For a while I wanted to get a PhD in literature and be an academic. That was my plan. I loved books and reading and talking about books. As it turns out, I do not have a PhD, and I am not an academic. Here’s how that didn’t happen. I sucked at High School and didn’t like it. I liked ideas and arguing about things but not school. After High School, I got into one college in the Twin Cities on academic probation. By the start of Freshman year I had realized that my appreciation for ideas and argument were well-suited to college, and I became a lover of learning and classes. College was, as they say, the best part of my life. Until that point, anyway.
So when college was done, I wanted to go on. I applied for a handful of Masters programs, squeaked into one school, and got an MA in literature. I studied Elizabethan Religion and Shakespeare, and early American Puritan notions of Wilderness. I think I was pretty good at what I did, enjoyed research and writing, took direction well from my advisor, produced a solid thesis on Hamlet and Prayer. I felt good.
So I found some college English courses to teach and applied for PhD programs. They all rejected me. I taught another year, applied for PhDs again, and failed again. I was mad. I ranted to my wife and at least 2 friends that my lack of PhD acceptance was because the academy had no use for another white male academic studying Shakespeare and Religion. I said that the doctoral admission process is a nightmare, it prizes diversity and quirky research interests over quality of work. Regardless of the quality of my research, another Shakespeare and Religion guy was not interesting enough, and thus I was not accepted. I told myself this, anyway.
That may have been part of the problem. I’ll never really know the reason I did not get a PhD. Now, happily married and working a field that is not academia (thank god) I realize that I wasn’t suited for PhD work, and my research just wasn’t up to snuff. I also realized that I loved writing as a separate pursuit from research, and that those two things are not equivalent. At all.
But I was still mad as hell at the time. I was more equipped to handle this rejection as a 25 or 26 year old than I would have been as a senior in High School. Still, rejection is difficult, and wild tantrum style complaining about who is to blame (of course, not ourselves) is a lifelong pleasure. I do not at all blame people for anger over rejection. This is part of life; we are emotional creatures and want to get the things we want.
I survived because my parents taught me this: just because you want something does not mean you will get it; getting what you want is not necessarily the best thing for you; and having the best stuff is not the most important part of life. If you want anything you have to work for it. I will teach my child these things in return. And I hope this lesson is learned and my child does not turn out like Suzy Lee Weiss.
She’s the High School senior who wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal called To (All) the Colleges that Rejected Me. The letter is basically a foot-stomp-door-slam tantrum one might expect from any American teenager. The only difference is hers was published by the Journal. Ms. Weiss did not get into the “colleges of her dreams” even though she wanted to really, really bad. Ms. Weiss did what she believes colleges told her to do, which was to “be yourself.” Ms. Weiss does not understand why people who do charity work, volunteer work, have internships, succeed on the SATs, and work in Africa are more apt to get into the “colleges of their dreams” while she, apparently, did not.
When I first read this I was absolutely bowled over by the reeking upper-class American Privilege and Entitlement that just oozes off these words. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a major news outlet publish such dripping anti-charity sentiments before (who’s anti-charity, even if it is just padding an application?). But the more this letter rattled in my brainspace, the more I wanted to know about why this girl’s letter was in the WSJ, why it was published, and how Suzy Lee Weiss could be so sure that she would get into the colleges of her dreams.
So I browsed the internets.
I learned at Salon that Suzy’s
brother sister is a former “Wall Street Journal editorial features editor.” Which seemed a little bit sketchy. Frustrated teenagers react badly from time to time; this is no big deal. But most teenagers looking to expound upon their scorned ambitions do not have connections at the WSJ. Rejection is so much easier with a national media platform.
Then I learned that the Weiss family home was featured in the Wall Street Journal’s Luxury Real Estate section (and that there is a Luxury Real Estate section in the WSJ). This of course is not a problem in itself. The Weiss Family Home is absolutely stunning. A beautiful, elegant house that I am sincerely jealous of. But if I lived in a house like that as a teenager, I would probably expect things to go my way, too.
Suzy also takes particular aim at the Native American and gay and lesbian communities for fulfilling diversity quotas, which is an actual and difficult problem in college admissions. There are real problems in the process of admissions, and the expectations of “elite colleges” are indeed ridiculous. Still, in what can only be described as a stunningly insensitive worldview, Suzy decries her lack of headdress and failure to be anything but white. Indian Country Today addressed the incorrect notion that Native Americans waltz through the world on the dollars of White Americans like Suzy and myself.
But in this Indian Country piece, I learned the most important bit of information in any discussion of college admissions: Suzy got into college. She got into a Big 10 university, it turns out. I don’t know which. But the Big 10 has some excellent schools, filled with at least some young people eager to learn and grateful to be in college, like I was when I accepted the only acceptance letter I received. Says Suzy about her letter to the WSJ: ““I guess I was just disappointed because I had the prerequisites to get into these name brand schools and I was just a rat in the rat race and I guess I was just the slowest rat of them all, so I didn’t make it.”
This is the rub, I think, and why I can’t just forget about Suzy. Suzy didn’t make it in the rat-race and the proof is in the college; she’ll have to live like a failure with us schlubs in the Midwest. Why? Because Ms. Weiss has lived the privileged world-view of a wealthy 21st century American teenager. And that world-view has produced an expectation that Suzy will be accepted into an elite college. Why? Because, just because, that’s why. Her life has primed her for this expectation. Big 10 colleges are not for people like Suzy Weiss. Name brand schools (whatever that means) are where she belongs. And she should be able to get there just by being herself.
“Being yourself” in this case means being the product of an elite culture and expecting that to continue regardless of how padded or thin one’s admissions application is. In this world-view, acceptance into a Big 10 school is the same as failing. It is worth so little that Suzy can denigrate publicly every elite institution for not accepting her, and in doing so put down every excited in-coming Freshman at every Big 10 school, every Native American or gay or lesbian kid entering college on a scholarship, and still win the support of the Wall Street Journal. The college admissions process is a problem and we should deal with it openly and honestly; Suzy’s problem, though, is not the college admissions process. It is being born with the prerequisite of wealthy expectation. And being ill-equipped to handle a wrench thrown into the plan.
I said above that I will teach my children that just because you want something does not mean you will get it, and getting what you want may not be the best thing for you. These are lessons learned in hindsight. I bet that Suzy Weiss will learn them. But if she does not, and if my son does not, perhaps that’s not actually their fault.
Anyways. The Midwest is a great place Suzy, with great people, and excellent teachers who prize students who want to learn. You might actually like it here.