is the author of "The Playgroup," part of the Gemma Open Door series to promote adult literacy, and teaches creative writing at Bryn Mawr College
I've spent the summer packing up my older daughter for her first year at college and touring prospective schools with my younger daughter, a rising high school senior.
Half-cracked by the stress of Alison's college search, I'm determined to find fun in these road trips with Catherine. She wants to study in or near a city, so we've traveled from our home in the Philadelphia suburbs to Boston, Providence, New York, and D.C., while playing a helpful psychological trick. Though we've mapped our routes and appointments in advance, we tell ourselves we're looking for the best cupcake in town - and, while we're at it, touring a college or two.
In D.C., we're those idiot out-of-towners locals parody, standing in a block-long line for a Georgetown Cupcake. In Boston, we provoke neighborhood pride and adamant advice by posting a Facebook photo taken at Sweet. In New York, savvy students steer us away from the too-touristy cupcakes at Magnolia Bakery to baklava at the Hungarian Pastry Shop. In Providence, we're directed to Duck and Bunny, a lovely tearoom serving up (among other flavors) Mocha, Honey Lavender, and Banana Nutella. Closer to home, we discover Indulgence (and try Chocolate Chip Nymph and Chocolate Chip Pancake) on a familiar Bryn Mawr street. As I write this, we're still searching, but Cat's already found that making this adult decision about college seems less daunting when she's enjoying a freshly baked and frosted symbol of childhood.
During our long journey, we've ruined shoes trekking across campuses in the rain, ridden un-air-conditioned subways during a heat wave, and stayed alert in mind-numbingly similar information sessions by tallying the times the presenter says "internships" or "study abroad." But always, in every city we visit, there's a cupcake to look forward to. And though we've tried to pick these treats apart and pit them against one another - this icing is too sugary, that cake is too dry - the fact is, we scarf them all down and lick our fingers clean. Seriously, who but a fool would pass up a cupcake just because it didn't rank in some critic's top 10?
We know we're lucky to be able to take these college tours, especially at a time when cupcakes dominate the dessert-shop scene. We're fortunate that my work is flexible enough so that I can write on a laptop and teach in short summer sessions between trips. As my firstborn clears out her childhood room, I'm grateful for more time with my youngest - for the chance to get to know who she is, at 17, and who she wants to be.
My deliberately lighthearted approach to the college search is actually the survival strategy of someone who takes the admissions process perhaps too seriously. I worked in college admissions for years, and that field experience has been useful in certain ways, such as directing my daughters' attention away from dazzling details (the multimillion-dollar fitness center) to more mundane matters (student-faculty ratio) that make a qualitative difference in collegiate life. But too much professional information - branding and buzzwords, magazine rankings and "yield" tactics - can make a prospect's parent cynical. While Cat listens for statistics that signal the college's gate might open for her, I'm alert for the rare instances when the tour guide or admissions officer departs from the script.
With two parents who attended and now work at private liberal arts colleges, our daughters know we're invested in this kind of education - belief we've backed up with savings in the bank. But this is Cat's college search. Mostly, I need to get out of her way so she can see herself at the private college or public university, in the gothic or modern landscape, sitting in class (or not) with the enthusiastic students she meets: the cute stand-up comic, the earnest first-generation scholar, the hipster kid who's at home at the hippie school. On tour, I try to keep my own counsel, because the choices I would make for my daughter aren't always easy to distinguish from the choices she must finally make for herself.
With cupcakes, it's clearer: Cat likes chocolate, I like vanilla, and we both like pretty much everything else. And so our carb-fueled journey continues, as the Common Application goes "live" online and the stress increases and I struggle to recall the good advice I gave to other people's children back when I was a gatekeeper: There is no perfect school, but there are plenty of places where you can get an excellent education. On this cupcake (college) tour, I eat my own words while my daughter savors the sweet taste of possibility.