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Seeking colleges, finding ourselves

Updated: February 26, 2013 6:23AM

‘We can all fit,” said the sophomore, starting our tour of Swarthmore.

In the hall, that seemed unlikely. But all 21 prospective students and their parents trooped into the gal’s bedroom for a gander. “I’m living with my friend Sophie,” she said.

She was indeed, the two single beds pushed together. Our guide spoke more, but in truth it was a background hum, as my eyes lingered on that double bed, a stuffed bunny peeking benignly out from under the covers.

American society has made rapid progress extending civil rights to gays — gratifyingly quick for a culture still clinging to copper pennies. And I’ve been applauding that for 20 years. But somehow, to my surprise, defending the humanity of an oppressed group is different than taking a college tour and being confronted with a literal love nest — that Hamlet line, “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,” flashed in mind. Maybe I’m just a prude. But it startled me, as did my knotted reaction. I busied myself reading the “Prenuptial agreement” posted on the wall, multi-colored pen on pink construction paper, including line items regarding grape gummies, “The Hunger Games” and hugs.

My 17-year-old and I were at the elite school in Pennsylvania because he wants to be a neuroscientist, and he heard he’d get more lab time at a liberal arts college — direct work with professors instead of sitting at the back of a huge hall listening to grad students.

That notion died for us on the wooded walkways of Swarthmore somewhere between that dorm room and the library, with its big supply of comic books in the lounge, plus the school’s swimming requirement — an early 20th century anachronism that lingers at a few colleges — and the candlelight ceremony at the outdoor amphitheater.

I kept contrasting this with the day before, our visit to Johns Hopkins, the Baltimore university famous for its medical school. We met with a neuroscience professor, and while I didn’t take notes, his comments will forever live in my memory as: Oh sure, you can go to some liberal arts school, where you’ll have “good teachers” who will instruct you on the brain. Or you can go to a top research institution like Johns Hopkins where you’ll be working side-by-side with future winners of the Nobel Prize in Medicine. You can spend four years reading journals like Science and Nature. Or you can do work that ends up published in Science and Nature.

I worried: Is my boy ready for that?

In Swarthmore’s defense, they presented as eloquent an argument for a well-rounded education as I ever expect to hear.

“You are being prepared to be a socially and civically responsible global citizen,” said admissions staffer Ruby Bhattacharya. “Swarthmore is challenging. Swarthmore is hard. We are constantly asking students to think why they think the way they think.” To that end, the first freshman semester is pass/fail — no grades. “You start to ask yourself a very different set of questions,” said senior Nate Lo. “Why do you take a class? You look for some value beyond a number.”

For one delicious moment, I mused if this might not be better for my kid. A less grueling path. But he shook off that idea with a shudder, like a dog after a bath. Some don’t mind being a number. Some really like numbers. Some have pi memorized to 100 digits.

The next day, at the University of Pennsylvania, nobody mentioned swimming or candle ceremonies. We started at BIBB249 Cognitive Neuroscience — they encourage you to sit in on classes — in a big seminar hall with 100 kids. The lesson was on equilibrium potential of ions of potassium and sodium when passing through a membrane.

“What were the quantities that go into the Nernst equation?” the professor asked.

My heart sank. The prospect of an hour of this was dismaying to me, forget a year or 10. These waters were too deep, and I had pushed him in. My fault. I glanced over to the boy whose dreams would now drown. He was leaning forward, focusing on the professor.

“Here’s the question,” the prof said, directing a bright ruby laser pinpoint to these words: “What happens to the net force on the K+ ion if the membrane potential moves away from -75mV in the positive direction?”

“Any idea?” I whispered, jokingly.

“It would move outward,” he replied.

I sat back, startled, almost frightened. “What makes you say that?” I asked.

“Based on my 20 minutes in class,” he replied. “Because the diffusion force will be greater than the electrical force.”

“The net force is out,” the professor said. “I hope that is evident to everyone.”

More evident to some than to others.

“This is easy!” my son whispered.

Children are enigmas that arrive as 8-pound parcels and depart, 18 years later, their mysteries often intact. I shouldn’t still be surprised at this point, but I am. Maybe he’ll figure out the neurological basis of that.

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