Timing Might Be Everything

Last week I noticed that Christmas trees had already replaced pumpkins in various corner sales lots around Chicago, where I live. Barely two weeks after Halloween, Christmas isn’t just on the horizon, it seems to be here already, and I’m already tired of it. The special quality of the Christmas season has been diluted to such an extent that it makes little difference whether you pay attention to it or not. I wonder who’s buying those freshly cut trees now? Won’t they be just brown needles by December 25th? One of our radio stations here has been playing holiday music around the clock since Nov. 2 and the Chicago Tribune reports today that “Black Friday, typically the busiest shopping day of the year, is losing its sway as the bellwether of the holiday season. [The] day after Thanksgiving is losing some of its sizzle as stores race to be first with Black Friday-style bargains weeks before ahead of the big day…” For those of us who feel that even the day after Thanksgiving is too soon to think about Christmas, this is one more sad development in the commercialization and commodification of a perfectly decent holiday.

The same is true with our national elections, which will have lasted almost two years by the time of the actual election, and which have been characterized by states’ moving their primaries earlier and earlier in order to maximize their supposed influence on the results. I’m sick of the candidates already and wondering why they aren’t doing the jobs we elected them to do instead of running around the country pandering to the people they will eventually betray. And we have our students and their parents feeling more and more that if they don’t get into the college race earlier and earlier, it’ll be all over before they’ve had a chance to fill out the first application. Harvard’s elimination of its early plan hasn’t inspired a trend, mostly because other colleges can’t afford to lose their early numbers, which is fine. Nevertheless, stories about how even so-called “second-tier” schools are now more competitive than ever (despite that story’s being at least 10 years old) seem to indicate a growing panic that is also marked by the game’s beginning earlier and earlier.

It’s fine to plan and think ahead, and it’s fine to have some goals in mind as a student begins high school, but the rising panic to get the process started makes actually doing one’s homework seem too much of an obstacle to college. It’s too slow!!! It all takes too long!! Other people will get my spot!! My kid will be left out in the cold!! Days when seriously starting the college process didn’t begin until senior year are long gone, at least for students intent on the name brand colleges. And the idea of taking applications casually or at least as an integrated part of the end of high school are also vanishing. (Why else are there college counselors?) So the college application season, like the Christmas season, has become not only a sadly attenuated slog but also a mechanistic performance drained of its meaning or significance.

I salute those students and parents who can resist the pressures to apply somewhere before they’re ready (“I want to apply somewhere ED but I don’t know where yet”), and who have the imagination and creativity to look beyond brand name schools. I salute those who won’t be stampeded by marketing into making decisions that may not be right for them. I rejoice when a student says to me, “I know I can be happy just about anywhere; I just want to find a college that’s right for me.” Now that’s the spirit!