Adam Patric Miller, Tribune News Service
“Whatever you do when you write your college application essay,” I’ll say as I’ve always said to my high school seniors, “Don’t ever write a college application essay.” Then I’ll explain that no human (we’ll talk human writing, too, because AI will rear its blinking-eyed head), especially the admissions officers who read so many of “these things” wants to read about who you are, where you grew up, who your hero is, the event that changed your life or how you went to Guatemala for the summer to rebuild a village and purify water for hundreds. What those folks want to read, the thing that will wake them from their somnambulatory reading, is a publishable piece of prose.
Like some high school English teachers who teach seniors, especially those seniors whose parents’ anxieties outstrip their child’s and whose net worth — aided and abetted, by the entitlements born of the systemic racism my colleagues around the country aren’t supposed to talk about when they teach — I’ve become a master of how to knock the seniors off their game. The game is where a student is conditioned to look at him or her or their selves as a commodity to be sold at the Ivy League market or whatever other competitive college might have them (and their parents’ money).
So I’ll tell them, “Yes, you may use the personal statement you honed over the summer because mom made you do it and hired a pricey tutor to help you write it.” But then I lure them into writing something else, step by step, and tell them to trust me. If all goes well I’ll get to the point where I can talk about language on the level of rhythm, sound, and meaning, so that each of their essays will have something in common with the work of Michel de Montaigne where the reader can’t help but be intrigued by their attempt to make sense of their lives in a complex world.
This summer, I’ve been reading articlessuch as “Applicants, Colleges Want to Know More About You and Your ‘Identity’” and I go through the same thought process I’ve done for years: quit teaching and make bank tutoring wealthy kids to write publishable prose to get into Ivy League schools. I see myself sleeping in (it’s 5:30am as I write this on my first day back to school), then sitting comfortably at home, cup of coffee in hand, preparing for my first Zoom meeting with a kid in Manhattan whose private school isn’t doing enough for what is now the one major factor that can tip the outrageous scales in their direction for early action, early decision, or whatever gets the pressure off their backs fast. And I could help them decide whether or not to dial in race. I know how to do that. But it’s precisely because I know the rotten game so well that I won’t: there’s nothing further away from real teaching than making big bucks that way (like the guy who wrote essays for students to the tune of $2,000 a week).
In my teacher’s heart I know that’s phony. I also know there’s nothing more phony than a writer leaning on his identity to get the golden ticket to the Ivies, even if this upcoming application season, private schools, private teachers, private tutors, will factor the decision into how students prepare their essays so they can perpetuate the capital that pays their salaries and maintains the property values of the parents’ neighbourhoods. And it’s because I know the playing field of American education is criminally skewed no matter what the not-so-Supreme Court rules, that I will ignore the most recent policy shift and stick to the basics of helping students connect to a topic that makes them scared, makes them sad, or makes them happy.
Once they connect to that, time for them to write a mess of words and sentences, pages of pure crap. Within that mess of drafting, however, a real teacher will help them see the thing that glimmers. And no, it’s not Fort Knox gold they see or getting accepted to college or an A+. But that glimmering thing will give them the energy to revise and revise and revise until the music of their sentences reveals an image that our sham-meritocracy of an education system smudges away on the daily: the thing that cannot stay “when dawn goes down to day”.
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