For some kids and parents this may have been a tough week after getting the proverbial thin envelope from Notre Dame. For others - congratulations. You've earned it. Make Notre Dame proud.
My daughter received the bad news three years ago. Below is an essay I wrote to talk about the struggle of rejection from a parent's perspective. It will be published in a literary journal in a few months but I figured with a "record-low" acceptance rate, the time and audience feels right to get it out there.
One Brick Missing
The news came as a curt text for which my wife later apologized. Denied. My daughter, Madeline, had been rejected by her dream school, the same college my wife and I had attended, Notre Dame.
The message was gracious and even referenced how difficult this was considering that Madeline was a legacy. But it was still a paragraph, and essentially said eighteen years of dreams, late night study sessions, SAT prep work, and countless hours of extra-curricular activities came down to not being good enough. And that was it. Final answer.
It is hard to judge the impetus for another’s grief. I have experienced the loss of a parent, a friend, and countless pets. I know what sadness feels like. And there is no feeling of grief like seeing your child suffer. It is a gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness. Those at work did not understand the complexity of the pain. Words of encouragement (“Hey there are other places. She’ll get in elsewhere.”) fell on deaf ears. For me, there was only one Notre Dame. Others took a different tack (“So does that mean you’re not going to root for the football team this year?”), to which my response was less cordial. Throughout your life you want to tell your children that they can do anything and be anything, and that they should dream big. In the back of your mind though you know that lives are filled with more rejection than success and that coping with adversity is the greatest tool you can have in your personal workshop.
Madeline ultimately survived the pain. She recovered and landed at a great school. “This is Madeline’s story,” my wife cautioned me. And she is right. Madeline has a story to tell and I look forward to reading it one day. It will be a remarkable story of redemption and how rejection does not have to take your soul along for the ride downhill to depression.
My story is a different one. My recovery started slowly, perhaps because I had lived the dream for longer and Notre Dame had always been a part of my DNA. Madeline was born a year after my wife and I graduated from Notre Dame Law School. Her first onesie was emblazoned with “Notre Dame” on it. “Class of 2023” said another one, a milestone so far away that it seemed impossible to conceive, a lifetime of memories to be made as we shaped and molded this speck of a person.
My own parents had no connection to Notre Dame. My father took me to the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech football game when I was six while we lived briefly in Atlanta. My passion for the Fighting Irish only swelled as we dodged fish and whiskey bottles that were hurled at us during the Notre Dame victory. My father was a fighter but he was smart enough to know not to grapple with an army of drunk fans who had the foresight to pack carp in their coolers. Throughout my childhood the place remained a mystery, an Oz that only revealed itself on television and in the myths of the books I read.
When I got to high school, I learned that my prowess in an obscure sport (lacrosse) at the time would earn me attention from a number of schools, including Notre Dame. I visited the land of Oz and my fate was set. My father’s pride was only matched by his disappointment that Georgia Tech did not have a Division 1 lacrosse team. He carried grudges.
My decision to return to Notre Dame for law school was not an easy one as I thought the experience would taint the remarkable one I had as an undergrad. While living in Washington, DC, I attended a speech by the sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who was the influence for Jerry Maguire, a movie that had just released starring Tom Cruise. I met him after the lecture and we chatted briefly as he was gracious with his time. He implored me to attend Notre Dame because “that’s where Jerry went,” referencing the Notre Dame logo conspicuous on Maguire’s shirt as he writes his pivotal mission statement, “The Things We Think and Do Not Say,” which sets Jerry on a path of self-discovery after the proclamation causes him to lose his job.
I earned my second degree from Notre Dame, fell in love along the way, and had Madeline soon after. My wife and I never overtly pushed for Madeline to love Notre Dame as we did. It just happened. My best friends were graduates and I stayed in touch with many, attending weddings and birthday parties in the various cities across the U.S. where they resided. Notre Dame football afternoons were sacred. Madeline and her younger sister learned swear words from my impulsive reaction to what I considered imprudent coaching decisions.
All the while Madeline was developing into a strong student. She worked hard, captained her lacrosse team, starred in the school play, volunteered, earned straight As, and saw things that other children her age did not. During the summer between her Junior and Senior years of high school, we created a list of potential college options. But who were we fooling? Notre Dame was her destiny and she had earned it.
The members of the Admissions Committee thought differently, and I did not embrace their decision. I did not handle the rejection well, especially after fundraising emails started trickling in. I am my father’s son. Days were filled with anger, sadness, envy, and mostly second-guessing. The news came at the same time as the infamous Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. I hit rock bottom when I read of Felicity Huffman’s plea deal – a $30,000 fine, 14 days in prison and 250 hours of community service – and thought to myself, “Well that doesn’t seem so bad considering her kid got in.”
My wife’s frustration simmered but she moved on. She is a better person than me. One night I again raised the topic about which I was obsessed and she asked, “What do you want them to do? What would heal the wounds?”
It was a good question. Short of an email saying, “Sorry. We were mistaken. We got Madeline confused with another child,” I knew there was nothing. It was my problem that I could not accept the finality. The wounds remained open after discovering the source that had catapulted me into this situation 18 years ago. While surfing the internet I landed on an article referencing the Mission Statement from Jerry Maguire. The director and writer of the movie, Cameron Crowe, had uploaded the full “The Things We Think and Do Not Say” mission statement onto his site, https://www.theuncool.com/.
I studied the piece as if I was a historian uncovering a lost manuscript. The movie in many ways had shaped my life. One passage reads as if Maguire is talking directly to Notre Dame:
"People always respond best to personal attention, it is the simplest and easiest truth to forget.
We must crack open the tightly clenched fist of commerce and give a little back for the greater good. Eventually revenues will be the same, and that goodness will be infectious. We will have taken our number oneness and turned it into something greater. And eventually smaller will become bigger, in every way, and especially in our hearts."
A week after my wife challenged me, I returned with a prescription.
“A phone call,” I said. “Or a personal email. Just something to know that this was a difficult decision and that they recognize the pain it caused. It would be difficult. I understand that. For them and me. But I would have appreciated the personal attention.”
During the Winter Break of her Freshman Year, Madeline returned to Zurich, the city our family now called home. Madeline and I went to a bar called the Old Crow. She was 18 and of legal age in Switzerland. Madeline and I enjoyed our conversation as we always did. We navigated topics ranging from the serious to the mundane. We danced around Notre Dame and after ordering my second Gin & Tonic I asked the question that I had thought about since that fateful day in April. “Is there any way you might want to transfer to Notre Dame?”
“No,” she said emphatically. “No. Not at all. I’m happy.”
“OK,” I replied. “That’s great. I support your decision.”
But the conversation was not over. “Are you though?” Madeline asked after a long pause. “Are you happy with that?”
“Of course,” I said. She paused and then offered the question that had been lingering in her own mind since April.
“But are you still proud of me? Did I disappoint you?” Madeline asked.
The accolades bestowed on the Old Crow are well-deserved. It is a phenomenal bar and I recommend it highly. And if you had walked into the establishment on that evening you would have found a middle-aged man clutching his Gin & Tonic and beginning to cry shamelessly. I realized then that for Madeline it was about more than Notre Dame. My wife was right: my story was not her story. In Madeline’s eyes, the rejection from Notre Dame was not only from an institution but from us. My despondency, my anger, only exacerbated that feeling of rejection. For eight months, she had thought of herself as not good enough, that she had fallen short in her lifelong desire to demonstrate that her dreams were the same as ours. I had failed to heed the advice of Jerry Maguire and share the words we as parents Think but do not Say, at least often enough: You are good. You are special. You make us so proud.
Crisis can yield clarity. It can offer a chance of rebirth and renewal, a cleansing of the mind and spirit. My daughter’s rejection was a gift. One, granted, I would have likely returned had I been given the opportunity. It made me realize that I am not defined by institutions regardless of the tremendous influence they may have had on me. I value the worth of the individual and have been forever shaped by the vast number of places I have visited, people I have met, and books that I have read.
The Notre Dame campus remains a magnificent place that I will forever cherish. But Notre Dame was never about buildings. People are the bricks of the institution. Notre Dame was built brick-by-brick by the people who called the campus home. I am proud to have contributed a brick, a small one in its vast universe. Only now when I look back it is with the sadness that there is one brick missing. But I am at least buoyed by the thought that it lies elsewhere and is part of something different. Something that is only Madeline’s.