here I was again. Hunched over my paperback Bible, stricken with doubt and eager for inspiration. But this Bible offered no stories of Cain and Abel, of Job, of John’s devotion to the word that was his God. No. It was January 1971 AD and I was in my secular room, not hunched over a pew. The book was a thick compendium of American universities coast-to-coast, with critical information about their goals, their students, the average entrance exam scores of recently admitted students, and above all, how to apply — invariably by mail and usually with a check between $10 and $25. These fastidious universities required authorized transcripts and grades, as well as a critically important essay replying to a single, monotonous question: “Why do you wish to come here?” Or, at times more subtly, “Why do you think you are suited to us, our curriculum, our town, our environment?” In essence, the underlying questioned seemed to me, “What makes you special?”
I had not intended to spend July of my senior high school year tackling these queries for information, fealty, and cash — which my father provided by writing the checks. Instead, I had hoped to continue managing the high school newspaper, driving my first car — a used VW “bug” — around Washington, D.C., and doing everything possible to negate the existence of that which was called “higher education.” I was high enough, thank you, so why all this fuss about universities?
Alas, I had high school friends — not many, but two, Jim and John, who, after spending the better part of our early senior year talking about the sad demise of the Beatles, the allures of surfing, and — to keep me happy — sessions in which they listened to me talk about the Krakatoa volcanic explosion and assorted stories about the end of the world and baseball, my two favorite and, to me, somewhat connected subjects.
But that all changed after Christmas, when parents and students alike began to ponder “the next stop.” My father had not pushed me. I was an only child and he a brilliant free-thinker who had left university, Columbia, in 1916, to embark on a wild ride to Europe, lying about his age so he could travel — all this because he was determined to participate in the incipient Russian Revolution. Surfing, baseball, and the new prototypes of mid-20th century American middle-class life were not foremost in his mind. As for music, he knew little, aside from having befriended two New York brothers determined to make that, and not revolution, their goal. They went by the surname Gershwin.
But much as I found this new swearing by the Bible tedious, I could not quash the competitiveness that made me think the college admission chess game was something of a rite of peer passage — and more salient perhaps, a necessary undertaking absent a revolution or a volcanic eruption in which to take active solace.
What I learned studying the Bible was unforgiving, at least as it applied to me, not my two friends. Their grades were superb, mine modest at best. The results on the almighty SAT tests (how I hated the two words “scholastic aptitude,” especially the latter because, as a lover of poems and unicorns, I refused to believe aptitude could be measured). This may in part have been a defensive mechanism, the erecting of a protective dike, because my friends both had scored more than 1,400 points on these brittle tests, with 800 possible points assigned to two aptitude sections, Verbal and Mathematical. Jim scored 740 verbal, 760 math, John about the same, though even higher in math. This boded well for them, since each wanted to attend Ivy League universities, and their scores were more than competitive. There was some grumbling from their parents, since annual tuition for the Ivies was about to end up in the $3,000-a-year range. Shocking!
My own first scores on the test were shocking for a different reason: mediocre enough to suggest a boy distracted by volcanos and the lust for all things disastrous. I barely cracked 600 in Verbal and shamefully scored 325 in Math, not much more than the 200 score you received for signing your name correctly on the test sheet. According to these results — and I took these same tests three times without much change — I was a being of deeply modest aptitude. I, of course, said nothing of this to Jim and John, preferring to lie to preserve the peace.
Demoralized, after the third try, I considered my options, which included joining the Merchant Marine, becoming a short-order cook, and joining the anti-colonialist nationalist movement in Africa, the only available revolutionary surrogates.
Finally, though, with help from the Bible, I conceived a plan of attack all my own. As my aptitude-endowed friends focused their attention on Yale, Princeton, Harvard and the like, I would — with my father’s check-writing benediction — apply not to the usual three or four universities but to twenty, even thirty if need be. Let my low aptitude make the rounds. My poor grades as well. But in the section reserved for essays and observations by the applicant, let me wow them with a dissent from test- aptitude norms laid out in an essay or two rife with tales of Krakatoa, Yeats, the flaws of American foreign policy, and my love for Siamese cats. They would crunch their numbers and I would write my at-times florid heart out.
In all, I applied to twenty-seven universities across the whole of the nation, my favorite one a Christian college in Missouri that, instead of citing the average SAT scores of its students, wrote merely, “Applications welcome.” This I found was more dedicated to the spirit and music of chance than, say, what Stanford had to say: in effect, little more than a breakdown of the high SAT scores it expected all its candidates to present.
I applied to Washington University in St. Louis, to Wisconsin, to Occidental College, and the San Francisco University. To vex my friends, I also defied logic by daring Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Columbia — the venerable New York school my father had bolted to get with Lenin, which he never did, stopped in Paris as underage.
Of my chosen twenty-seven, I was rejected by twenty-two. Harvard said no, but, in those days of specifically personal correspondence, applauded what they called my “full-speed ahead, indomitable spirit.” Amherst, a small but loquacious liberal arts college, produced a long and thoughtful letter saying my essays, in combination with my low SATs, produced fierce debate in the chambers, and while they would not accept me, they hoped and many on their committee believed, I would excel wherever I landed. “Please do prove us wrong in this decision. We would be thrilled.”
The most callously memorable rejection came from Stanford, which began, in an opening for the ages: “Dear Mr. Winner, We regret we cannot offer you a place in our Class of 1975. We realize after these first few words, little can be of faint solace to you….” The letter went on to outline the average SAT scores of those admitted, with my own scores placed in a typed-out purgatory beneath the wondrous ones. Between its lines, the Princeton rejection took offense that I had even applied, amusing me but enraging my father, who wrote a scathing note to the Princeton board, excoriating their implicit sarcasm.
April, the month in which the letters came in, was, to put it mildly, a molten month much in the spirit of my love for lava and eruptions.
By month’s end, the only viable choice I seemed to have was Georgetown, which seemed to have indulged me as a Washington favorite son and rather liked the idea that I might also perform as a short-order cook for more deserving SAT wizards. The comment was tongue-in-cheek but put me off. I made very good omelets that Verbal and Math categories stubbornly ignored.
For a time, I just set aside all the letters and imagined rowing across the North Atlantic.
But wait. Twenty-seven applications had gone out but only twenty-six responses had been logged. What was missing? The obvious, of course: Columbia.
On the last day of April, I received a painfully undernourished envelope from the school my father had left in favor of the Bolsheviks. I imagined a single spartan paragraph with the usual dismissal. Instead, the letter read: “Dear Mr. Winner, We would be most pleased if you begin where your father left off, but in this case remain rooted to the spot, no revolution allowed until you matriculate.”
The rest needs no explanation. Persistence before aptitude, I graduated from Columbia College in 1975, a year after my father’s death, a mission interrupted by history more than fifty years before.