65: A Dream on a Postcard

65: A Dream on a Postcard

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

A Dream on a Postcard

The difficulty of life is in the choice.

~George Moore

In April of my senior year in high school, I used an orange, white, and black index card to determine my future. The card felt flimsy in my hand on the night I filled it out. I treated the small rectangular paper unkindly, tossing it from hand to hand, flexing it back and forth until it sprang from my fingers and onto the floor.

I watched it.

“I can’t believe this,” I muttered into the cell phone pressed snugly against my ear.

“What?” my friend Nico responded quickly, his voice a little sharp. We’d been silent for the minutes I’d spent twisting the index card between my fidgeting fingers. It was the type of pause that best friends can withstand comfortably even over the phone.

I wondered if he’d forgotten he was talking to me, absorbed in the TV show he was most likely watching as we spoke.

“I can’t believe this little thing is all it takes,” I said. “I check a box, put it in the mailbox and then I’m going to Princeton.”

I was surprised at myself. In my terror of making a decision I’d refused to utter the phrase “I’m going to Princeton.” Never mind the fact that the day before my acceptance to Princeton I’d run around the house screaming excitedly that I was going to Columbia, the first school I’d been accepted to.

The next day, when I saw the wide white envelope with the Princeton University seal sticking out of the mailbox I felt dread sink like a honey-covered anvil down my throat and into my gut. It’d been a week since I’d gotten into both schools and with the arrival of more acceptances came the horror of decision-making.

“So then you are going there?” Nico said, seizing on my word choice immediately. He is uncommonly quick about certain things.

I sighed, dragging the index card closer with my fingertips. When it was on the carpet right in front of me, I shifted to lie on my stomach with my face right above the paper, propped up by my elbows on either side of the index card.

“I don’t know,” I muttered into the phone.

Nico didn’t answer. We’d talked the college decision thing over so many times that all the words had reached their expiration dates and he knew that sometimes not talking is the only way to make sure you’re not pressuring someone. Still, he stayed on the phone because the sound of a friend breathing is a pretty tremendous form of support. So I lay on my carpet, feeling its fibers imprinting themselves on my legs, examining a Princeton University Admissions Response card and listening to Nico watching TV.

The carpet I was lying on had left its imprints on my thighs countless times. I’d spent hours sitting on the floor instead of at my desk, my notes spread around me like oversized flower petals, puzzling out calculus problem sets. Nico was usually on the phone for those, guiding me toward a right answer.

Other times it was one of my girlfriends on the phone or sitting on the floor with me —Jen L. with her patient nods, Lori with her sarcastic jokes, Jen C. with her excited hand gestures or Angela with her secretive smiles — and we were talking enthusiastically about the guys who’d sort of flirted with us that day.

Much of my North Rockland High School experience not spent in the building itself, or sprinting around on the track behind it, was spent on this carpet doing homework, studying and talking to my friends.

And now, Princeton was sitting on my carpet with me and offering itself up in all its ivy and ivory glory. It should have been so easy to say yes. But it wasn’t. It was choosing between top schools and good schools and realizing just how much money was involved in this, my first real adult decision.

The people around me were acting like I’d already said yes to Princeton. Who, after all, says no? My dad had fallen in love years ago with the idea of his daughter going to Princeton, a school he never even dreamed of back in Haiti, and why on earth would I stand in the way of that? The people at school—my teachers and my friends (with a few notable exceptions) — all seemed to assume upon hearing of my acceptance that the decision had been made the instant I saw the big envelope in the mailbox.

There were little things to consider: Did I really want to go to college in yet another suburb? There were somewhat bigger things to think about: Could I really even handle the work at a top school like that? Princeton felt like an academic dive into the deep end of a pool wherein relief was going to be found way, way over my head.

And then there was the big one: the money issue.

What about my younger sister, Vicky? How were my parents going to send her to a great college in a few years after paying for Princeton? They said it would be fine, that we would all find a way to do it. But saying yes to that felt like being Walter Lee Younger from A Raisin in the Sun, selfishly and blindly assuming that the money available was for my dream and my dream alone. That distribution of savings was clearly what Princeton had in mind if the amount of financial aid they offered my upper middle class family was any indication.

My dream, quite literally, had a price tag and it wasn’t on sale. It was disheartening to see the school I’d worked so hard to possibly attend become a selfish choice.

And yet, everyone seemed to think I was just going to ignore all of that and dive right in. No, I knew I shouldn’t and that I couldn’t.

It felt like a decision had been made when I had that thought and I could already feel the sadness creeping through my veins like shards of glass, chipping away at my insides and inching closer to my heart.

What a missed opportunity this was going to be. A thousand great experiences and dreams cherished throughout high school lost in the simple act of checking “No” on an index card. Then I made my real choice and decided that my first adult decision was going to be to take a risk and do something that pushed me to become better, to earn more money, to study harder and make the opportunity I’d been given worth it for everyone involved, even Vicky.

That thought was all it took.

Ok, no. It took that thought, a blue pen, a checked box, a walk down the stairs, out the front door and across the wet lawn, an opened mailbox, the insertion of an orange, black and white index card, a lifted red mailbox flag and an excited whisper into a cell phone, breaking a long silence.

“I did it,” I said, “I’m going to Princeton.”

~Catherine Mevs

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