My 22-year-old daughter works as a barista at a Peet’s Coffee not too far from where she grew up. Which is a totally normal thing to say except that where she grew up is Palo Alto, California—a town built in the shadow of Stanford University, where 13 percent of the population holds advanced degrees and the median house price is over $3 million.
Palo Alto is a city where everyone has to be good at something, which was why my husband and I bought a house here 24 years ago. My husband was a resident at Stanford, I had just finished my PhD in Comparative Literature and was working as a lecturer at Stanford, and Palo Alto was clearly the place where smart, successful people went to be smart and successful. Also, the schools were good.
The schools were good but not for everyone
It turned out that while the schools were indeed good, they were not good for everyone. They were not, for instance, good for our daughter, who struggled with depression and anxiety and learning differences and the stubborn conviction that everyone else was smarter and more successful than she was. And in a place where success is measured by acronyms—GPA, SAT, ACT, AP, HYPS—there’s little room for other metrics.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
My daughter and I had dinner together a few days ago, and she was telling me about her work day, which involved a latte that had to be exactly 182 degrees, a mocha with no shots for a woman who didn’t want to be seen ordering a hot chocolate, and another woman who ordered a cappuccino, sized her up, and asked “Why aren’t you in school?”
“What did you tell her?” I asked.
“I told her I was in school,” my daughter said.
My daughter IS in school
It’s true. My daughter is in school. She is currently a straight-A student at Foothill Community College, where she’s taking three courses while working 30 hours a week. She has struggled with fearsome demons and come out on top. This is a huge win. But in Palo Alto, where she grew up, community college is not what most parents who move here because the schools are good imagine for their children.
I know this because I’ve worked as a private college admissions consultant for the past 16 years, often with students who are juniors and seniors attending these good schools. I’ve worked with students who seem to be effortlessly carrying an academic course load of five advanced placement classes, playing two varsity sports, and mentoring first generation students learning how to code (it’s almost always coding—we’re in Palo Alto, after all—but sometimes it’s other things too).
I’ve worked with other students who have had to take an academic leave for anxiety, depression, OCD, eating disorders, but who are nonetheless fixated on getting into a good college, which usually means one or more of the Ivy League schools and/or Stanford and/or, if they must, Berkeley or UCLA. When I say that they seem to be overwhelmed and distressed and suggest that they consider a gap year or one of the two excellent local community colleges at a fraction of the cost of a four-year college so they can regain their equilibrium and apply to a four-year college from a place of strength, their faces tighten.
Many don’t consider community college as an option, they should
They do not want to consider community college or a gap year—for many reasons, but often because their parents, who, like my husband and me, moved to Palo Alto because the schools were good, do not want to consider those possibilities. The students envision what will happen in the spring of their senior year, when all anyone can talk about is who is going where this fall. The parents envision barbecues and hiking trips with friends who have high school-aged children and shudder.
What will people think? What will they post—or not post—on social media? What will they write in their holiday card? Affix to their car bumper? The shame of it all. The thinly veiled looks of pity from other parents in the cereal aisle at Trader Joe’s.
And because the idea of missing a stop on the success train—good school to good college to good job—is too gruesome for words, no one likes to talk about it. And so we don’t.
Potential responses to an intrusive question
My daughter and I spent a good half hour considering things she could have said to Cappuccino Lady. Among them:
-I went to the school of hard knocks.
-I’m conducting field research for my anthropology PhD, which focuses on public/employee interactions at local coffee shops.
-None of your business.
-I have three children under age five and I have to support them somehow [discreetly sliding the tip jar closer to Cappuccino Lady].
What galls me most of all is the assumption that my daughter should be in school instead of working a menial job, that there is only one way to be successful and being a barista at Peet’s is not it. I’ve spent several days spinning a world of possibilities in my head where I set Cappuccino Lady straight, including being at Peet’s at the very moment she asks my daughter why she’s not in school.
In this scenario, I storm up to her and shout, “Do you know what this girl has been through? Do you know that she’s one of the most naturally gifted writers I’ve ever known, that she has pored over the UC Santa Cruz course catalog and wants to take “Histories and Cultures of Piracy” and “Monsters in Literature” after she transfers, that she reads everything from science fiction to James Baldwin’s “Nothing Personal,” that when we watched the second season of The White Lotus, she made offhand remarks about plot and character development that would put a seasoned television critic to shame?
Not everyone can or wats to go to college
And you know what else, Cappuccino Lady?” I imagine myself yelling, hands on my hips, frothing with indignation. “Not everyone can go to college. Not everyone wants to go to college. Not everyone thrives in college. Success is not one-size-fits-all. I know people who didn’t graduate from college who lead meaningful lives, and I know people who graduated from good colleges (the best colleges! The US News & World Report says so!) who are incurious and arrogant and not that much fun to spend time with. But sure, let’s continue to use narrow metrics to define what it means to be successful. That’s worked out well. There’s a whole book, in fact, about how well it worked out!”
Eventually, my Walter Mitty fantasy deflates. My daughter doesn’t need me to fight her battles. She knows what she knows; she’s emerging from the shadow of growing up in Palo Alto, and she’s stronger and more resilient and more vibrant for it. She has learned so much already, and she will continue to learn, and there are so many things about her that make me proud, not least of which is that she is currently working on mastering latte art, where you make intricate designs in the foam. She’s starting with a heart.
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