Kyle, and What I Learned about College Admissions

In the fall of his senior year, Kyle Evans1, one of my top pre-calc students last spring, came to me for advice on his Questbridge scholarship application essay. I was scribbling edits, making comments, emphasizing a strong narrative, when I suddenly realized that the point of his essay was the struggles he’d faced freshman year as a homeless student. And now his family had just abruptly been left homeless again and was living in a single motel room.

Yeah, it was kind of a drag, he told me. Embarrassing. No privacy. Don’t tell anyone. He’d told the school counselor, but didn’t want the news getting about.

He maintained a 4.0 GPA that homeless freshman year, doing homework every night in the library. He ran cross country, although he would occasionally be benched for epileptic seizures. He transferred to our school his sophomore year, missing the first three weeks, which affected his grades and his progress on the math track.

His junior year, Kyle scored a 4 on the AP US History test; he couldn’t afford to take the AP English test and our school ran out of waivers. At this time, Kyle’s overall unweighted GPA is 3.7, weighted 4.2, putting him in the top 9% of the senior class. He took the AP Calculus test, but not the course, and I expect him to pass. He also took AP English Literature (the course and the test).

While his SAT scores were just above average, his ACT score composite was a 25 (super score 26), easily scaling the ACT Benchmarks for college readiness, even though he had no access to test prep courses. He achieved
a “Proficient” ranking in the rigorous California Early Assessment Program tests in both math and English. He received a 630 and 620 on the Chemistry and Math 2c Subject tests; while selection bias makes percentiles useless, any score over 600 denotes strong knowledge—and Kyle didn’t have a calculator for the Math 2c.

To put this in a broader perspective, only 26% of students met all four ACT benchmarks, and Kyle’s ACT scores are in the 85th percentile. Just 14% and 23% of all California juniors who took the EAP met the proficiency standard in math and English, respectively.

What percentage of those students had homes their entire high school careers, I wonder?

For much of his adolescence, Kyle has dreamed of attending an Ivy League university. Given his compelling story, his metrics, and the rhetoric on undermatching, I thought this a reasonable goal. His counselor, who has been incredibly supportive, anticipated that Kyle would have a strong run, with a good number of top 30 schools to choose from.

His results: All the Ivy League schools said no, except Brown. Stanford, Johns Hopkins, and UC San Diego rejected him. In addition to Brown, he was accepted at UCLA, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and UC Santa Barbara.

In no way do I think Kyle is being forced to “settle”; the four schools that accepted him are excellent.

I am, nonetheless, shocked and more than a little angry that so many top-ranked schools rejected him.

You’re thinking I’m overly optimistic, aren’t you? How to put this delicately: a kid can’t just be homeless and poor with high scores and good grades. He needs to be a great athlete in a desired sport, or a fantastic musician. On pure academics, “poor” doesn’t cut it unless the kid is black or Hispanic.

But Kyle is black.

So now consider his numbers again through the prism of race. On the Early Admissions test, 1080 disadvantaged African Americans met California’s EAP Proficiency standard in English; just 162 qualified in math. Five percent of African Americans, regardless of economic status, met the ACT benchmarks for college readiness; in California, just 600 blacks met that standard. Kyle’s composite superscore of 26 puts him in the top 3% of African Americans nationwide–again, of any income. In 2013, 2800 African Americans got a 4 on the AP US History test, while another 800 or so received a 5.

Academically and intellectually, Kyle has perhaps three thousand African American peers his age in the entire country. Culling that number down to economically disadvantaged blacks, he’s one of a few hundred.

I’m not convinced anymore that banning racial preferences solves anything, but the pretense gets tiresome. States can argue about whether to roll back bans, or Justice Scalia can convince his colleagues to declare such racial preferences unconstitutional. It won’t matter. Universities are going to continue to have different standards for blacks and Hispanics than they have for whites and Asians. They have to. There aren’t enough academically exceptional black and Hispanic students to use the same criteria by which Asians and whites are judged.

This year has seen several uplifting stories about exceptional African Americans gaining access to multiple elite colleges. But hundreds of whites and Asians with similar scores and achievements have no chance of getting into even one Ivy league school, or much of a shot at a top public university.

Besides, affirmative action bans only affect elite public universities. Private universities can use whatever standards they like, and they are clearly using different standards for blacks and Hispanics—as they are for legacies, athletes, and anyone whose parent writes them a check for a pile of money.

But the unstated reality always included, I thought, a passionate commitment to helping underprivileged blacks and Hispanics. And it turns out I’m wrong on that point.

Every year, each of the top twenty universities admit between 100 and 200 black students. This year, ten of those twenty schools couldn’t find any room for Kyle.

Some agree with Justice Clarence Thomas about “mismatched” students, that by accepting black or Hispanic students with lower qualifications, elite universities are actually causing academic harm to young men and women who would be better off in a college filled with lower ability students. While other research has called the mismatch theory into question, I think that all colleges are doing harm to many low-skilled students of all races, to say nothing of the value of a college degree, by refusing to demand that all their students demonstrate a baseline ability level.

But Kyle is, as I said, comfortably among the top 15-25% of all US students, regardless of race, and his academic profile demonstrates success in multiple subjects and metrics. I’ve spent a decade or more working with elite high school students who have been accepted to Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the top UC schools, and the occasional Ivy. I’m confident Kyle can perform.

Besides, Kyle’s abilities clearly weren’t a concern. Using the rejecting universities’ Common Data Sets2 , I’ve compiled the percentages of admitted students with section scores from the 60th to 90th percentiles, below 700 on the SAT or 30 on the ACT. Kyle would be in the middle or higher of a population that ranged from 20-60% of the admitted classes of schools that rejected him.

Achievement gap realities being what they are, most of the admitted black and Hispanic students would be in the lower half of that same population. So unless admissions change dramatically, every school that rejected Kyle accepted many black or Hispanic students (and, probably, a number of white athletes and legacies) with scores equivalent or much lower than his.

You could not have convinced me before this discovery that universities weren’t rigorously ensuring that they were accepting blacks and Hispanics by merit. Sure, they might start at a lower metric, but from that point, they took all the kids with the highest scores, right?

Well. Except for athletes.

Harvard has started to take basketball seriously. Stanford has three sports that disproportionately recruit African Americans (men’s basketball, women’s basketball, football). Elite schools would prefer that all their athletes be Richard Shermans and Dave Robinsons, but to field a competitive team, compromises must be made. Asian Americans believe, with a great deal of justification, that their candidates compete against Chinese nationals for a fixed percentage of “Asian” slots. Perhaps elite schools with athletic programs, conscious of how many “low scoring” slots they use up for black athletes, cut down the number of high-achieving non-athlete blacks they admit.

Moving from athletes to alumni, certainly wealthy black graduates should be allowed to buy their kids in just as white alumi have for generations. Then there’s the network connections. For KIPP, there’s scholarship and admissions pledges. Many media-savvy charter networks have extensive communication and development staffs, determined to reach out and forge relationships with top schools to ensure access for their students. Benjamin Banneker High, where Avery Coffey attends, is a selective school with a 99% black student body. Hard not to wonder if a candidate from a school that routinely produces highly motivated, low income African American students receives more consideration than an equally or even more qualified kid from a Title I school in a California suburb.

Not that these universities would ever admit to this sort of favoritism. They’d probably bring up Kyle’s extracurriculars. He only participates in one sport, which is probably more than he should, given his epilepsy. He’s a member of the National Honor Society, which meant he gave selflessly to volunteer his time to the community—Kyle’s efforts on his own behalf don’t count, which strikes me as unfair. Or perhaps they’d bring up his GPA or transcripts—our diverse high school has a much more competitive environment for grades and access to AP classes than a primarily black or Hispanic school. Maybe my recommendation letter was off in some way. Or maybe Kyle’s application essay wasn’t perfect—if I have one huge regret, it’s that I didn’t insist on reviewing his final draft.

None of that should have mattered. Four things about Kyle should have stood out in stark relief: he’s black, he has high test scores, he has excellent grades, and he’s not just economically disadvantaged, but sporadically homeless. In college admissions as outsiders understand it, these facts should have trumped all other considerations.

Universities turned to more subjective metrics as a means of creating an alternative access method for those blacks and Hispanics with lower test scores. They looked for “potential”. Did the candidate get good grades? Was he a good person who participated in the community? Did she take every challenging course she could, whether or not she succeeded, proving her desire to achieve? Now they are using these same “soft metrics” against blacks and Hispanics who actually have high test scores, actual ability.

College admissions is becoming ever more of a game, and universities seem more obsessed with a student’s impact on their endowments, their budgets, their reputations. We are assured that universities just use affirmative action to “level the playing field” but apparently leveling doesn’t entail merit-based admissions process with a different, if lower, objective standard. Instead, universities are using the same process they have for whites: placate the well-connected, find the students that will make the school look good—and then pick whatever smart ones fit in around the edges.

They can get away with this because the media supports their facade of access, acting as little more than cheerleaders. Rarely do I see a reporter acknowledge reality, as David Leonhardt comes close to doing here by describing access as a “patchwork of diversity”. Usually, they don’t look at the quilting too closely.

Instead, they push the narrative with inspirational stories. Any focus on hard-core metrics like test scores is considered….impolite. Acknowledging remedial abilities just interrupts the narrative, raises the politically strained issue of fairness and equal treatment. On that rare occasion when a black or Hispanic actually has competitive numbers, as is the case with Kwasi Enin or ‘Tunde Ahmad, we see several billion versions of the same story as the media leaps gratefully for the opportunity to provide hard metrics that are within range of those a white or Asian would need.

But more common are happy profiles like this LA Times piece on four African American girls from Alliance William & Carol Ouchi High School who are choosing between UCLA and UC San Diego, focusing on their concerns that these elite campuses might be racist. A more rigorously reported story would have revealed that the school’s EAP scores suggest that none of the girls are ready for college-level work, that readiness might be a bigger problem than racism. I’ve been trying to figure out why the Gates Millennium Scholars Program rejected Kyle, but the media is no help, providing only puff pieces short on specifics, often little more than press releases.

Also typical are the sad stories, portrayals of unprepared or struggling students of color who came to an elite university with high hopes only to struggle or completely fail, or stories sounding the alarm about the low rate of black and Hispanic college readiness. This kicks off the usual reproach cycle: Arne Duncan comes in with bromides about higher expectations, conservatives complain about affirmative action and mismatch theory, liberals push public school integration.

Yet no one wants to draw the obvious line from the vague praise of hardworking high-schoolers with no objective metrics to the sad profiles of the unprepared college students, much less the general concerns about readiness. So all of these stories exist in their own separate universes.

Rarely seen are profiles of economically disadvantaged blacks and Hispanics who meet the ACT benchmarks or score over 2000 on the SAT, or who score a 4 or a 5 on an AP test other than Spanish Language. In a much-discussed profile of an unprepared black student at Berkeley, just a paragraph was given over to his friend Spencer Simpson, who was clearly thriving. As I mentioned, I can find no rigorous reporting on the Gates Millennium Scholarship program, providing hard data on the winners, asking for SAT averages and perhaps a query or two about their demographic and geographic distribution, so that kids like Kyle can know if it’s worth their time to apply.

When Harvard brags that they’ve admitted more blacks than ever, reporters should be there asking what the average black SAT score was, or if their focus on basketball players has reduced opportunities for higher-achieving low income black students. When schools discuss their efforts to enroll more under-represented minorities, reporters should be there asking if high-scoring members of this population are being overlooked in favor of black or Hispanic legacies or athletes, or if their KIPP pledges led them to reject equally or higher qualified minority students lacking the charter’s promotion machine. When Kwasi Enin held a press conference to announce his selection of Yale, at least one reporter should ask Kwasi what schools accepted the 10 kids who were ranked ahead of him in high school.

I understand the reluctance to reveal just how few high academic achievers are found among students of color. But the media’s determination to focus on race first, objective metrics never, is allowing universities to do the same.

If there were more focus on high achieving students of color throughout their high school years, the ones with high test scores instead of just high GPAs, these young men and women would not only receive well-deserved publicity, but the universities would be served notice. The harsh truth is this: Kyle was rejected from all those schools because all those schools knew no one was watching.

Yes, I’m cynical. More than ever, I now know that the rhetoric we get from colleges, from the media, even from well-meaning high schools offering encouragement, is not much more than propaganda, unrelated to the gritty reality of building a media-approved freshman class that still keeps all the necessary connections well-oiled and satisfied.

But as the title says, this essay’s also about Kyle.

He’s a great kid–funny, quirky, chatty, upbeat. He was surprised and chagrined at his results, but not bitter. He committed to Brown, which had always been one of his top choices, and got a great financial package. His parents, who found an affordable apartment by the new year, have now sent all of their five sons to college, despite their financial struggles, and are relocating to Atlanta after driving Kyle to his future.

Kyle triumphed over economic insecurity to achieve academic success and acceptance to an Ivy League school, with the help of his loving family and a high school that gave him a good education and a supportive environment. But his success is due most of all to his development of great natural abilities and his determination in the face of considerable adversity—and no doubt, his positively chirpy good-spirited view of life.

So while I struggle with my own disillusionment about the college admissions process that seems not only opportunistic but very nearly corrupt, I still smile every time I remember that Kyle achieved his goal.

1 This is his real name.

2CDS Links: Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Cornell, Dartmouth, Stanford, UC San Diego, Johns Hopkins


My son is moving to Seattle

I’m glad he told me first. He might have avoided it, might have told Oma and Gerry (his grandmother and stepgranddad), Gramps, then his dad and then hoped desperately that one of them would “accidentally” break the news and spare him the difficulty of telling me. I wouldn’t have been insulted; one of the truly unlooked for miracles in my life is that my son and I are so close I don’t need pride of place. Whenever I’d been the last to learn bad news, he’d avoided telling me because he feared my disappointment. If he’d done something wrong, easier to tell his dad or Oma and get manageable doses of disapproval from them, then work up to me. If he had a problem or needed advice, no matter how sensitive, he’d tell me first. That’s me, in a nutshell. Bug: moralizing pain in the ass. Feature: useful for problems and advice. This news wasn’t a problem, wasn’t a wrongdoing. So what to do? And he told me first.

Well, actually, he told his boss first. My boss, dammit. I got him the job, three years ago. Started him on the teaching jobs that paid for the last three years of his five years at college and a reasonable amount of self-sufficiency on top of that. (His father and I covered insurance and cell phones, respectively, until this year.) Our boss wanted him to work in late August, so my son had to tell him the news and swear him to secrecy.

But then he told me. We were at our sushi bar. We’ve had a sushi spot since he was three, from the little privately owned place in Redwood City, through two different sushi boat places, an idea that he adored in early adolescence, to our current spot near my apartment. He sat down, and broke the news, one quick rip.

His girlfriend’s boss had just been transferred back to the home office, and she’s an invaluable administrator. She would be getting a raise and moving expenses to relocate. He was excited; he has wanted to live somewhere else for years. Now that he’d graduated, it was the perfect time. He would welcome any advice.

He is 25. Next year, he will be half my age. At 25, I was pregnant and had been married for two years and working as an applications programmer. Hard to argue he was too young. I didn’t want to. I was proud. In a world where 18 to 25 year olds are living at home and unemployed, he was well on the right side of the spectrum.

I remember thinking, as he told me the news, that I wouldn’t be sleeping for a few days. Plenty of time to come unglued. He wanted advice.

He wants to go into sales. He likes teaching, but is worried it won’t pay enough over time. In this economy, I worry that he should go for the certainty of his teaching skills. But shouldn’t he follow his dreams, give it a shot? Hadn’t I worked to ensure that he would have choices? His plan seems sound, and that night I told him to set a reasonable timeframe on looking for sales positions. I also said, for easily the 50th time, that he’d been a low impact college expense and I was more than happy to help fund ed school. He agreed that a timeframe is a good idea, and assured me he wouldn’t let expenses stop him from moving into teaching. I could see his mixture of anticipation and anxiety. He does not intend to be his practical girlfriend’s expensive luxury.

Meanwhile, some small part of my brain was howling, but it was still far away.

I cleared my throat. “So, I should probably meet the girlfriend one more time before you leave. You do understand, I hope, that you shouldn’t be moving with her unless you’re serious, right?”

“Right. And we should go out to dinner. You’ve only met her once.”

“Well, you always hide your girlfriends from me, which is sensible. Let Oma charm them. And let me say again how grateful I am that you spared me the trauma of being nice to a radical feminist.”

“She was rebound, after Jill. No reason to start an international incident for little more than a fling.”

Another miracle: he has stable relationships that bring him happiness. This, he did not get from me. While his father is married for the third time, three of his four major relationships, married or not, were well over a decade each. I was by a considerable amount the shortest and most traumatic of those relationships, while he was by a compelling distance the longest of mine. My son has had three long-term girlfriends, two of whom broke off with him reluctantly, each time after two years, because they weren’t ready to settle down. This one is, and they likely will marry at some point.

Which leads me to grandkids. I look forward to them. I wanted them to be local. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, came back to California, my grandparents were in Pennsylvania. I was always a visitor. My son grew up 10 minutes from his grandmother and step-grandfather, who he adores and is adored by—he’s actually lived with them for the past three years, until he moved in with his current girlfriend. I do not want to be a visitor, nor do I want to be visited. His girlfriend’s family is in Seattle. I will be an interloper. That night, I told myself not to borrow trouble. I now repeat to myself daily that my father, in Missouri, is nonetheless my son’s beloved and trusted adviser.

“If you have kids—and you should have kids—I’ll be so far away.”

“I’m hoping we’ll have kids before I’m 30. And if we do, you should move up. I don’t want you to be far away.”

I remember sitting there, looking at him negotiate his salmon roll with chopsticks. I taught him that. I taught him a lot. I have a little lead crystal bear that he gave me for his last high school Christmas. He told me I had a “real present” coming, but this was his prize for winning the school-wide AP Government President’s Trivia Bowl. He beat out everyone, including the valedictorian, with information he’d gotten not from school, but from countless car conversations in which I expounded on history, books, movies, food, and politics. Winning question: how many presidents had been impeached? Only he knew both. I told him he’d given me my “real present”, thanks.

The way other parents read to their kids, I showed him movies. From Ghostbusters at three to The Third Man at fifteen, via the Star Wars trilogy (the first one, the only one that matters) and musicals, from Singin’ in the Rain to West Side Story, we’ve seen them all. We’ve seen every Star Trek movie on opening night since The Undiscovered Country–except Nemesis, which we didn’t see at all. Despite our extensive viewing history, we discovered last September while eating burritos on the couch (I gave up dining room tables twelve years ago) thumbing through Comcast’s collection for a movie to watch, that I’d somehow missed introducing him to Double Indemnity. So he got to watch the greatest noir film ever made as an adult, old enough to absorb its entire impact.

Last month, I was looking for my dvd of Dirty Harry and noticed that half of my haphazard collection was missing. I groused to my son that my cleaning service must have stuck them in a drawer I hadn’t checked, and he looked sheepish.

“No, I stopped by and swiped them, mom. Have to acquaint the girlfriend with the classics. Her education’s been neglected.”

The night he told me, he mentioned what is lurking beneath the leaving issue.

“I’m kind of worried about you. You haven’t put up a Christmas tree in…”

I laugh. “Five years. I know.”

“And I know you have friends, but you spend so much time alone.”

“Which I’ve been doing for a while.”

“So this would be a good time to…re-evaluate.”

It’s not that I don’t have an identity outside of being a mom. I have several. I’m just not entirely sure I have what most folks would call a social life. It’s always been that way. I have many good, close friends, but I’m not part of any circle. And a number of those good, close friends live in other states and even countries—the up and down side of being someone who enjoys online discourse. I can go several days without speaking, which comes as a shock to those who don’t know me well, because lord, I’m a talker. Parties are unappealing unless I know everyone. And unless you’re the cable guy, my family, or a friend of my son’s, I’m not totally crazy about you being in my home.

But that was okay, because I’m a mom. Single parenting done poorly can lead to an emotionally incestuous relationship, in which the child is elevated to a partner in the worries and joys of daily living. I never mentioned to him my many fears when money was low, when I was worried about finding the next contract. There was no “we” about spending or saving money. I was always in charge. But when two people live in the same household, regardless of the relationship, they build up histories.

Through a combination of personality and choice, I’ve given my son an interesting life, stable on important issues and highly variable on everything else, and over twenty years of stories. The trip home from Egypt visiting my dad, flying standby, when the flight was cancelled. The first time he had a friend sleep over and offered him waffles for breakfast, and his confusion when this friend opened the freezer while he was getting out the waffle iron. The time he and his buddy brothers Amar and Dino obliterated two homemade pumpkin pies in an hour—two of ten I’d baked for Thanksgiving. The time I left three loads of clothes down at the apartment laundromat for over a week, and found them neatly folded on a dryer. The times he’d check my ed school notebooks to see how ferociously I’d doodled—the greater the doodling activity, the more aggravating the topic. The fireworks on the beach at Oahu with Gramps, the various trips to Disneyworld. The fried fish in Little Rock, on our road trip across the country the summer before he started college, seeing our North Carolina home for the first time in a decade. The time I mentioned it was my birthday, and, just four years old, he remembered the ice cream cake in the freezer from his party a month earlier, got that slightly stale cake down, put it in front of me and sang Happy Birthday all by himself. The time we were taking the wrong road to the Florida Everglades when he was mad at me because I’d refused to wait in a twenty-minute line at Togos, when I suddenly hit the brakes and made a U-turn because, as I explained, we were in the middle of nowhere and the barn restaurant with the words “BBQ” had a full parking lot. I still remember his face as he bit into his bbq sandwich and agreed that “don’t wait in a long line at Togos” is a good rule.

We have our talismans, our touchstones. Sushi bars, Chevys, where he watched La Machina make fresh tortillas before he could walk. The movies What’s Up Doc and Moulin Rouge. All things Star Trek. Baskin & Robbins ice cream cake, which must be mint chocolate chip ice cream and chocolate cake. My homemade aioli and French bread. Our beloved home in North Carolina that we’ve barely lived in, because neither of us could handle the travel required for my job, but love so much. Peanut blossoms.

And the going away process has been happening gradually, slowly. As a high school senior, he would call to tell me he was crashing at a friend’s house. He moved away for college. When he left his college quarters, I’d taken a one bedroom apartment (he’d strongly encouraged it), and he started living with Oma and Gerry. We now text more than talk on the phone. He’s taken to sending me images—most recently his college diploma. We’ve been having dinner at least once a month, usually more. And no matter where he is, he calls me at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

He’s not the only family I have. I’m a daughter who loves both her parents and sees them frequently. I’m a loved sister and aunt. I’m a good friend.

But the bulwark of my family is leaving. It’s been okay that I don’t have much of a social life. I’m a mom, yeah, my son’s in his twenties, but he’s in the area, we do things. Am I now just a woman in her early fifties who lives alone, goes on vacation alone, eats in restaurants alone? I’m not lonely. I don’t mind. Life didn’t happen to me; I made many good choices, made the most of opportunities when I could.

The two weeks before school started up again, I made a number of day trips and one day I ended up in Capitola, totally by accident. I wandered down to the pier and was thinking about dinner, wondering if Hanks at the Hook was still open (it’s not, alas), when suddenly I caught sight of the cliffs and recalled the last time I’d been there.

We were up on the road on the cliffs overlooking the ocean, talking. I was in my first year of teaching, he was in his third year of college, I was telling him I knew I didn’t like the school, wasn’t going to enjoy looking for another job.

“Why don’t you move to North Carolina? You’ve got the house.”

“Well, not until I get my credential cleared. But I’ve thought about moving there.”


I paused. “Look. I know you’re in college, you’re an adult. But I’m not quite ready to think I don’t add value to your life here. Moving to North Carolina seems like leaving you.”

We got distracted by a surfer and didn’t return to the topic for a while, but an hour or so later, as we were walking back to the car, he nudged me and said, “I wouldn’t want you to leave until I graduated, either.”

Now, suddenly, remembering this, I was suddenly just dissolved in tears. Daytrip over, I headed home, crying, until it suddenly dawned on me that such boohooing was both absurd and narcissistic. Parents actually lose their kids. For real. I’m even nervous typing this out, that’s how unthinkable a grief that is. And here I am caterwauling. No. This is not a loss. It’s a transition.

But this transition has me staring down the tunnel of that second half of life, the part that involves old age staring right back at me, waiting.

Will my near-isolation work out in my 70s and 80s? Am I really the type of person who only put up Christmas or Halloween decorations because I had a kid? Will I never entertain again, cook only for holidays—and fewer of those? Should I travel more? Find a hobby that involves meeting people? Actually furnish my apartment? Or at least buy a new couch, if not go so far as a dining room table? One thing my eventual old age will not involve: cats.

At least I switched jobs to one requiring daily interaction with a hundred people or so. My students would be shocked to hear that I’m anti-social. They hear about my beer-drinking buddies, my writing, my cooking. They stop by to talk, stay after class to ask me advice. For the immediate future, I won’t be living a wholly isolated life. I have time to adjust, if I decide I need to.

Like every parent, I want nothing so much as my children’s well-being. I want it so badly I may actually succeed in turning myself into a contented and well-adjusted person, if only for my children’s sake.

This Joyce Maynard quote drove much of my personal development after my separation, during my late twenties and early thirties. But only since the sushi restaurant have I understood that the maxim still holds true. If my life needs adjusting, then I have to do it because turning myself into a reasonably well-adjusted person is a big part of my job as a parent.

So maybe I will start rituals. Maybe we should do a week vacation every year. Maybe I’ll always come up for Christmas. Maybe I’ll drive up when I feel like it, because that’s me. Maybe I’ll look for more local friends. Maybe I’ll start cooking Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless—do you think they’ll make me use canned pumpkin?

The best day of my life before giving birth was not quite as good as the worst day since, and I pray that good fortune continues. At no point in my life would “happy” be on the list of words used to describe me, but since becoming a parent I have routinely known joy. I am a good mom. But being a good mom has made me a better person. I’ve grown as my son has, and it turns out that’s not a process that ends when he can vote. Which he does, as I do, as his father does, at every election.

We had his farewell party last week—at Oma and Gerry’s. He planned it with them, bless their hearts. All the local family came. I made pulled pork and peach pie. His girlfriend was very impressed and asked for the recipe—although it turns out that he does all the cooking.

He left early this morning. We went out to dinner last night, just him and me. I made it clear I was fine if it was the three of us, but he wanted it to be just us. We went to Chevys. He hugged me goodbye. I didn’t cry until I got home, and I promise I didn’t weep.

Most parents don’t engage in this soul searching, but overthinking helps me find something I’m often lacking on short notice: perspective. A month after getting the news, I realize that, far from being a loss, and more than just a transition, I have been handed the results of success.

This is what success looks like: My son has a great relationship with a nice, smart, successful woman, a college degree, career goals and a contingency plan.

He’s moving to Seattle. I’m fine. Thanks for asking.

His first pair of shoes, and the crystal bear

Picture of the open road he sent me today.