Oh, Those Long Summer Days Of College Prep

My 15-year-old daughter got home from camp last night after scoring a 98 on her final exam. This wasn’t your typical summer camp with canoes and campfires and color wars. She spent the last month at a marine-biology camp in the Bahamas getting her diving certification, dissecting a nurse shark and doing a dissertation on the Nassau grouper.

Summers aren’t what they used to be when I was growing up. Back then, when I got out of school in early June, summer stretched before me like an endless Serengeti-a vast space to be whittled away one day at a time; if you were truly ambitious, you’d make a dent in your summer reading list.

But these days you have to accomplish something, or invent something, or cure something at least, to stand a rat’s chance of getting into your first-choice college. “Summer is 12 weeks typically,” observed Katherine Cohen, a private-college admissions advisor who thinks teenagers ought to spend at least eight of those weeks saving the world; to her way of thinking, my ninth grader’s marine-biology program was too short by half.

“The idea is to enhance your strengths or spend that time in the summer working on your weaknesses,” she added. “My recommendation is take a two-week vacation with your family and spend the rest of the summer being productive. If you spend every summer working on your tan, you’re not going to get into college. You can be working, but not on your tan.

“I have one student who is a vegetarian,” Kat went on. “She ended up working for this online vegetarian publication. She wrote articles for the Web site. In her spare time, she worked on a project called Alternatives to Dissection. Not only did she prove it was harmful to animals to dissect them, she proved it was cost-prohibitive to the schools-it’s actually a lot less expensive to use computerized dissection. She got into U. Penn. She also cut off all her hair to donate to this place that makes wigs.”

Ah! But Kat’s definition of productivity may be different than mine. Academic and psychological development aren’t necessarily the same thing. The most productive summer of my life was spent on a Greyhound bus when I’d just turned 16. For those who are unfamiliar with the institution of the “teen tour,” it involves taking about 40 adolescents and hitting every tourist trap in America over the next eight weeks-from the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D., to the Grand Canyon, to Universal Studios in Hollywood.

“I’m not a big fan of teen tours,” Kat Cohen sniffed. “You tend to go with your friends-‘We toured every McDonald’s in the country.'”

Let me tell you about my teen tour. The year was 1969, two summers after the Summer of Love. Music was in the air and people were growing their hair. Everyone except me, that is. I was a sheltered, 6-foot-2, 135-pound, crewcut geek-utterly under my mother’s thumb.

To make matters worse, I was fabulously insecure, especially around girls, having spent most of my life at an all-boys school with little if any exposure to the opposite sex. Shortly, minutes after the bus departed, the theme from the movie Zorba the Greek came over the bus radio. I’m not sure what possessed me, but I jumped into the aisle and started dancing the Sirtaki, the popular Greek dance that I’d learned the previous summer in Athens.

By the time we hit the new Baltimore rest stop on the New York State Thruway, I’d been ostracized, excommunicated, banished to the back of the bus. Even my cousin, who was also on the trip, disowned me. For most of the next month, from the Black Hills through the Grand Tetons, almost all the way to the Pacific Ocean, no one was willing to room with me except for a few other losers who couldn’t find anyone to room with them, either.

There was Mark, who had lots of moles and carried a whip in his luggage; Marty, who played the horses; and Mike, who had a strange fixation with the surrealist painter Yves Tanguy.

But something miraculous happened halfway through the trip: The coolest guy on the bus, a long-haired rock musician named Paul (and who remains my friend to this day), decided I had some amusement value and wanted to be my roommate. How well I remember sitting on the lawn at sunset of the Tip Top Inn in Rapid City, S.D.-or was it the dorms at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor?-all of us listening to Paul play the Beatles’ “Blackbird” beautifully on his guitar. It was the first time I’d heard it-my musical development as delayed as my social development.

By virtue of him discovering me, by the time we returned to New York I may have been the second-coolest dude on the bus. Besides, after eight weeks cross-country, even my hair was starting to grow. And while I didn’t get a girlfriend during the trip-O.K., so maybe I wasn’t that cool-I managed to insinuate myself into the affections of several of them over the next couple of years.

All in all, it was an incredible education. Perhaps my trajectory wasn’t as stark as Bill Clinton’s from Southern fat boy to President of the United States, but it gave one reason for perpetual hope. It suggested, if nothing else that, that life might just as easily break for you as against you.

Perhaps that’s not the same thing as acquiring a skill, but might it not serve you better in the long run? “Future success in life has nothing to do with where you went to college,” Kat Cohen acknowledged. “People come to me because they want to get into a selective university.”

American Trails West, the company that ran my teen tour, is still around, though Howie Fox, one of its directors, says they’ve had to tailor their program to the pressures of this generation. Trips are usually far shorter than my eight weeks, for example. “There is a tremendous trend today to enhance one’s college résumé, to do something that is helpful to the universe,” Howie admitted. “And yeah, tours are not seen as such.”

He defended them nonetheless. “These kids work very hard and are under a lot of stress for 10 months of the year,” he said. “To just continue it for another two months and then go back to school …. There is so much learning that goes on from a teen tour, in terms of interpersonal skills.”

I recounted my story. “I remember you,” he said. “You were very thin and tall.”

And odd-looking, I added. Howie admitted as much, though gently. He’s still selling teen tours, after all, and probably hopes I’ll consider sending my teen next year.

As much I loved it, I’m not sure I would. She has far more going for her than I did. And, of course, I want her to get into her first-choice college.