The Skinny Envelope by Director of College Counseling Kate Ramsdell
I remember the moment so clearly, and not because of what it was – but because of what it wasn’t. The school librarian waved me over to the circulation desk, whispering in only the way that librarians do, “The front desk called and your mom is here to see you…. She’ll meet you outside.”
This was, as my husband is so fond of saying, before there were cell phones, and so to my mind, parental contact during the school day could only mean one thing: someone had died. While I’ve always tended towards ‘worse case scenario brain,' at that moment, a death was the only reason I could ever imagine my mom showing up at school in the middle of the day.
I’ll spare the suspense: no one had died.
On a mid-December afternoon, my mother had chased down the mailman to ask him whether or not there was an envelope in his truck addressed to Kate Boyle. Indeed, there was. She procured it and brought it to school. She had left her job during lunch hour to find it, and now she was here with me in front of the library. From her purse she produced a slender, business-sized envelope with a college seal stamped in the left hand corner. “Mrs. Cullen said that the college sends skinny envelopes, even if it’s an acceptance,” she reassured me. Why my mother felt that Mrs. Cullen was suddenly the expert on such matters (other than the fact that she was nosy and her daughter was a freshman at the college that had sent me the letter) annoyed me even more at that moment than my mother’s presence. This, and the tension, squelched any display of my real emotions.
I’ll spare the suspense: Mrs. Cullen was right.
The funny thing is, I know I must have been thrilled, but I can’t remember much that happened after that, other than the fact that my mom then fessed up. She had held the envelope up to the light before driving it to school. She knew that the ‘skinny envelope’ held a ‘fat envelope’ message. We celebrated by going to Bertucci’s for dinner after swim practice with a friend who had also gotten into college that day. My mom liked to tell people that the first words out of my mouth were, “Of course I’m excited, but I won’t be totally happy until my friends get good news.” Whether I was quite so selfless, I’m not entirely sure, but it was freeing to put the college process behind me, and I did want my friends to get good news. I also skipped gym that day, because my teacher told me I could cut class if I got into college.
My father was a first-generation American who didn't go to college until he was working and well into his twenties; he went to night school at CUNY. My mom had the opportunity to attend a four-year liberal arts college, and it wasn’t until we were packing up the attic after she died that I found the telegram that alerted her to the fact that she’d been taken off the waiting list. For my mom, the fact that her oldest child would be leaving home was, in many ways, more momentous than the fact that I’d been accepted early decision to a college. And while what I’d consider to be a temporary lapse in her sanity led her to track down the mailman, I know she only did it because she loved me and she wanted the college I applied to see in me all that she did (at least the good stuff). I am also certain that if the envelope had borne bad news, we probably would have gone to Bertucci’s anyway.
This was over two decades ago, and in that time the ‘game’ of college admission has changed tremendously. The stakes seem higher for many of the kids with whom I work at Nobles, and the competition is certainly stiffer. It is quite likely that today my ‘skinny envelope’ would arrive with a ‘skinny’ outcome.
Over the course of the next few weeks, many members of Class I will receive the proverbial ‘fat envelope’ and others will not. Most of you won’t have the chance to track down the mailman, even if you wanted to, as so many of those messages are now relayed over email or posted in portals, accessed only by a complex tangle of usernames and passwords.
What has not changed in two decades is the fact that your children will graduate from high school and leave home in less than a year – some of them to a college or university that accepts them this month, others to a college or university that accepts them sometime in the next twelve to sixteen weeks, and yet others to a gap experience that might allow them to flourish outside of a traditional college and classroom setting before they make their next move. During this time, they will rely on you for your steadfast love and support, your patience and guidance as they navigate both joy and disappointment. Whether the envelope is fat or skinny, it is my hope that what your kids remember twenty years from now is your unrelenting and unequivocal belief in the notion that wherever they land, they can be successful and that you were proud of them.