The Understudy

I felt the question coming like a dog feels the pulse of the earth before a quake. I had tracked Monsignor’s comments from, “How quickly they grow,” to, “What grade are you in this year, Ann?” and I knew what came next. So did Ann. Exactly one beat before the question came, we exchanged a look that said, on her part: “Don’t you dare!” and on mine: “Watch me.”

A little rock to his heels, a pat of my hand, and Monsignor, with absolute confidence, asked, “So, Mom, has Ann decided where she’d like to go to college?”

Following an inaudible, “Thank you, God,” I dropped my chin, blinked once (very slowly), and lowered my voice to inside-the-confessional volume. “Well, Monsignor, we’re not sure that Ann is headed to college at all.”

I might as well have said that Ann’s plans for the future included selling crack and, if necessary, selling her eggs to support her habit. Growing up in Westchester, California, means that you go to college. Toss in the fact that her father is a philosophy professor and that we’ve nearly bankrupted ourselves sending her to private schools, and Monsignor couldn’t have been more surprised if I’d announced a longing to share his celibate bed.But priests are used to working with the public, and Monsignor recovered quickly.

“Well, you don’t need a college degree to get into heaven.” He smiled at Ann; and she, being well brought-up, smiled back and answered, “That’s true.”

The fall-out would come, I knew, in a minute, after Monsignor made his escape. But for the moment I just inhaled slowly, wrapped my arm around Ann’s wooden shoulders, and beamed: “She has so many nice qualities. I just know she’ll find something meaningful to do with her life. Not everyone is meant to go to college.”

Monsignor quickly threw in something about a girl from our parish who considered the army. She decided against it — seems she wanted to go to college instead, but it was the only precedent he could lay hold of, and I had to give him credit. “Ann would make an excellent soldier,” I responded. But before I could really get going on the topic, Ann had divested herself of my arm and Monsignor had made his get-away.

“Why do you do that? That is sooo rude.” Ann hissed. “You know I only said that one time. One time I said I didn’t know if I wanted to go to college, and you will not let it die. What is wrong with you?

“One time” is not exactly true. In reality, Ann proclaims her disdain for college every time a report card is mailed home and she has to confront her grades, which stubbornly insist on reflecting her effort.  Her defense — because what high school girl will admit to poor time-management, abject laziness, and wishful thinking — is to declare, in an avant-garde kind of way, that she’s not at all sure she wants to go to college anyway. So take that, Harvard!  

But because she is playing into my game so beautifully, I let it go. The argument continues, of course, for many minutes. She is 17, and no argument is really over until she feels she has won. And I let her, knowing that the real victory, the one I learned about from my own mother, is mine.

“Set the bar low,” my mother would advise
her friends, “and watch your kids leap over it. Nothing so galls a child, so spurs him on, as being underestimated.” And though her friends found her Dr. Spock-ish advice barbaric (it was the 1980s and the psychologists had just discovered self-esteem), my mother was actually right.

“Homework? That’s your business,” she’d say. “Lord, it’s not like I didn’t work all day.” And, “Listen, a ‘C’ is a perfectly respectable grade. It’s not called ‘the gentleman’s C’ for nothing.” So my brother and I realized that if we were to make anything of ourselves, it was up to us. I realized this sooner than my brother and took all honors classes in high school and signed myself up for and found rides to the SAT and later the GRE. My brother learned it later, barely graduating from high school but making up for it by becoming a doctor.

I don’t expect Ann to pursue medicine — she’s afraid of needles, for one thing. “Listen,” I told her, “not everyone gets vaccinated. A certain number of people take that chance every year and get away with it. Only you can weigh the risk of lockjaw against a three second poke.” But I do have a suspicion that, this fall, she’ll begin mentioning the SAT and showing tentative interest in the application process.

Of course, I could be wrong. She could be playing me. She is the daughter of a philosopher, after all, and is prematurely familiar with the basic syllogism. While tolerating my antics, I would not be surprised if she were thinking: “Mothers like to manipulate their daughters. I am a daughter. Therefore, my mother likes to manipulate me.” But even if it turns out that way, and she decides to become a pet groomer rather than major in Russian literature, I will still contend that we’ve had a good run and that it was worth the risk. After all: Mothers have unconditional love for their daughters. I am Ann’s mother. Therefore, I love her unconditionally.


Jennifer Kaczor lives in Los Angeles with her husband and seven children. She’s written for National Review, Catholic Exchange, Inside Catholic, and the Bellingham Review.

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