The Great College Admissions Scandal of ‘78
I recently read this headline on my Google news page: “Lori Loughlin Puts College Admissions Scandal Behind Her with Luxurious Mexican Vacation.” My immediate reaction was relief. Hadn’t that sainted woman been through enough?
It brought me back to an earlier, more innocent outrage. I vividly remember the great College Admissions Scandal of ’78 which my own parents were caught up in. While I was a child of wealth and privilege (we had an indoor bathroom), I myself had no idea that they had interfered in any way with my being accepted at the prestigious State University of New York at Plattsburgh. I should have been suspicious, especially when Mom made me wear a pair of swimming goggles to my interview.
“Let me do all the talking,” she said. “Just nod when I say something.”
Though I was rather disoriented from the tight, tinted goggles obstructing my vision, I remember the admissions counselor being quite perplexed as my mother — as I understand it now — tried to “sell” me.
“Did we tell you he can swim?” Mom said after every question the counselor asked. “He’s in the pool all day with the other kids. The lake too. Swim swim swim! Can’t get them out. Sometimes I think they’re marine life instead of humans.”
When the counselor asked me directly why I was considering Plattsburgh, Mom interrupted, “The Olympic-size pool. He’s won every medal you can win for the high school team.”
This might not technically have been a lie since my high school did not have a pool or a swim team. On our way out, Dad slipped the counselor a Kennedy half-dollar. “There’s more where that came from,” he said, and winked.
I thought their behavior very strange, but as a typical teen I was embarrassed by them no matter what they did. Only later did I understand that I would never have gotten into Plattsburgh without their nefarious efforts.
When they dropped me off in September, they told me to expect a visit from the swim coach sometime in the first few weeks.
“Throw this on when he shows up,” Dad said, handing me a tiny, painful-looking Speedo. “But until then, study hard and do your work like the unathletic kids.” I was confused by these directions, especially since the only sport I had played in grades 9–12 was occasionally walking home from school when I missed the bus.
The closest I ever came to the actual pool itself was when I tried to fulfill my PE requirement by signing up for Basic Swimming. However, the professor withdrew me by mid-term, an act I still consider unfair and harsh. She should have been a little more sensitive to my fear of wearing a bathing suit in public. I was self-conscious about being such a large, hairy boy, so I had taken to simply observing from the deck of the pool, calling to the professor how I would be swimming if I were indeed in the water.
When the scandal broke during my sophomore year, I learned to my horror just how corrupt my parents had been in their zeal to get me into an ivy league college. (One of the older buildings on the Plattsburgh campus had ivy growing on it, though it might have been moss.) As it turned out, my parents, who were both avid gardeners, had bribed the aforementioned admissions counselor with a basket of root vegetables which they claimed to have been sown of heirloom seeds from “the old country.” Since my father was from Sicily and my mother from Ireland, I assume they didn’t specify which old country.
Anyway, the scandal did break, and at least fifty of us privileged kids were summarily dismissed from our dream college. While my parents never served time for their malfeasance, they were forced to pay a huge fine which was a terrible hardship for the family, especially when they had to dip into their S&H green stamps to make the sum. But the worst scars were not physical. My parents had betrayed me, humiliated me, and robbed me of the opportunity to prove myself academically of my own volition. I never forgave them. Worse, in buying my way into Plattsburgh, they had denied a seat to another, hardworking student who thus surely never achieved their dreams, who certainly wound up scrounging a living collecting grocery carts in Price Chopper parking lots.
Years later, when I was trying to get my dog into the most prestigious daycare in Saratoga County, I understood what had motivated my parents to break the law. You will do anything for your children. You want to make their lives easier than yours was. But when we were meeting with the admissions counselor at Bark Not Bite, I had agonizing second thoughts about the bribe I had planned related to selling my dog as a super-athlete. I chose, ultimately, not to carry it through. During the interview I did not present the picture I had Photoshopped of my dog’s head on a water polo player’s body. Instead I let my dog’s real accomplishments speak for themselves — sleeping most of the day, occasionally rolling in poo, chasing UPS drivers back to their trucks.
He didn’t get in ultimately, but he also didn’t prevent a more accomplished dog from achieving its dreams.