Eldest son and I went over the mountains to Whitman College in Walla Walla the other day. Long drive through the Cascades to the rain shadow, rolling hills of wheat stubble, passing trucks carrying massive loads of baled hay. Wildflowers and gravelly rivers, irrigated pastures and vineyards, low profile towns with grain storage tanks rising up near the highway. Into the wine country, region of sweet onions and dry land farming. Away from the sea under sparsely clouded skies, wide skies.
We park on a side street, get first impressions as we head to the library for check in. Interesting range of emotions for me–this is an expensive private college, with beautiful grounds and facilities, what I can only assume are intelligent and gifted young people strolling around, and I’m feeling a little insecure, on behalf of my son or myself I don’t quite know. Then the embarrassment of finding out he forgot his sleeping gear for the overnight with a student host, my awkwardness at wanting to be involved without being overly involved, hear and see everything with him, ask great questions for his sake, maybe even clarify things he might not express as clearly as I would like. Sure it’s his experience, his time, his chance to learn whether this school would be a good fit and whether he should apply. But parents are mentors, as well as financial supporters, and college decisions have a family impact in more than one way. So I’m disappointed that in my parent packet is only general information about the college, a map and tips on accommodation, dining , and entertainment. I leave him to wait for his host, send off my best silent hopes that he’ll have a good time, learn lots of useful insights, get a sense of the nature of this place and its community in his conversations between now and the tour on the morrow. From the hotel I text him that I found a sleep sack in the car trunk and can borrow a pillow and towel from the aptly named Comfort Inn. He texts back, No worries, he’s worked it out with the host. So I settle in for some 3Rs–relaxation, reading, and writing. But my quiet hotel room doesn’t feel like a mini-vacation as I thought it would, just quiet and lonely, as I begin this process of releasing my firstborn and think about my other three coming to the same stage soon.
The next morning, on the advice of the desk staff, I drive over for a run around the reservoir. Sun is hanging large and red low in the east over low hills, the air is clear and cool. I find the driveway, a parking lot, lock the car and head up onto a sort of dike trail where I can get high enough to look around. The reservoir, the small lake on my left, surrounded by poplars and willows, summer dry but full of life–rustling in the bushes, soft flutterings, birdsong. At the highest point of the trail I’m facing a softly rounded hill, over the top of which rises the tips of small farm buildings, and the sound of a radio.
I run across the ridge, working out the stiffness in my hip, then follow another walker, man in his sixties or so in a brimmed hat, down into the path around the lake. So as not to be in continual pursuit, I speed up and he turns as I draw near. I apologize for following, explain that I don’t know the paths. He smiles and says, “You have a good attitude.” Was he alarmed? Does that instinctive fear of danger, as I had lying at the base of my uncertainty about this unknown trail in an unknown town, come into play for him when he hears quick steps behind? Even here? Once on the radio show about design solutions, the speaker described going places where, as a woman, she could experience risk, was full of solutions design. Choosing the route, the time, the safety techniques, speed, aura of strength and confidence to project when going out into the world. Whether to go alone, in a group, or with a dog. I am not naive (though I’ve been accused of such because of my actions at times), and being alone out here, my mind isn’t free of the thought of possible danger. This time I decide to lay them all aside and count on the positive odds today.
And so they come into play. I explore trails of sand and fine gravel, some of which end in fishing spots, some at benches, others in rabbit trails. Around several bends in the trail I spy single rabbit sentries. Each must have heard my approach, yet each lingers to catch a glimpse, get a better scent, interpret my movements, hear my soft greeting, then bounce off, white tail flashing. As I come up to one of the rabbit entrances, I see under the sparsely leafed trees a network of small paths, beaten by many feet and roofed by branches. It reminds me of a dry version of Yoda’s swamp. In a few months winter snow will define tunnels, archways and floors even more.
Along a path a few yards in from the lake stand smooth-limbed skeletons of a plant gone to seed–looks exactly like dill, except it is the color of ripe wheat. I remember carrot seed heads are the same, so this must be cow parsnip. A forest of it lines the path. Further along the dry gulch at the end of the reservoir, the trees thin and the path climbs the bank. The sand of the path here is imprinted with overlaid evidence of other travelers–human shoe soles, dog prints, small spayed hand-like paws, and the distinct long and short footfalls of rabbits.
On a parallel, unseen path above mine comes a whistler, singing a trilling, exuberant bird-like tune which is yet unmistakably human. My senses, both physical and cultural, tell me it is a man between the ages of fifty and seventy years, intelligent, fit , cheerful, and from the area. Surprised by my confidence sight unseen, I consider what detail the birds can pick up about each other by ear.
On the way out the road to the car the quick movements of a quail, body gliding along above fast moving feet, head with black feather flag bobbing. It stops to hide behind a boulder at the edge of the road, and when I make the circuit, scurries into the shrubbery.
After breakfast, which, because I wasn’t watching the time, I would have missed were it not for a kind attendant who found me some eggs and sausage after most had been put away, I head over to the campus for the tour. I’m too late, having misremembered the time and not having been given a schedule in my packet. Probably just as well–my son is being given a one-on-one tour. I wander around on my own through the academic buildings, the art gallery, across the grassy quad, to the student center, examine bulletin boards, gardens. Then back to admissions to see what I can learn. I ask the student at the desk about her story–a junior from a private school, the only one of her class that did not hire a private SAT tutor, believing that was not the point. She shares with me about internships and other opportunities, what she knows about student aid, a sense of the community at Whitman. Tells me the former head of admissions has gone to be a farmer.
In the info session with an admissions officer we hear about the values of Whitman–academic rigor, diversity of thought and experience, rich community, equipping students to make a contribution and move into a great career. Having chosen Pomona for reasons of accessibility and studied anthropology, the officer then came to work at Whitman because it had been his first choice college. Tells us about the first year Encounters class, in which students read a set list of books and are led in discussion and writing by professors from various disciplines, classes kept to about fifteen students each. Good information, with only a touch of gushing (the perfect balance of academics and community, “cross-fit for the mind”). The new assistant of admissions, a young black North Carolinian, observes the session, introduces himself to my son.
Then it’s time to go, long drive back over the mountains, but we decide to try our luck finding the swim and dive coach. She’s just getting out of a meeting and takes us to her office for a chat, invites in her interim assistant, a former student who recently won the national 100 butterfly title. He reminds me of my son–medium build, light hair, glasses, calm, intelligent demeanor. Coach Jennifer Blomme asks my son about grades, previous training, best times, goals. She is a good listener, and my son has a sense he’d enjoy training with her. She says he could come in at the level of a scoring member of the team, suggests he apply for early acceptance for the best shot, takes our contact info. Whitman is NCAA Division III, both men and women train together, and there is an off season, which my son thinks would be a good fit and allow him to pursue other interests–something that his previous club coach seemingly could not abide.
On the way home I hear, in precis form, about my son’s time with students and on the tour. He was able to attend an Encounters class, in which he was disappointed at how the professor handled another student’s observations on interpreting the book of Genesis. The student had observed that if one had the view that Genesis was not divinely inspired, one could posit that it was written by man to give man authority over the Earth. Instead of taking that lead to discuss cultural norms handed down by the priesthood, she said, “But that would be blasphemous, so we don’t take that view.” Which surprised me, as i have come to expect the opposite bias in post modern academia. We talked about how rich a discussion it could have been, how we would hope the professor went home and realized she had not handled that very well and come back next day to refresh the discussion. I suggested my son write about that interchange in his entrance essay, which he though was a good idea.
And so the visit was successful in that Whitman is on my son’s short list. However, it’s a hard sell unless they would provide a substantial aid package. Also it looks like my son will be a hard sell for such a college, grades at this point being good but not great, second SAT and first ACT still to be tackled. Still, there may be hope that, since the college asserts that their goal is to build a diverse student body that will excel at Whitman, maybe some of my son’s unique qualities and experiences will offset his less than stellar numbers and white maleness. It will be a reach. My son’s assignment, write notes on his visit and look up the application essay requirements, start making notes.