62: No Second Guessing

62: No Second Guessing

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

No Second Guessing

All my life, whenever it comes time to make a decision, I make it and forget about it.

~Harry S. Truman

I have no doubt you will get in, Kathleen. You’re the strongest candidate from Memphis this year.”

Honestly, I couldn’t believe Mr. Simmons had said it. Without wanting to appear too eager, I smiled. “That’s wonderful to hear. Because if there is one place I want to go to college, it’s Dartmouth.” I meant that, with one hundred percent conviction. Since visiting my older brother at Dartmouth two years earlier, I had had my heart set on going there.

Deep down, I never really believed what Mr. Simmons said—it didn’t matter that he was president of my hometown alumni association, that he had interviewed every local candidate and had seen all of our applications. I wanted to believe him. But I had seen enough of life to know that it’s never over until it’s over. As I drove home, I decided not to put too much stock in those words.

Nonetheless, they haunted me for the next few months. Sometimes, as I retrieved books between classes, I’d catch sight of the Dartmouth wrapping paper that lined my high school locker. I’d catch myself thinking, “I’m going to go there. I am. He said so.” I’d imagine myself walking across the Green or sitting in an English class, like the one I had attended with my older brother. I daydreamed about how I’d decorate my dorm room, and I guessed what my roommate would be like. As I pulled my Dartmouth sweatshirt over my head, I’d see myself wearing it across campus. I knew the thoughts were dangerous, and I’d try to push them away.

And then, one afternoon, as I walked into the kitchen after school, I heard my mother call out from the family room, “You have mail on the island.”

I looked down and spotted the Dartmouth return addresses. It was thin, way too thin.

Hands shaking, I ripped open the letter. No sooner had I read the first clause then I started yelling expletives, which were in no way allowed in my very Southern household. But my mother gave me some leeway that day. She knew what that letter had meant to me, and she had surely anticipated what such a thin envelope signified. In just a few seconds, so much of my hard work, so many of my dreams, so many of my plans seemed to count for nothing.

Mom appeared in the kitchen doorway. She stood there silently, probably wondering what would happen next.

I was crying at this point. “I’ve been waitlisted.” With the letter in hand, I rushed to my room. I picked up my phone and dialed my brother’s dorm. No answer. Next I called the office of the student newspaper. I guessed he was there doing whatever sports editors do each day. But he was gone, and I found myself suffering through an awkward conversation with another student.

“Could you please tell Chris that his sister called?”

The stranger said. “Sure. Did you get your letter today?”

Who was this guy? And why was he asking about something as personal as my letter?

“Just have my brother call me at home? Thanks.” I hung up.

Within twenty minutes, the phone rang. I picked it up.

“Chris?” I asked.

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“I’m waitlisted.”

“No way!” He was as speechless as I had been. Tears were running down my cheeks.

“Kathleen, you should have applied early decision.”

“Chris, that doesn’t matter now. I’ve got to go.”

You should have applied early decision. That’s very easily thought and said in hindsight. But in the fall, as I had completed each application, I wanted to see what would shake out at each school—if I would receive scholarships, be admitted to honors programs, be admitted at all. For whatever reason, back then I was ripe for challenge but not for committing to one place, despite all of the enthusiasm I had for Dartmouth.

After I received my letter, I thought a lot about why I was waitlisted. I knew most of the other candidates from my hometown, and I knew a lot about them: their personalities, their extracurricular involvement, their grades, their special talents, even some of their SAT scores. I knew that on paper, and even in person, I came out ahead of many of them. When I talked with Mr. Simmons, he seemed just as confused as I was, which led me to one conclusion.

I was being considered in light of my brother’s activities at Dartmouth. And admissions officers had reasons not to love him.

My brother had been very active at the The Dartmouth Review, Dartmouth’s only independent newspaper and a highly conservative one at that. During my brother’s years at Dartmouth, the Review had run articles that were highly critical of the college president. The ensuing controversies had put Dartmouth in the national spotlight. Regrettably, it seemed that I might be being punished for that—that someone, somewhere might have feared what a second Whitman would bring to campus.

Although I admired my brother, I certainly was not him. I didn’t care for my brother’s politics and his occasional conservative rants. In fact, I was the one who would one day intern on Capitol Hill for Senator Al Gore. But the admissions officers didn’t know that. Was admitting a lesser candidate simply easier than taking a chance on another Whitman?

On the day that the waitlist was instituted, I received a call.

“Congratulations, Kathleen! Welcome to Dartmouth!”

It was too little, too late. Lots of thinking, coupled with admission to honors programs at other highly regarded and less expensive universities, had diminished Dartmouth in my eyes. I would never know why Dartmouth denied me admission the first time around. But in a few weeks’ time, I had realized that the world and my future extended far beyond Hanover, New Hampshire.

On the night that I decided to attend the University of Virginia instead of Dartmouth, I stood in our darkened kitchen drinking a glass of water. As I drank, I stared out a large picture window towards the moon. My dad walked in and quietly stood beside me. Finally, he broke the silence. “Are you sure that you’re doing the right thing?”

I’ve never interpreted that moment as my father doubting my decision. Instead, I think he was asking because he was afraid I one day might question what I had done.

I lowered my glass. And as I looked out into the night—dark, uncertain, but bathed in a warm glow—I practically whispered, “I’m sure.”

But you never can be sure. And to this day, I occasionally wonder how life would be different had I gone to Dartmouth. Admittedly, I didn’t love my undergraduate years, but that was a tough time in my life. It might have been tough anywhere. I’ll never know if life would have been happier at Dartmouth and somehow better in the years that followed. But why second guess? As lives go, mine’s been a darn good one.

~Kathleen Whitman Plucker

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