Eschewing Privilege

A highly ethical child

He was an unusually ethical child.  This had become apparent at the tender age of four when he had scolded me mercilessly for leaving him on a swing to attend to his father who had been knocked clean out by a grounder on the softball field abutting the playground.

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“Don’t you know how to take care of children?” he had wailed at me in between his sobs. “You don’t leave them on a swing!” 

I have been thinking of my son during the recent college admission scandal. Not content to take their chances on a system in which they already had the edge, rich white parents had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure their children a spot in their chosen elite college. I, too, had been worried about my high school child's chances in the college lottery. During his entire junior year – the year that college admissions counselors warn you to rack up your best GPA, sign up for diverse extracurriculars, and excel in a sport if you can – he was annoyingly laid back. He was getting reasonably good grades and his long strong strides had made him a natural on the cross-country and track teams. His first round SATs had put him firmly in the running, but his lackadaisical approach to the college application process was driving me to panic. He refused to let me engage him in even the most casual discussion about where he might want to go. Even his college advisor was worried as the boy slacked off that spring at just the wrong time.

As senior year approached, my father stepped into the fray. A Johns Hopkins alumni, he had spent his four college years, four years of medical school, and fifteen years as a medical researcher there. His generosity over the years, he assured me, would guarantee his grandson admission. And he was right. We had driven to Baltimore for the visit and were welcomed by the Director of Alumni Relations who gave us a private tour and took us to The Prime Rib, a classic Baltimore restaurant reminiscent of a 1940s supper club, for lunch. My son was then ushered to the office of the Dean of Admissions for his interview. This interview turned out to be more of a recruitment, and the Dean assured him that, should he apply, he would be admitted. I was elated – and relieved.

"So, what did you think,” I asked him as we drove away, leaving the beautifully restored harbor of Baltimore behind.                                                            Silence.                                                                                                                  “Well...?”                                                                                                                  Nothing.                                                                                                                      “What are you thinking?” I was beginning to feel my blood pressure rise.            “I’m not going to go here. I’m not even going to apply.” His voice was flat.         We were stunned.                                                                                                   “Why not?”                                                                                                         “Because I can go here and I don’t even want to. I have a friend who wants to be a doctor and would give anything to get into Hopkins. And he’s smart and has great grades. But he probably won’t get in because of the competition. I’m not going to take a spot away from someone like him.”

In the end, he applied and was accepted for early decision to Vassar College on the force of his accomplishments and without the benefit of legacy.  Today’s news exposed a shameless set of the already privileged grabbing for even more. I, too, had been willing to profit additionally from favored status. My son was not.

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