Chapter Eleven, The Mother Son College Odyssey

Eli hit a wall last night. It was after midnight. He’d been sitting in the bathroom, talking with his girlfriend, Ashley, on the phone for an hour or so. I’d been catching up on episodes of Grey’s Anatomy on Hulu on my laptop. Our hosts had long since gone to bed. I’d been nagging Eli to get off the phone. I could hear his side of the conversation through the walls and it was keeping me awake. I wanted to go to sleep, but I also wanted the two of them to be able to talk—this will be the longest the two of them have been separated since they started dating, a year and a half ago.

When Eli finally came to bed, he was in a panic over the homework that was piling up during this trip. “I’ll never get into all these colleges we’re visiting if I flunk all my APs. Do you realize my APs are three weeks after I get home from this trip?”

In addition to his spring break, Eli will have missed a whole week of school by the time we get home next Friday. Missing a week of school as a junior with AP Bio, AP Physics, Calc BC, AP US History and English on your plate means missing a lot. Until last night, the undone work was out of sight, out of mind. But Ashley, who shares A-Push (AP US History) with him, reminded him of everything they’ve been covering in his absence. Reminded him of all the the fun his friends are having at home that he is missing. Reminded him that he is here touring colleges, instead of enjoying spring break at home.

At midnight, he panicked. We talked about various schemes for amending our schedule so he could spend a couple of days catching up on his schoolwork. “We don’t have to go everywhere, Eli,” I said. But he doesn’t want to miss any of the schools on our itinerary. He’s caught in a bind.

Now, it’s 8:00 AM and I’m dressed and ready to go. Eli’s in the shower and I’m musing about what I can do to best support him. At least he gets to go to his precious Origamido today—the hours that I’m sure will be the personal highlight of his trip. He’s been waiting four years to be able to come back up to Haverill, Massachusetts to study with origami master Michael LaFosse and today is the day. But first, we’re going to take a look at Tufts.

Lunchtime: We’re sitting in a pizza parlor across the street from Tufts University, waiting for our slices. The most notable thing about our time at Tufts was that we ran into the Swensons, another Kirby family. Jonny is in Eli’s grade at school—they’re in chamber choir together, they work out at the same martial arts studio, they’re in the same AP Bio class; Jonny’s little brother Chris is in Lizzy’s 8th grade class. We lagged behind the tour and compared notes on the schools we’d visited so far and those yet to go. In both families, the kids were somewhat glazed over. Luckily it’s the last tour till Monday.

Tufts is a mid-size university with 5000 undergraduates and a number of graduate programs, including medical, dental and veterinary schools. The admissions rep stressed experiential learning and global learning—Arabic and Chinese are the top languages at Tufts. “We favor diversity and not just ethnic and geographic diversity. We want you to be challenged by the opinion of someone who thinks the opposite way you do.”

The Tufts students we met seemed well-rounded with a slew of non-academic pursuits. The engineering program is unique because it’s woven into the liberal arts curriculum. One interesting fact: “We graduate more engineers than we enroll. And we’re the only school in the country to do so.” 40% of undergraduates double major. Housing is not guaranteed for all four years; 70% live on campus. The financial aid here is not need-blind. The fact that you need money to attend is taken into account when your application is evaluated.

The buildings at Tufts are largely brick, there’s lot of green space in between. It looks very much like what you’d imagine a New England college to look like.

Getting into Tufts? “You have to prove to us that you know us—and why you’re a good fit.” The admissions rep said, “We want texture, not perfect SAT scores; we’re looking for students who have something to offer. Our job as admissions representatives is to build an intentional community. You don’t have to do everything to apply to Tufts. We don’t necessarily want well-rounded students; we want a well-rounded student body.”

Tufts admissions became famous this year because Tufts gave applicants the opportunity to submit a one-minute video in addition to their paperwork; thousands took advantage of the opportunity. One of the other optional application pieces is to create something with an 81/2 by 11 sheet of paper. Eli perked up at this. He’s already decided to fold an origami elephant—the Tufts mascot. It’s probably not the first time it’s been done, but I’m sure he’ll make a good one.

Eli didn’t fall in love with Tufts, but it’s a good possibility for him. Not as much as a crapshoot as the MITs and the Stanfords. My guess is he’d probably get in.

11:30 PM: After Tufts, we picked up my friend Diane and then drove to Haverill to drop Eli off at Origamido. We pulled up at the waterfront home of Michael LaFosse and his partner, Richard Alexander, both originally trained as biologists. Eli had come, wanting to get guidance in origami design, rather than folding. Michael La Fosse, a generous, warm and welcoming man brought us into his studio, showed us around, welcomed Eli as an old friend and the two of them got engrossed in their work.

Diane and I drove a half hour away to a Newberryport, a small seaside town like dozens of other seaside towns in New England. It was gorgeous warm day, a kind of Santa Cruz day, the kind of day that made me wish I’d brought flip flops as well as Ugs on this trip. Diane and I walked for a few miles along the waterfront, sharing life stories and catching up.

Eventually we reached a bench where she pulled out a file folder full of letters I’d written to her, approximately one a year, since I was 21. I sat and read them consecutively; they were entertaining, embarrassing, fascinating and wonderful. I told her when I came out, I told her when I started writing a novel at 23, I told her when I led my first groups at 22, when I met Karyn, when we had babies, when my father died, when we signed the contract for The Courage to Heal. It was all there and I was so grateful that she had saved every bit of our correspondence. What a gift to take home with me!

A few hours later, we hiked back to the car, drove back to Haverill and sat for a while as we learned how the design of Eli’s original nine-tailed fox had been modified. When we first walked in, Eli was sitting at the table with had a grin on his face that can only really described as a shit-eating grin. He looked so completely happy. That’s how he’s been around origami since he was four years old. It’s a passion. It’s something he loves. And today he had the time to dive in deeply with one of the top teachers in the world. I’m so glad we all chipped in to give him that gift.

After Origamido, we dropped Diane off at home, said goodbye, and Eli and I headed to Newton to stay with my childhood friend Mindy and her husband Andy. Eli did AP Bio all the way there. I got lost on several rotaries, but eventually we arrived, close to 8:30 PM.

Eli and I brought our stuff upstairs. He said, “I’m really tired. I’m going to bed.” And he did. He laid down and crashed for the night. He missed the great fish, salad and sweet potato fries Mindy made for dinner. And he’s still asleep! Mindy and Andy and I enjoyed the feast and some wine and talked about colleges and parents and stages of life. We’ve all just gone to bed, on this, the eve of Easter Sunday.

Tomorrow, Eli starts his exploration of MIT. He’s meeting an MIT student from Santa Cruz at 1:00 tomorrow. I bet he sleeps all morning and wakes up really hungry.

I plan on sleeping in too!

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