Discover more from The Granny Who Stands on her Head
Thought for the Fortnight
My 17-year-old grandson is in the process of exploring where he wants to go to university. As usual, there are ‘good’ places and ‘better’ places, and he is pondering what he wants, where he is likely to be accepted and the general implications of any decision.
This got me reminiscing about how I didn’t get accepted by my first choice of college (Radcliffe College, then connected to Harvard University and later merged with it). Nor the second for that matter, although that was never such a big deal.
I was devastated at the time and felt a complete failure at the age of 17.
But, in fact, that one failure was a major turning point in how my life turned out. At the time, I was sure it would be for the worse. In retrospect, I think it was hugely for the better.
How many decisions – whether made by you or made for you – change the course of your life on the turn of a dime?
My story in brief
Not all decisions about which university to attend seriously alter your life, although they do doubtless bend it in small ways.
But in my case, because I failed to get a place at either of my first choices, I went to a large State University, which had been suggested as a fallback by a friend of my family who taught there.
(As I thought it would never happen, I didn’t think any fallback mattered much. Oh dear, how unable we are to imagine the worst when we are young. Or, perhaps I should say, when we are young and an inveterate optimist.)
Although I was happy enough with the education at this university, I was keen to get away and do a ‘junior year abroad’ (for non-Americans, this is studying abroad during the third year of a four-year course). I applied to spend a year at the London School of Economics and was thrilled to be accepted.
And, within a week or so of starting the course, I met and fell in love with an English student, then in the last year of his economics undergraduate course. Such things do tend to happen at that age.
We eventually married and, after a period in the U.S., decided to live in London. We had two children, who each had one son, including the one currently considering what university to attend.
I am very certain that I never would have undertaken the year abroad had I gone to either of the other colleges. Both would have discouraged such a plan.
It is somehow interesting to consider counterfactuals.
A counterfactual, for those unfamiliar with the word, is an exercise in thinking about what would have happened if a different decision had been made at some point along the way.
Some students of history love to explore these ideas. What would have happened to civil rights legislation if President Kennedy had not been shot? Or how would the Second World War have turned out if the Japanese had not bombed Pearl Harbour?
One can spend hours on these hypothetical questions.
Perhaps it is something about growing older that makes us think more consciously about our past decisions and how we got to be where we are.
I have already written one article about how I had once wanted to be a ballet dancer, but that was slightly tongue-in-cheek. Yes, I did want to be a dancer when I was a child, but it was a very unlikely outcome in any case.
But I could well have been accepted at one of the two colleges of my choice (I was even put on the waiting list for Radcliffe). I have no idea what I would have decided to study (my eventual decision was highly influenced by a very stimulating professor of political thought) nor who I would have married.
It is very unlikely that I would have ended up living in London, which has been my home for nearly 50 years. And certainly not with the same Englishman to whom I have been married for sixty years.
Strange to think. And, as I recently commented to my daughter, if I had got into a different college, where would you all have been?
I have thought about letting my grandson know that wonderful new worlds can open up even if he doesn’t get into his first choice of university. But I don’t think he would believe me. I wouldn’t have at this age. And anyway, what do I know?
Do you ever think about the slim threads on which our lives depend? What if you hadn’t gone to that particular party? What if that special high school teacher hadn’t urged you to follow a particular dream? What if you hadn’t got pregnant when you did?
You can take it even further and speculate on what if your parents had not met by chance on a particular day. And so forth up the line.
It can all unravel in the time it takes to ask the question.
A version of this article was first published by Sixtyandme.com