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‘Whiff of Ambition’ Ups Tuition

It was the modern equivalent of the Grand Tour, the Henry Jamesian visit to the Continent. I, the worldly doyenne, was taking my innocent teen-age daughter abroad. But instead of steaming across the channel for months in Europe, we were flying for a weekend in Chicago.

It is part of a long, expensive process called Choosing a College. Rather than select from a range of excellent and relatively bargain-rate colleges in her native California, my daughter has decided to explore her options. This means seeing how much of her parents’ retirement money she can blow in four years.

In this game, the jackpot is getting into a fancy Eastern private school. If you win, Amherst gets all your parents’ dough.

Since I had business in Chicago, I took the kid along to see Northwestern University, one of several cash drains she is considering. Although only a high school junior, she is already planning her attack on college admissions, trying to figure out how she can make herself look studious, well-rounded, quirky, yet malleable on paper. She has what my husband calls “the whiff of ambition.”

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My favorite moment on the trip was when we had to fight to open the door of the hotel against the wind, sleet and bone-chilling cold on a 20-degree March day in Chicago. I stared at her sun-kissed freckled nose and said: “We’re not in California anymore, kiddo.”

The ideal plan would have been to drive directly to the beach when we landed home and offer her the Golden State Education Bonus: “Go to a University of California and we’ll throw in a free used car!”

I tried to show her the scummier side of Chicago, my hometown, but she found it all fascinating. I took her to see my high school, a huge fortress built a hundred years ago, unbroken by the patios and picnic tables that characterize a California school building.

“You’d never have a building like this in California,” she said.

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“You mean this ugly?” I asked.

“No, I mean brick. It’s not earthquake-proof.”

In short, she loved everything about Chicago--the bricks, the food, the exotic people. She didn’t mind waiting outside on a freezing night for a table at Gino’s pizzeria--"the best.”

She laughed when the 10th person said to her, “That’s the el--short for elevated train . They call it ‘The Loop’ because it’s surrounded by a loop of train tracks.”

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I thought she would hate it, but she wanted to see all the places she had been hearing about all her life: “Show me where you walked a mile in the snow and cold like Abe Lincoln to get to school in your little plaid dresses.”

My only opportunity to convey to her a sense of the hardship she was facing came when we woke up in the hotel and she realized she’d forgotten something. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I cannot leave this room without mousse.”

So I wandered The Loop at 7 in the morning, contemplating a future without my daughter, humming, “I Wish They All Could Be California Girls.”

As I handed her the bottle, I said: “I want you to realize what going away to college means. It means no one will ever get up and get you mousse in the morning again.”

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And just for an instant, her eyes glazed over with the terror that lies ahead.


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