The Day of Flags

Late on Memorial Day I left my apartment, walked downstairs, crossed the street, and entered a cemetery. I don't know the name of the burial field, but it's one of two near my house with neat rows of gray headstones shaded by willow trees. A few days earlier I noticed that someone had marked all the grave stones of those who served in our Armed Forces with 2-foot tall American flags. I presume it was the cemetery workers, but it could have been the local American Legion, or perhaps a Boy Scout troop. Back in Ohio, my troop used to raise and lower 500 flags at a veterans cemetary every Memorial Day and July 4th. I got very good at folding them into the padded triangles of blue stars that you see at military funerals. But this time I went to look at the flags, and the graves they adorned. I went looking for stories in the names, dates and records told in stone.
I found two markers grouped together sharing the same last name. The larger stone was for the mother and father, the smaller for their son missing in action in North Korea, 1952. The mother died in 1951. The son went missing a year later. The father, who served in the First World War, buried both and outlived them by a decade. Another stone showed a young man, 22 years old, killed as a 1st Lt. in Vietnam, 1972. His father served in the Second World War. All of the Civil War veterans
in this cemetery, and there were many, died in old age, some living into the 1930s. They were the men with long gray beards, stiff legs, and faded blue uniforms my grandfather remembered marching in the parades. Each Civil War veteran's grave contained a separate plaque that noted their unit--like "Co. C, 50th Pennsylvania Volunteer Regiment." Some of the men buried near each other served in the same Union companies and regiments. I found several soldiers who served in the Spanish-American War. The small metal disc attached to the flag said "Cuba." Only a handful of veterans bured there served in the Navy. Same with the Air Force. Most were Army privates, T/4's, and other ranks I didn't understand. A few men served in both World War I and II, and several more in both WW2 and the Korean Conflict. Near the top of the cemetery I found an army private killed in 1944, though it didn't say where. For the most part, however, most of the World War II veterans survived the fighting and died recently. The golf clubs etched into some of the stone slabs told me about the recreational battles they had fought in their later years.
I spent an hour weaving through the cemetery looking at all the graves marked by flags. I stopped in front of each, and spent longer with those that memorialized men who had died in conflict. Besides the flapping flags, most of the graves had no flowers or other decorations. But they really didn't need anything more. Only a few details make it on to most grave stones: your name, the dates of your birth and death, perhaps a Bible verse, and whether you served your country during wartime. And though this last detail seems less significant than the others, it means so much more when you look upon a field of stones and see the flags, hundreds of them, standing at attention just as the soldiers buried there once did for their country.


Frenetic, Complacent, and Applying to College

High school students who apply to competitive colleges are generally divided into two groups: those who understand the challenge; and those who are blissfully unaware. Which situation is better for the mental health of the students and their parents? Hard to say. Is it the kid who agonizes about comma-placement in an admissions essay, and sweats through a half-dozen AP classes and extracurricular activities to ace an application to Yale--and in the process losses all connection to friends and family? Or is it the kid who floats through senior year, unaware that his academic performance isn't good enough for NYU, and then suffers the surprising sting of rejection and the mad scramble to find another school?
All of these applicants, both the supremely worried and the falsely confident, are like runners lining up at the starting line. Some know the race course is brutal, while others think it is similar to races they've won before. The students might think they are running separately, but in fact they are tied together. The college admissions race is a 3-legged race, where the stronger leg of the prepared applicant is roped to the weaker leg of the uninformed student. After all, it's the tens of thousands of students who apply to high-tier colleges unaware that they have little chance for admission who spur the feeding frenzy of ever-rising applicant numbers and shrinking acceptance rates. And it's Harvard's record-setting 25,000 applicants for 2,000 spots and sub-10% acceptance rate that makes thousands of hyper-competitive
students agonize through their senior year. No one seems to win with the current process.
On April 29th the New York Times published an essay titled, "Young, Gifted, and Not Getting Into Harvard" by Michael Winerip about how today's students who accomplish amazing things by age 17 still don't get into the school of their dreams. That's okay, he wrote, you don't have to win this impossible battle to win at life. With that kind of headline it's no wonder the article stayed at the top of the "Most Emailed" list for a week. I was curious about how parents might react to the article, so I visited the online forums hosted by College Confidential, a commercial college consulting company. There I found pages and pages of posts reacting to Winerip's essay--most of them appreciative of his call to take a deep breath about the whole process. Winerip attended Harvard and is now a local interviewer for the school in the New York area. His kids aren't going to attend his alma mater, but he thinks one of them will go to a "good state school." The parents' posts on College Confidential also reflected this reflective optimism that 'everything will come out in the end.'
On the student forums, however, I found mostly a demoralized and negative response to Winerip's article. "There goes my college dreams," posted one high school junior. Escaping the pressure, it seems, only comes with being able to win the game, or looking back with fond memories.