Poems & Essays

24 Apr

Dolly Parton, Signs, and the College Tour

In Mother Words Blog No Response

As I listened to a guitar solo from the hypnotic opening measures of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” the podcast narrator unfurled the legendary entertainer’s humble origin story. Dolly’s birthday was January 19, the exact date I happened to be tuning in to the downloaded program. Was it a 1/365 (actually a 1/366 this leap year) coincidence? Or was this some sort of sign, a way for the universe to wink at me in its unfathomable manner? 

I grew up in a home that valued science and logic with just a few nods to the occasional Eastern European superstition. My mother insisted that we not cut off tags from clothing we were wearing unless we bit on a thread while the scissors did its work (perhaps in an attempt to prove we were not corpses being outfitted for burial). You could not step over any of our siblings if they happened to be sitting on the floor (also a bad omen). A significant transgression involved saying something wonderful out loud which would surely tempt the evil eye. A prompt exhortation of “pu pu pu” could push against lurking malicious forces, and this phrase or its Hebrew counterpart, “b’li ayin ha-ra,” was uttered after almost every compliment or statement of good fortune. Life is always unpredictable and often cruel, and my mother was not taking any chances.

Due to the aforementioned evil eye situation, I will not reveal too much about our child who took his first official college tour two days ago. A high school junior, he is exploring a number of universities. A few years ago, our oldest daughter approached the college selection process with a data driven focus. She scrutinized scattergrams and plotted where the little blue dot representing her scores and grades hovered compared with other classmates. We created lists of large and small schools and compared rates of returning sophomores. She visited campuses, expressed “demonstrated interest,” and took notes at information sessions.

This second time around, however, I’m attempting to infuse the process with a bit more intuition and humanity. At an information session filled with parents and students frantically jotting down easily accessed facts about required courses and distribution requirements, I turned my gaze from the speaker and scrutinized the young people surrounding me. Two students in my row and one in front of me bounced and shook their feet. One student wrote notes in microscopic handwriting and clutched her pen in a vice grip. No one taking our tour said hello or smiled at me or my son. Not a single student on the quad waved at our tour guide or us or even made eye contact as we moved around the campus. The representative from the admissions office gave a stern warning about the iron-clad covenant of an early decision promise.

I don’t know how that school’s admission committee might judge my son, but their little blue dot on my imaginary college scattergram just took a nosedive. As a veteran of this process, I’ve realized that no matter how fabulous a college might be and how impressive its sweatshirt might look, a person has to feel at home and happy in one’s surroundings. How many anxious foot rockers can you handle in your small humanities class? Where’s the joy?

I asked my son what he thought of the tour, and although he mentioned a few observations, his opinion was not set. I thought about asking him to consider any “signs” that could give him insight into this school as a potential fit. Sometimes it’s hard to nail down exactly what our thoughts might be. That’s when “signs” might help us gain insight into the inner workings of our own hearts and minds. “Our favorite cookie shop was just a few blocks from the main campus” or “the sun was glowing in spite of the February date on the calendar” might have come to mind as confirmation of a good choice. If he brought up the deceased chipmunk we found on the way home as proof that this might not be the best choice, that would be telling, as well. The sign I noticed was the anxiety provoking sight of so many nervous legs twitching in tandem in the lovely auditorium where the information session took place. Both beautiful and unpleasant events occurred on our visit, and what he perceived as important revealed the inner workings of his decision making process.

Ultimately, a college choice boils down to both hard facts about the school and a subjective hunch that a person could feel at home in this environment. Weighing the data and also looking for a few signs can be a winning combination in this hyped up, stressful process. As for Dolly Parton, her song, “I Will Always Love You,” popped up on my music playlist as soon as I came home from this visit. Dolly may be an American icon, but I didn’t need her to remind me that joy, happiness, and love are what I wish the most for my soon-to-be high school grad, all of my children, and all of the students fortunate enough to be considering this next important step in their lives. If Dolly were Jewish, no doubt she would also respond with a hearty, “Pu pu pu.”

Raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Sharon G. Forman is a reform rabbi and has worked in the field of Jewish education for twenty-five years. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions (URJ, 2006), a chapter in The Sacred Encounter (CCAR Press, 2014), and most recently The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings (2015). She has had numerous essays published and posted in Moms and Stories, Kveller, Literary Mama, Mothers Always Write, Mamalode, Lilith.org, The Times of Israel, ReformJudaism.Org, Forth Magazine, The Bitter Southerner, Parent.co/Motherly, Coffee + Crumbs, Better After 50, The Write Launch, and read650.

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