College and the Healing Power of Christmas Sweaters

He rests his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. I check the time; it is too early. I wonder, did the answer appear already? He raises his head and stares at the screen, his entire body still but for the clenching of his jaw. He checks the time on his phone and his watch. Nope, the information he seeks isn't yet live.

I take in his presence. His tawny hair is a little longer and is loosely combed to the side the way I think it looks best. He's thin. A little pale from a brutal physics test earlier in the day and from the uncertainty, I'm guessing. He's sporting his tweed jacket and tweed bow tie, slim jeans, and dapper shoes that remind me of my grandpas. And Christmas socks. He rocks Christmas socks every day, usually in a color combination that does not match his other clothes. It is when I notice his little quirks, like his love for fancy socks, that my heart soars.

There is an unusual hush in the robotics room. His teammates know what he's doing and they try not to look at him.

Moments pass. He checks the time, again. At 3:28 pm, the specific time indicated in an email, he places his fingers on the keyboard and clicks to access the system. The page starts to load and he stands, taking his computer, and walks into the hall. I ask if I can come along. He says no.

The odds are against him. I've heard the numbers and read the reports. As one of the robotics mentors described, a small percent of almost no one gets in early. And then, fewer than 7% of the thousands of applicants are accepted overall.

3:32 pm. 3:34 pm. I resist the urge to follow him into the hallway. The door opens and I know by his face the answer.

His application to MIT was unsuccessful.

My breath catches in my throat and I freeze. I've pictured this moment in my mind 100 times but I can't remember my plan. I had words to say, reassurances, but they're gone. I watch his face. He's disappointed but steady. He returns to helping his teammates work on their robot. The quiet suffocates me.

I am not the mom who rescues. He clearly understands the responsibilities he's earned as well as the value in not letting those responsibilities make you afraid to venture into the world. I often talk with him about the importance of failing, of trying hard enough, aiming high enough, to force failure. He applied to a school that is nearly impossible to attend. This is what I want for him.

Tomorrow, I'll remember all of this. But right now? I can't see the screen on my phone through the wall of tears I will not to fall. I pretend to be absorbed in work emails. I type these words using memory to guide my thumbs. The tears stay contained. My nose, not so much. A drop of clear mucus wants to fall. I comment loudly about work stuff being a pain and I walk into the hall but I forget to grab the key that will let me into the staff bathroom. I pace down the hallway, tilting my head back to encourage the waterline in my eyes to recede.

If the tears fall, he will know; there is nothing inconspicuous about my post-crying face. While my boy has seen me cry often, I don't want him to think my tears are of disappointment in him. Disappointment for him, yes, but I can't explain the nuance while surrounded by half a dozen teenage boys. And, for the record, I am his team's coach, I didn't just follow him to practice.

I lean my head forward and let the mucus that refuses to retreat back into my nose drip onto the mat in the hallway. I say a silent apology to the introverted man I talk to, as he cleans, every time we stay into the evening for robotics. I breathe deeply in and deeply out. I can do this. I text the news to my friend Michael. He, together with a couple of others, has been the recipient of my angst about Steven's college application process. I say to him what I want to say to Steven and, most of the time, he encourages me to dial down the intensity.

His response is the best answer I could've hoped to receive. "There is nothing that will happen to him in this process that won't help him grow. Other than getting everything he wants. Adversity and a little chip on his shoulder is good for him. Walk him through how to use this. What it means. Make them regret saying "no"." These gorgeous words fill me with calm.

A small laugh bubbles in my throat as I have a vision of an adult Steven, standing in the spotlight before a TED audience, and imagine him saying the words, "my journey to this moment started the day MIT decided not to admit me." And then I think about marching into the MIT admissions office the next day and yelling "big mistake, huge!" like Julia Roberts in the movie Pretty Woman. But I digress.

What will be the topic of his TED Talk? I have no idea.

But I do know one school's shortsighted choice (you gotta give me a little room to rant amid all this practicality) will not slow down my son. He is fierce, he is passionate, he is thoughtful, and he is determined to change the world. I have no doubt he will do just that.

I finish writing this story (sorry for ignoring you, mom!) just as the lights dim before Steven's final winter choir concert. The singers enter the room in a long single-file line, each wearing a gaudy Christmas sweater, and surround the audience for a surprise performance that is not listed in the program. As the song begins, 134 kids shift to the music. I see only one of their number. Steven moves his body with joy; I can feel how happy this choir makes him. He sways with a bit of a bounce on the beat, and I again award myself credit for his dancing rhythm; his dad is great at a lot of things but this, Steven inherited from me.

In a flash, as his energy radiates to my seat several rows away, the pent-up tears are streaming down my face, meeting my lips smiling so widely, my cheeks hurt. I feel like I might actually burst with love. I whisper to my mom, "he's going to be okay."