The Counselor’s Holiday

Editor’s note: This essay was first published on Counselors’ Corner.

It’s not exactly a mix of students you can predict. Athletes have holiday practice, so are rarely represented; students from coastal colleges are typically overrepresented, and the valedictorian isn’t usually in sight. Yet, there they randomly gather, about a dozen of them, starting around 12:30, smart enough not to come for lunch, but eager to get caught in the milieu of lunch period changing into the next class period that feels like a hero’s welcome to them.

They are last year’s seniors, coming back to say hi at Thanksgiving.

The first thing you notice is how grown up they seem. Sure, they’re still students, but they don’t seem as ragtag as they did last year, wearing more sweaters, and more corduroy. At least one guy is sporting facial hair, which he desperately hopes speaks for itself. At least one woman has stopped shaving her leg hair, which she brags about with a delight that is especially liberating, both for her and you. Nearly all of them are keen to say college food isn’t really all that bad, but more than one of them will be surprised how empty their parent’s refrigerator is. “I can actually see the lightbulb in the back of the top shelf. Didn’t they know I’d be coming home?”

Some of their stops are expected. They pay homage to the English 12 teacher who begged them to find empathy for J. Alfred Prufrock (“I’m reading Langston Hughes now in freshman comp, so I finally get it”), and the Algebra II teacher who taught them just enough to place out of the college-wide math requirement seems to get more hugs than they know what to do with. The elective teachers still have their fans, particularly the choir teacher (“I thought of you when we sang Britten’s ‘Requiem’ on Veterans Day”) and the psychology teacher, who is told by all of them that they’ve taken an intro course, and are changing their major next semester.

A healthy number of them manage to find their way to you, including some students who needed very little help getting into college. They intuitively remember how exhausting November is for you, so they’re kind enough to remind you of their name, and where they’re going. Some will reassure you their minds are being expanded (“I’m seeing things in The Federalist Number 65 that were never there before”), they are surviving their roommates (“but she’s only changed her sheets once”), or they remember a piece of advice you offered them (“You were sure right about me and eight o’clocks. I should have listened.”)

ALL of them will have ways you can be a better college counselor. “Tell them to apply sooner. No—make them apply sooner. Especially the financial forms.”

“Get the school to run a bus on Saturday so they can go visit a campus. It’s so different seeing it in person.”

“Tell them not to blow off senior year. I forgot everything I knew about studying, and it’s been rough.”

Many boys will try to shake your hand when they say goodbye, most squeezing far too hard. Most girls will not hug you, but they will thank you, turning their heads ever so slightly to the side when they speak to add authenticity. They’ll all make a point of leaving ten minutes before the last bell sounds; it’s their version of skipping school, or reminding you—and themselves—of their freedom from this bastion of hall passes and puppy love.

Industries have been founded on the notion that holidays are noisy things, moments that demand consecrated time, resources, and recognition. Each year, on the last day before Thanksgiving vacation, I hear the voices of our youngest alumni fading down the hallway, and realize a quiet sense of completeness that cannot be brought by the shiniest of one-day delivered boxes.

And hope is kindled anew.

NACAC Past President Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools (MI). He has served as president of the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling and is the author of two books — College Counseling for School Counselors: Delivering Quality, Personalized College Advice to Every Student on Your (Sometimes Huge) Caseload and College is Yours 2.0: Preparing, Applying, and Paying for Colleges Perfect for You. You can read more from O’Connor’s on The Huffington Post and Counselors’ Corner blog.

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