Winging It: Will Smith Was Wrong, Sometimes Parents DO Understand

“Mom. Please. Stop. It has to be right here.”

There was my daughter, bracing herself against the wind in a tiny New England college town, begging me not to ask the blonde woman a few yards away from us for directions to Admissions. Was this “sweet” 16-year-old stopping me because she already knew how to get there? No. Did she prefer to ask the question herself? Uh, no. Was she perhaps not interested in getting to the 10 am information session we had left our home three states away at the crack of dawn to attend? Not that either. She liked the school. She simply didn’t want me to embarrass her by saying, “Excuse me,” to a perfect stranger in the middle of a college campus that she might one day call home.

Of course, I did it anyway. How else were we going to find the building my car’s GPS only sort of located? As for her cringing, it didn’t faze me. I was used to it since we had played this same scene out on two other college campuses already. And, luckily for her, I remember that feeling all too well myself. I was mortified touring colleges with my parents, which, contrary to her impression, wasn’t that long ago.

On the other hand, so much has changed. Neither of my folks had the luxury of going away to school. They both attended City College, which was free at the time, and went home to their parents’ homes at night. While I’d been through all this before, touring campuses and exploring a range of options had been a new and thrilling experience for my parents, and it showed.

My dad was consumed by a primary goal: To identify a school with no co-ed dorms. But the more he realized how tough this would be, the less interactive he became on tours. He walked, looked, and listened, but was clearly preoccupied–and distressed. Sulking aside, he was easy.

My mother sat way at the other end of the spectrum. Having always loved to travel and explore new places, she approached each outing as if it was the trip of a lifetime. On every campus, she strolled around with her map held out in front of her, pointing and gesturing and stopping to circle in place as she gushed over flowerbeds on college walks, vibrant foliage framing athletic fields, and impressive architecture in quads from Virginia to Vermont. Wearing her big sunglasses and comfortable shoes, there was nothing incognito about her. One look at her nailed us as tourists from the minute we stepped out of our car. All I wanted to do was blend in but, with her, there was no chance.

She insisted we sit up front in information sessions and walk right beside every tour guide. When I’d moan and try to fall behind, she’d urge me forward, chirping, “How else are you going to hear what they have to say?”

She peppered guides, admissions counselors, and deans with questions and oohed and aahed over every library, music room, theater, and dorm as if they were newly discovered wonders of the world. Worst of all, she’d stop perfect strangers–mostly students–as they walked by to secure “real” opinions on a range of topics–the curriculum, class size, professors, weather, living conditions, food, social life, extra-curricular options, costs, grades, summer programs, majors, you name it–and she sought a diversity of opinion, so she’d ask multiple people the same questions. It was excruciating.

Each time, I’d stand nearby, withering, attempting to look busy, bored, distracted or, better yet, to appear as if I wasn’t actually with her at all. But inevitably, she’d blow my cover (and my mind) and say, “Caroline, this is Joe (Janice/Joyce/Jackie/Gerald, just insert a name and please shoot me here). Come introduce yourself!” It was torture.

The fact is, I remember it all too well. So my daughter had nothing to fear as we embarked on two days of college touring. For starters, I am not my mother! I mean, seriously, I’m younger than she was, and so much cooler!

Of course, I was excited about exploring the schools my daughter might apply to next year. Who wouldn’t be? And, yes, I did wear my sunglasses and comfortable shoes but it was bright out, and we had miles of walking to do. We did tend to sit up front at information sessions but the acoustics in those rooms are never great–how else were we going to hear? The tour guides were off for Easter at one school, so we did do a self-guided tour, using a map. I routinely greeted students as we passed, just to gauge how friendly they were. All these schools talk a good game about community and mutual support, but is it real? You have to get a sense of these things for yourself. And, when all else fails, you have to ask for directions. So, I did.

But as I approached the blonde woman to say, “Excuse me,” with an eager smile, through the corner of my eye I spotted my fabulous first-born child turn away ever so slightly, trying to look bored, distracted and–yes–as if she wasn’t actually with me at all. I was tempted to blow her cover, to snatch her over and make her introduce herself. But I didn’t.

Turns out the Admissions building was right next to us. How embarrassing.