In a migration pattern common to many Washingtonians, after my husband and I had kids we left DC, moving to the suburbs to take advantage of Montgomery County's renowned public-school system, where we landed in the Walt Whitman High School "cluster." During my older son's junior year, I found myself with a new job.
Job description: Assist client, 17-year-old boy, in college search with more than 2,700 possible choices; select itineraries, routes, hotels, meals; set up appointments for orientations and tours; ensure that client arrives on time, rested, prepared, appropriately dressed.
Relevant qualifications: Must have a strong ability to hold your tongue. May not offer thoughts about a college, its geographic desirability, or its student body until client has formulated his own.
Travel requirements: Extensive.
Time frame: Job to begin in spring of client's junior year and be completed by fall of senior year, when client must create wish list of schools consisting of a mix of "reaches," "probables," and "safeties."
About client: Likely to be taller than you. At the beginning of your work with client, he is unlikely to know the difference between West Virginia and Wesleyan or even between a college and a university. He may be hard pressed to define "liberal arts."
Caveat: When job comes to an end, you may experience prolonged period of weeping and, in some reported cases, even mild clinical depression.
I take this crazy job. Client is very likable and easy to work for, though he can be, like his grandfather, "a man of few words." In our initial consultation, he states an interest in studying music and sets his geographic parameters as "north of Bethesda--or California."
New York University. A friend's father is a professor of government at NYU, so he takes us on a personal tour. We get to see the library, and he points out the balcony from which a student jumped. The professor wants our client to go there because, he says, "I need the money." Client registers no discernible reaction to where he is. I suppress my urge to say: "Look around, man--you're in New York City, the best city in the entire freaking world." It's rainy. Very urban, not much of a campus, but as our friend the professor says, "The entire city is your campus." That would be New York City. But I say nothing. Client also says nothing about NYU itself.
Off to Beantown. I suppress all urges to say, "This is one of the greatest cities in the world. Don't you love it? Isn't it fantastic?"
Tufts University. I want client to love Tufts. The elephant mascot, the extraordinary facilities. The prestige. The admissions office is handing out rain ponchos; we are drenched. The tour ends on the roof of the library for the alleged sweeping vista of Boston. We see nothing but gray skies, zero visibility.
Dripping client is eager to get into the car and says little.
Boston College. I subcontract this visit out to my husband, reasoning that it would be better led by a Catholic, even if a lapsed one. My husband loves BC; he loves the nice students and the Doug Flutie statue. I think the client likes it, too.
Berklee College of Music. What a place--our tour is led by an aspiring country singer. Berklee has everything a musician could want plus a dozen majors--production, engineering, movie scoring. Tour guide scares me when discussing the liberal-arts requirements: "You only have to take 40 hours and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average; the rest is music all the time." John Mayer went there, Quincy Jones--amazing alums, great facilities. Serves as a valuable field trip for a musician, kind of like going to Graceland.
Client feels underqualified but intrigued.
Boston University. School is urban, but there is a patch of greenery, the "BU beach" along the Charles River. Lots of Emmys and Oscars in the library. The tour guide is a ditzy pre-med whom both client and I agree we wouldn't want to see at our hospital bedside anytime soon. Off to the music department. Once again client seems daunted by the audition process, though impressed by the high-tech practice rooms.
While in Boston, client shows superior mastery of the public-transportation system and seems quite comfortable in the city.
Connecticut College. The fifth day of spring break and the weather is finally perfect. The sun is out; the campus looks like something from central casting--free private music lessons for all! Friendly students, everyone out on the lawn, an arboretum on the grounds, sledding on cafeteria trays. It's Connecticut College, for God's sake--no SATs required. Not a single strike against this visit.
Client says: "There was something off about that place."