bad news. A thick envelope or a packet meant acceptance.

That morning, Mom had dropped me—and my luggage — off at school.

“Do you want me to drive to the high school to say bye before you leave this afternoon?” Mom asked.

“Nah, I’ll be alright.”

“Okay,” she said, disappointed.

“Unless,” I added, “a college letter comes today!”

She smiled.

“But if it’s a little one,” I added nervously, “open it first. I don’t want bad news before our final orchestra competition.”

I looked for my mom while loading my suitcase, but I hadn’t seen her. The orchestra director instructed us to board the bus, and I complied. But a nagging feeling lingered, and I watched the parking lot. As the after school rush ended, I saw Mom’s blue station wagon.

I stood up.

“Where are you going?” the director asked.

“My mom said she’d come if I got a college letter,” I managed to say. “Please? Can I go?”

He smiled. “Sure.”

I’d applied to a handful of colleges, and I’d only visited them once—briefly. I’d take a closer look once I got accepted. Still, I’d grown up in Connecticut and had my heart set on a New England college. Somewhere with rolling hills and old academic buildings that emanated tradition. Growing up in a busy suburb of New York City, I was used to the competitive atmosphere of the North. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else. Of course, I hadn’t been to many other areas of the country, and I realize in retrospect that I had no basis for comparison.

I’d set my heart on a small, private college — smaller than my high school. Looking back, I don’t remember much about why I liked it. I remember large dorm rooms and a cozy little coffee shop that served four-dollar muffins. In my infinite high school wisdom, I’d considered factors like dorm rooms and intramural sports, but not academics or available majors. Still, I set my heart on this one college and wished for acceptance. I made myself a bracelet with the school colors and wore it secretly for good luck.

Mom knew I was setting myself up for disappointment.

“I know your guidance counselor approved of the schools you’ve chosen,” she said, “but I have one more idea. My old high school friend mentioned a college—in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Franklin & Marshall College.”

I scowled. “Pennsylvania?”

“It’s a small college, like the ones we’ve been visiting. It’s known for teaching critical thinking. You’d really enjoy the types of classes they offer.”

“But Pennsylvania?!” I protested. Clearly, Mom had more insight than I, but in my adolescent obstinance, I failed to consider more relevant attributes than location.

“You remember all those vacations we took to Amish country,” she reminded me. “The people are nice, the farmland is beautiful.”

Again, I scowled. Farmland was nice, but it wasn’t the bucolic, rolling New England hills.

“And there’s the snow,” Mom mused.

That was true. I loathed the snow we got in Connecticut.

“Surely it’ll be worse farther North,” Mom said as if reading my mind.

“Okay,” I conceded. “I’ll apply. But no promises.”

I left the charter bus and ran to Mom’s car. “Congratulations!” she said, handing me a large envelope from Franklin & Marshall. It contained an acceptance letter and scholarship notification.

I couldn’t help but smile. Still, during the long drive to Virginia Beach, I wished I’d heard from my first choice college.

When I returned from the trip, Mom and I visited my grandmother in the nursing home. Suffering under the first stages of senile dementia, she remembered our names some days; other days, she didn’t.

“Mama!” Grandma said, indicating my mom. “And Bubey!” she said, giving me a big, wet kiss. She didn’t know our names today, but at least she recognized us.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Nananana!” she sang.

“Mom?” my mother asked. “Do you remember who we are?”

Grandma thought a moment. Then she laughed, embarrassed that she could not.

“Well,” Mom continued patiently, “Your granddaughter Valerie has some good news to tell you.”

Grandma turned to me. “Bubey?” she asked.

I told her that I’d been accepted to Franklin & Marshall. She smiled, and her lips moved, though she did not speak.

“Pennsylvania,” Mom repeated. “Do you remember Pennsylvania? You were born there.”

“Nanana!” Grandma sang again. The rest of the visit went much the same, with mom and me talking while Grandma sang along happily.

But as we turned to leave, Grandma spoke, serious and celebratory, in a moment of lucidity.

“It’s wonderful that Valerie’s going to Franklin & Marshall. I’ll know she’ll do great things there,” she said.

“But I haven’t heard from my top choice yet,” I said, surprised and discouraged. But grandma only answered with more singing. Her lucidity had passed.

A week later, I’d heard from all the schools except my first choice. I was too nervous to check the mail, so I sent my little sister instead. I watched from my top-floor bedroom window as she opened the mailbox and frowned, holding a small envelope. I fought tears.

I was rejected. I tore off my bracelet and decided the universe was unfair. I’d wanted to go to that school more than I’d ever wanted anything in my life. If I wanted something so bad, how could the universe possibly not allow it?

I drove to visit Franklin & Marshall College with grandma’s prophetic conversation replaying in my mind. I mingled with other recently-accepted students. I got along well with a girl from New Jersey — it later turned out we’d be housed in the same hallway, and a year later, we’d choose each other as roommates. When Mom and I stopped at the grocery store to get snacks for the hotel, the clerk looked busy, so I bagged our groceries. Before we left, he turned to us. “Thank you for bagging,” he said.

Our jaws dropped. We’d lived in our hurried Connecticut city so long that we weren’t used to anyone slowing down enough to say “thanks.” I knew then that I would attend F&M.

When I visited my grandmother again, I described the college visit, but she answered only in babbles. Her doctor said she couldn’t understand us. Still, looking at the twinkle in her eye, I suspected she knew more than anyone. Maybe her smile reflected the four wonderful years she knew I’d experience at F&M, or my personal growth, or my future husband from F&M...

An open mind is the best kind to have. Though we like to think we know best, sometimes there are unseen forces which, incomprehensible at the time, are only acting in our best interest. In my case, fate’s compass had pointed south, and I’m glad I followed.

~Val Muller

More stories from our partners