Monday, June 15, 2009

Open House Season

When I was looking for colleges only two things mattered: did the college have a radio station I could work at and did Delta fly there. My dad was a pilot for Delta so as long as the college had an airport nearby, I would consider it. Going to a school within driving distance of home never crossed my mind; I could fly anywhere thanks to Dad’s job, and I wanted to go as far away as possible. I looked at schools in Chicago, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles.

Somehow I decided I didn’t want to go to school in a big (or warm) city so I picked Spring Arbor College, a tiny little school in a tiny little town 90 minutes from Detroit’s airport. Transportation to and from home was easy; Delta had several flights a day to Atlanta. And I got to be a DJ my freshman year. Life was good.

One thing I didn’t know about SAC was that all students are required to have a cross-cultural experience. The school arranged trips to Mexico and China and several other places; students were to pick one and spend three weeks experiencing a different culture. I applied for a special waiver to be exempt from the CCE – spending four years in Spring Arbor, Michigan was most definitely a cross-cultural experience for me. The registrar didn’t see it that way. Probably because she’d never lived anywhere but Spring Arbor.

I’ve thought a lot about the whole cross-cultural idea lately because in the last month I’ve been exposed to something Michigan does that is foreign to this Georgia girl: the high school open house.

When a Michigan high school senior graduates his parents send out invitations to an Open House. The parents then shell out big bucks to rent a tent and tables and chairs (and occasionally a carnival-style bouncy house). Enough food is prepared to feed a small army, decorations are hung, silverware is tied up in pretty little napkins with pretty little bows. Tables of memorabilia are set out so all the guests can look at the graduate’s 18 years of life: photo albums, trophies from little league, certificates from piano recitals, framed pictures of the graduate and his family. But what is perhaps the most peculiar thing of all is the prominently placed Gift Box – a decorated container where all guests are expected to drop off cards filled with checks.

We were invited to 15 open houses this year. I do not have enough money in my gift budget to attend 15 open houses. While one may think an open house is intended to celebrate the graduate it is, in fact, an opportunity for said graduate to collect enough cash to pay for his first year of college.

I mentioned to a few friends that we don’t do open houses for high school graduates in Georgia. You’d have thought I said we pierce our newborns’ nipples. “What do you mean you don’t do open houses?” came the incredulous replies.

When I graduated from high school aunts and uncles and grandparents came to the ceremony. Afterward we went home for dinner and cake. My family gave me presents. And that was it. In contrast: the hostess of one of the open houses we attended told me she expected over 150 people during their three hour extravaganza.

We opted to attend four of the 15 open houses. We knew those families well enough to justify slipping some cash into the Gift Box.

As we drove away from the final open house I couldn’t help but think about the cross-cultural requirement at Spring Arbor. Maybe if I’d told the registrar we don’t do open houses down South she’d have given me a pass.