A Household Word: I Only Want to Help
My 17-year-old son is applying to colleges. He’s narrowing his list of potential schools, re-reading the catalogs, filling out forms and struggling to write his college essay. Throughout this process, he has been remarkably laid back. I, however, am a wreck.

That’s because, for me, these next few months are the culmination of all my parenting efforts since I enrolled him in the Sunshine Nursery School - heck, since I popped that first prenatal vitamin 18 years ago. For my son, it’s just a hassle, something that has turned his mother into a banshee and interfered with the giddy freedom of his senior year. This week, he promised he’d finish his essay.

While other parents hire writing coaches and sign their kids up for weekend seminars guaranteed to produce Pulitzer-worthy prose, my son has shunned offers for professional help. In our house, we rely on good old-fashioned nagging and empty threats (“I’m listing your bed on eBay and converting your room to a home office whether you live here or not”) for creative inspiration.

Deciding on an essay topic has been especially tough. His high-school guidance counselor explained that the personal essay should provide insight into the student’s character. She said that it’s a chance for my son to let the admissions department really get to know him and appreciate his ability to use Spell Check. I’m sure I could help. After all, I’m a writer and I’ve changed this kid’s diapers. I have insight.

But, apparently, my son doesn’t want any help, ideas or even gentle suggestions on potential essay topics from the one who gave him life. He shrugs when I ask if he wants to sit down with me and brainstorm essay topics. None of my ideas seem to excite him at all.

“Write about mountain-climbing last summer, or how you got the lead in the kindergarten play,” I urge. “Tell how you won the wrestling match that clinched the division title during your sophomore year or about that time when you did your own laundry.”

“Mom, I already have a topic,” he deadpans without providing any more information.

“OK,” I concede grudgingly. “But remember, it’s supposed to provide insight.”

He disappears into his bedroom for the rest of the evening. The door slams shut and so does my chance to influence his essay and get him into the college of his choice and out of the house.

It’s hard not to help. When he was in third grade he wouldn’t let me use my hot glue gun on his shoebox diorama and it fell apart on the school bus.

“It’s my project,” he said stubbornly.

When he was a Cub Scout, he built his Pinewood Derby racer all by himself.

“It’s my car,” he insisted. The other kids had dads with power lathes and sanders who made vehicles that looked like they were built by NASA. My son’s car careened off the track.

But now, there’s more at stake.

The guidance counselor’s words ring in my ears and I worry that my son will be too modest. That he’ll be reluctant to toot his own horn and prove to the admissions department what a stellar kid he is. I lie awake at night and outline compositions that showcase his volunteer work, his academic achievements and his ability to make a perfect pie crust. I mentally construct additional paragraphs that focus on his upstanding character, his offbeat sense of humor and his incredibly blue eyes.

“Do you want any help with your essay?” I ask hopefully the minute he comes home from school.

“It’s fine, Mom,” he says with a touch of exasperation. “I worked on it in study hall.”

He slinks out of the kitchen after dinner and eludes my offers to edit his rough draft. I hear Led Zeppelin pounding from his room and hope that it is inspiring him to craft a 500-word essay that will evoke the awe of every admissions officer who reads it – one that will make ’em laugh, make ’em weep and make ’em offer my kid a scholarship for simply being himself. I want him to write an essay that proudly proclaims: “Even though my grades are average, I am not. Admitting me will be the best career move you ever made.”

Since July (when the college guidebooks recommend that students begin their essays and when my son recommended that I “chill out”), I have offered dozens of potential topics and been a pillar of potential assistance. If I could just look at his essay, he’d have a better shot of being among the few, the proud … the college-bound. He’d be able to reach his potential, meet interesting people, travel to new places, and free up his bedroom for my home office.

So, in the interest of his future and my sanity, I snooped. After he left for school one day, I snuck into his bedroom to see how much help he needed. I didn’t have to look far. There, on his desk, amid the empty cans of Dr. Pepper and dirty socks, was his essay. It was neatly typed and still warm from the printer. With trembling hands I picked it up and read the first line.

“The hardest part of writing a college essay is keeping it away from my mom.”

It was a wonderful essay with nary a typo. It made me laugh, it made me cry. And, it made me believe that someday, I just might get that home office.

Carol Band is picking paint colors for her new home office. You can reach her at  Click here for the complete archive of Carol’s Household Word columns.