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What’s Your Bus?

This week we welcome Communications Officer (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

Last month a piece of Atlanta history came crashing down. In case you missed it, the city imploded the Georgia Dome. As with most demos, news crews from all over the city were there to cover the action. After all, who doesn’t love to see a good building implosion? But The Weather Channel’s coverage easily won the internet that morning.

I’ll be honest—when this video came out, I couldn’t get enough of it. I laughed until I cried… over and over. Never in a million years could you have timed this better– a MARTA bus rolls in and completely blocks the biggest moment of the day (which only lasted around 30 seconds at most). The frustration, disappointment, and angst in the videographer’s voice is priceless!

In full disclosure, much of my fascination with this video has to do with my background in local TV news. Before I started in education, I worked as a television news producer. My experience gives me a little bit of insight into what likely happened behind the scenes that day:

1 – The videographer scouted out the ideal spot to capture the action weeks ahead of time.

2 –  He arrived at said location in the early, early morning hours on a very cold day, probably around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., testing his equipment and making sure he had a clear connection back to the news station.

3 – Meanwhile, back in the newsroom, a whole host of staffers—including producers, reporters, and anchors—were all waiting for this video and had created their newscast around it. (Note: the bus part was not part of the plan or script).

What should have been an easy live shot turned into a completely botched effort, and the outcome wasn’t anywhere close to what they expected. And as for the videographer, I’m sure in that moment, he’s thinking, “You have to be joking? This bus literally ruined everything. Why me?!”

MARTA Buses and Admission Decisions

Last week a host of EA/ED colleges and universities across the nation released their admission decisions. While I don’t know all of the details on percentages, it’s likely that many of you got more bad (or uncertain) news than good. A lot more of you received a decision beginning with the letter D (defer or deny) rather than A (admitted).  You could say you had a MARTA experience, as the bus came rolling into your frame at a crucial moment, completely blocking what you’ve worked so hard to attain.

It’s easy to feel defeated—and that is totally understandable. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like being put off for another few months, or flat out rejected.

So how can you handle it when a bus rolls into your live shot? Take a couple of lessons from the MARTA bus incident:

Trust. There’s two ways to look at the bus: you can fight it, get mad, shout, yell, and throw in the towel. Or, you can fight it, get mad, shout, yell, and… wait. The bus in front of you will eventually move, and you’ll be left with a completely new perspective. Once the bus moves, you’ll have some great choices—so get ready.

Reassess. While you can’t go back in time and change your application, you can look back over the process and see if there’s anything you can do differently going forward. If you were deferred, is there a piece of information you can add into your deferred applicant form? Will their admission office accept an updated transcript with fall grades? If you have other open applications at other schools, have you ensured you’re working towards your deadlines and getting what they need to make a decision? If you were denied, do you have applications in at other schools that fit what you’re looking for in a college? There are still schools whose applications haven’t closed yet—get those apps in!

Accept. Sounds a little harsh on the outset, but bear with me. You’re probably asking yourself “what does she know? She doesn’t know how it feels to get shot down by your dream school.” But actually, I do. When I was a senior one of the Southern Ivy’s was at THE top of my list. I was smitten with this school in every way coming and going. I applied ED and was deferred to Regular Decision. Then, a few months later, I was denied. I remember getting the letter (ahem, because back in those days you actually had to wait on the mail to arrive to get a decision—so think about how much anxiety that created!), and sitting down with my parents and crying for three solid hours. So yes, I actually do know how you feel, and I remember how disappointed, sad, and betrayed I felt. I allowed myself time to mourn what I wasn’t going to experience, and the end of a dream. A couple of weeks later I chose to attend another school and never looked back. I’m sure the videographer allowed himself a pity party as well. But then, he picked up his equipment, jumped in the truck and headed to the next shoot. One step at a time, my friends.

Turning Abject Failure into a Big Win

Here’s the key: at the end of the day, what felt like abject failure to the guy behind the camera actually turned into a huge win for him, and The Weather Channel. The station posted the video on YouTube and as of today it has more than 1.2 million views. No way would it have gotten so much mileage if everything had gone right that morning. The video trended on social media all day. National news outlets picked it up, and before long spoofs were made of the incident (my personal favorite was this one created by Sports Illustrated).

I’m not telling you to broadcast your defer or deny all over social media (in fact—please don’t). What I am telling you is what looks like, feels like, and is one of the hardest moments of your life to this point will eventually turn into something good. You will find a college to call home… you will find a school that wants you on their campus… and when you ultimately get there in the fall, the sting of this decision will fade away as you make new friends, pursue new dreams, and make new memories.

Hang in there… easy to say, hard to do, but please try. The holidays are here, and you have a couple of weeks to rest, recover, and breathe. Be with family and friends, do something fun, read a good book, and invest in your well-being. You’ve got one more semester to tackle before your life changes… clear your head, and get ready! Great things are ahead!

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Position vs. Disposition

This week I concluded my term on Georgia Tech’s Staff Council- a group of 20 members elected to represent the nearly 7,000 staff on campus to our President and Executive Leadership Team. We serve as the staff’s official voice to the administration and attempt to advocate for ways to enhance the employee experience and elevate suggestions, insight, and opportunities for improvement.

During my term I served as Council Chair and Past-Chair, giving me the opportunity to go on all-night “ride alongs” with our police force; conduct 6 a.m. town hall meetings for our facilities staff; and attend countless staff meetings in buildings and departments I’d never heard of before. In these three years, I’ve had people stop me on campus or show up at my office door (and even one person flag me down at a local restaurant) to talk about parking rates, maternity leave policies, campus-wide recognition programs, gender neutral bathrooms, uniform improvements for our grounds crew, and even why we run the triple option offense (I’m not making these up, I’m literally going back through my notes).

Serving in this capacity has not always been easy. I’ve seen tears, heard raised voices and accusatory, threatening statements, and endured not only the drafting, but also the revision, and “re-revision” of by-laws. And for all of the effort—for the additional time away from my family–for the early mornings or later evenings–for the lightning rod moments–I did not receive any additional compensation (though I did get a plaque and a paperweight, both of which are  lovely).  As I exit, my title is still the same as when I began this journey three years ago.

Short term vs. Long term

Over the next two weeks a lot of competitive colleges are going to be putting their EA or ED decisions on the streets.  The odds are you, or someone you care deeply for, will be deferred or denied by at least one of these schools. And since Williams or Rice or Notre Dame are not going to call you to walk you through their rationale and how you can move forward, I wanted to give you some insight from this side of the desk.

If you are reading this, I’m guessing you are someone who can relate to pouring time and energy into something. You get the part about sacrificing sleep and relationships to pursue other ventures. You chose a rigorous curriculum and found yourself studying and eating coffee grounds deep into the night. You went to test prep classes or found online options to increase your standardized scores. You played on intense travel teams. You gave copious amounts of time to clubs or volunteer organizations or research projects.

If you are denied or deferred admission, it’s pretty reasonable to ask, “Where did all of that get me?” “Why did I do the full IB Diploma?” “Why did I take my summer to volunteer my time or intern? I could have gotten an actual paying job or just hung out by the pool.” And, to be honest, in the short-term, I get it. You are not crazy—and you’re definitely not alone. Being deferred or denied admission stings. Disappointed may not even be strong enough, it’s ok to be straight mad. I see why you would question how, and why, an admission committee did not value or recognize your hard work, extra effort, and lack of sleep characterizing your high school career.

Similarly, I suppose you could easily argue Staff Council did not “get me anywhere.” But after 14 years on campus, I can earnestly say my involvement with Staff Council has been among the most rewarding and meaningful experiences of my career. Bottom line: this position connected me to people I would never have met otherwise; exposed me to issues I did not know existed; and forced me to relay information in many directions about sensitive subjects in an empathetic, balanced manner. It changed me and shaped me as a person, and has also enhanced how I tell and view the Georgia Tech story.

So all I’m asking you to do is wait a few weeks. Finish this senior fall semester strong with exams or papers you have to write. Enjoy the holidays with your family and friends. Go see a movie, and read a book for fun (not because you have to). Sleep. If three weeks from now, or three months from now, when you’ve been admitted to several other schools (and likely have some scholarship money to a few of those), you still feel like you wasted your time playing on that team; or you’re regretting meeting the people you’d never have met otherwise at your internship or volunteer group; or you believe all the information and study skills you learned in those AP courses have absolutely no long-term benefits for a foundation in college; or you are convinced the trip to South America to expand your language and cross-cultural skills was a complete waste of time, then I’ll give you back your Georgia Tech Admission Blog subscription fee (what, you haven’t paid that yet?).

My Guarantee to You

In the long-term, I guarantee, yes, guarantee, you will be thankful for pushing and stretching yourself academically. I am imminently confident you will look back with fondness on the trips you took with your travel team. I know you will appreciate having stuck with both the orchestra and the band. There are many things in this life I’m unsure of, but I am confident of this—you will not look back as a sophomore in college, or as a 26-year-old graduate student, or as a 48-year-old parent, and bemoan the opportunities you took advantage of, the people you met, or the exposure you received while in high school. In fact, at least in my experience, it’s always the opposite.

So be disappointed. Be straight mad. In a way, there’s a beauty in those feelings. You can’t appreciate the sunshine without the rain. You’re breathing. You’re striving. You have goals and dreams. You put in work and you want to see a return. I would be more worried if you did not feel that way. It would mean you either don’t care or don’t have high expectations for yourself. But slow down and consider why you made the choices you did. I’m guessing it was not all about getting into Haverford or Tufts or Caltech. If it was, I can’t help you. But if you studied, played, worked, and challenged yourself because you enjoy learning, because you see value in the effort, because you take pride in the results, then while you may not have been given a position in said college, you have earned something no admission letter will ever give you—a disposition formed through growth, maturity, and commitment. In other words, all of the traits another university will recognize, and they’ll be phenomenally lucky to have on their campus when you show up in the fall.

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Do You Have That Itch?

My wife called last week to tell me some horrible news. No. She’s not leaving me. Actually, far worse.

“Our daughter has lice.”

“Oh crap.”

“No. Lice. She has to leave school.”

“Okay. Got it.”

Since my wife works at a hospital, she can’t leave at a moment’s notice, so I started packing my bag and canceling meetings. Five minutes later she called back.

“Our son also has it.”

“Oh CRAP!”

“No. Lice.”

“Yeah, I’m on it.”

I put down my phone and started scratching my head. Power of suggestion, I suppose.

45 minutes later I picked them up from school and we went immediately to “Elimilice.” For some reason lice places seems to pick cutesy or punny names like: The Lice Ladies or Lice Happens, as though this is a light or laughing matter! Simply walking in that place was enough to make me want to immediately shave my head and beard. As we waited in a private (read: quarantined) room, I was rubbing my eyebrows, prodding at my armpits, and intermittently scratching my ankles (you know how they love to congregate on the lower leg).

When our “technician” came in, she asked a few questions. “Do you have evidence of active lice? Have you had head to head contact with someone with lice in the last few days? Are there known cases of lice in your school?”

Um. Uh. Well, someone called me and now we’re here. Honestly, I felt like the clueless, stereotypical dad you see on a sitcom. And I was ready to shell out any amount of money because someone told me the kids had lice. I was also convinced I had lice… and they were currently burrowing into my ankles.

After Lice Lady looked at me like “same thing, different day,” she proceeded to do an initial examination. And after some combing and searching, she determined we did in fact all have it.

Three hours of steel brushes, hair scrubbing, and applications of copious products ensued, until we finally emerged minty fresh with detailed instructions on essentially bombing our house. Wash the sheets, pillow cases, and clothes, cover the couch, vacuum the seats in car, bag up all stuffed animals (all of them? Holy cow, that could take days!). See, contrary to popular belief, lice can’t jump or fly. It’s only through head to head contact they can spread. And if they don’t have human contact for more than 48 hours, they’ll die. Frankly, I was ready to burn everything and start over, but my wife talked me off the ledge.

Are You Itching?

One of the funniest things (and really there was only one) about the lice-capade was anyone I told immediately started itching. They’d move back a little and wince, or shift in their chair and alternate twitching their shoulder blades.

Paranoia, power of suggestion, and the possibility of a problem

The college admission process is eerily similar. We hear stories about smart kids not getting into certain schools, or read articles about the growing competitiveness of our state’s flagship, or see social media about the newest rankings or ROI statistics, and we start to itch.

To the perfectly sane, normal, loving, laid-back mother of a well-adjusted and thriving seventh grader who is thinking about pulling your kid out of public school because the family down the street did, I urge you to get your head checked. Look into the course offerings, extra-curricular opportunities, and culture of the schools you are considering. Before you convince yourself there is an “active problem,” commit to taking a close look at who your student is and where they’ll actually learn and thrive, rather than too quickly giving way to the power of suggestion.

To the student who gets denied from a school in December, it does not mean you double down by submitting 10 more applications to similar schools. Wash your clothes, check your pillow cases. As long as you have a solid, well-balanced, thoughtfully considered list including schools of varying academic profile and selectivity, you aren’t itching. It’s like the phantom cell phone vibration in your pocket.  You are good. Repeat: you are good! 

To the family about to shell out thousands of dollars to an independent consultant (who has no background in college admission other than a son who got into Vanderbilt two years ago), I am asking you to sit quietly in the waiting room for a few days. Does your student need that additional outside help? Perhaps. And there are some fabulous independent counselors who provide meaningful and helpful aid (like Ellimilice) But before you simply show up in an office, do your homework to know why you are there, and if they have the credentials and background your family needs. Lice don’t mount an assault from the ankles. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

To the deferred student who wants to “demonstrate interest” in order to increase your chances to be admitted in the spring, don’t write to, call up, pop in, tweet at, or send an owl or a gift to the admission counselor at the university. This is not a fire sale. You don’t have to bag up the animals. Fill out the form, send in your fall grades, and send a quick email to let them know you appreciate their time and continued consideration of your application.

To the junior who is unhappy with your initial test scores- I’m not telling you to avoid human contact for 48 hours, but start by checking out FairTest.org, and look into free sources like Khan Academy or ACT before you support test prep companies who are having company retreats in the islands and bidding on art at auctions to adorn their newly upgraded suites. Believe me, when we look at your application, we are not splitting hairs (couldn’t help myself) over 80 points on an SAT or 2 points on an ACT.

Just because someone else is acting crazy does not mean you have a problem. It’s the head to head contact we need to avoid. See crazy, say something! We have enough rankings hawking, test obsessing, anxiety inducing agents out there already. Don’t perpetuate the itching. The first step here is admitting you don’t have a problem. And let me tell you, it feels great. When we walked out of our “follow-up” appointment three days later, after being declared lice-free, we went all out on our celebration– ice cream. But we did ask them to hold the white sprinkles.

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Ad(mission): It’s not fair.

I suppose I could have gone with “An Admission: It’s not fair!” What can I say, catchy titles are not my thing. Working on it. But at this time of year, “fairness” is a resounding theme.

“How can you waitlist my son? He has 30 points higher and two more APs than your average. And we know someone down the street who got in that….”

“Something is wrong with your process if my daughter who has been through as many medical issues as she has and still has a 3.8 is not getting in. Talk about not being fair….”

“And don’t get me started on financial aid… or lack thereof.”

These are actual quotes from real people. Granted, they’re being used without acknowledgment (I didn’t think asking for permission to use them would be part of the healing process). Undeniably, there is something hardwired in us that longs for right, equal, just, fair, and perfect results. And these are noble aspirations.

Kids are among the most vocal about longing for fairness. Spend the same amount of money on presents? “Well, he got more gifts.” Buy the exact same number of gifts? “That one of her’s is bigger!” “Okay, tell you what, I’m going to take all of these out to the fire pit then and you can play with this cardboard box.” Now they’re both screaming in unison, writhing on the ground and flailing, with great gnashing of teeth. It’s like a scene from Revelation followed by a simultaneous and guttural reaction: “That’s not fair!”

Well, my friends, neither is college admission. If you applied to a college that has a selective (meaning below 33% admit rate) process, or if you are a counselor, principal, parent, friend of someone who has gone through this lately, you know this to be true. Inevitably, you know someone who was denied or waitlisted that was “better” or “more qualified” or “should have gotten in.”

I try not to specifically speak for my colleagues, but I feel confident saying this for anyone that works at a highly selective college that has just denied a ton of the students you are thinking about/calling about/inquiring about: We know. It’s NOT fair. You’re not crazy. In fact, we’d be the first to concur that there are many denied students with higher SAT/ACT scores or more community service or more APs or who wrote a better essay or participated in more clubs and sports than some who were admitted.  But here is what is critical for you to understand– ultimately, the admission process for schools denying twice or three times or sometimes ten times more students than they admit– is not about fairness. It’s about mission.

Mission Drives Admission.

Selective colleges publish mid-50% ranges or averages on our freshman profiles to serve as guides, not guarantees. These are the quantifiable factors that provide an overall sense of the admitted or enrolling class. Yes, we look at test scores, rigor of curriculum, course performance, impact on a community, essays, interviews, and so on. But what drives a holistic review process and serves as a guide for admitting students is a school’s mission. Counselors in high schools talk a great deal about “fit.” Where are you going to thrive? Where are you going to create a network or be challenged? Where do you see students that will push and challenge and stretch you to grow as a person and as a learner? These questions come from the fact that they’re savvy and educated not just about our admission processes and stats, but more importantly about our distinct missions. Ultimately, choosing the right school should not just be about “can I get in?” from a statistical or quantifiable standpoint, but “do I align with their mission?” It takes more work to figure that out, but that’s your job as an applicant or prospective student.

If you look at the academic profiles of Caltech and Amherst, they are very similar. But take a look at their missions.

Amherst (abbreviated) “Amherst College educates men and women of exceptional potential from all backgrounds so that they may seek, value, and advance knowledge, engage the world around them, and lead principled lives of consequence… and is committed to learning through close colloquy and to expanding the realm of knowledge through scholarly research and artistic creation at the highest level. Its graduates link learning with leadership—in service to the College, to their communities, and to the world beyond.”

Caltech “…to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”

The difference in missions is why an individual student sometimes gets in to a higher ranked or more selective school and is denied at another. The student applying to Amherst has the same profile, involvement, writing ability, scores, and grades. but is a totally different fit in their process than for Caltech. This is, at least in part, what counselors are talking about when they say “fit.” It’s fit with mission. You’ll hear schools talk about “institutional priorities.” These are simply components of the macro vision and mission of a university.

A quick look at Georgia Tech

Founded: 1885. Classes begin 1888. One major- Mechanical Engineering. All male. It was a trade school responding to the needs of 19th century and early 20th century Georgia and US South.  The focus was on training and preparation for product creation and being prepared to lead and create the next in an industrializing state, region, and nation. Were there more “qualified” or “smarter” students at the time who had aspirations of becoming ministers or lawyers or physicians? Unquestionably. And had they applied with those intentions, they likely would not have been admitted. It was not our mission to educate students for those roles.

1912: Tech establishes a “School of Commerce” which is essentially a business program. 1952: Tech begins enrolling women. 1961: Georgia Tech becomes the first school in the South to integrate classes without a court order. It’s not hard for me to envision a younger brother in 1954 who is by all counts smarter than his older brother not being admitted to Tech due to this change in mission. Supply and demand drive admit rates. If your supply shrinks due to a shift in your mission, then admission decisions also change based upon factors besides grades, scores, or performance.

The University of North Carolina system is mandated by their legislature to enroll no more than 18% of students from outside of the state. This is why the admit rate for Chapel Hill is more than three times higher for in-state students vs. non-residents.  There are valedictorians from around the country not admitted to UNC (mission here) who get into Ivy League schools. Does this sound controversial or unfair? Not if you understand that mission drives admission.  Schools end academic programs. They add majors. They create new co-curricular programs or add or terminate sports teams. Mission changes and with it admission decisions are impacted to support those goals.

At Tech, our mission is “to define the technological university of the 21st century.” Our motto is “Progress and Service.” Our commitment is to “improve the human condition.” So while we are going to provide stats and averages and profiles like all other schools, these are the conversations in admission committee that contribute to decisions. Fair? No. Perfect? No. Reality? Yes.

What does this mean for you?

If you are a senior (or a parent of a senior) who has been denied or waitlisted: You are most likely just as smart, capable, and talented as other students admitted to that school. Move past the numbers and the comparison. You’re absolutely right: it’s not fair in a comparative sense. But that school has made its decisions in light of advancing their mission. Inevitably, you’ve also been admitted to a school where, if you looked hard enough, you could find someone denied with higher scores or more APs or better grades than you. But you fit their mission. Embrace that!

If you are an underclassmen (or parent of one): Selective schools will say, “We are looking to shape a class.” Counselors will talk to you about “fit.” As you try to digest and comprehend what that really means- or where that comes from- look to the school’s mission. Use the academic ranges they provide as a guide. Check out the profiles and other historical data to see how “students like you” have done in the past. But keep in mind those graphs don’t show the qualitative elements. When you are writing or interviewing at schools, do your homework in advance by researching. The essay you write for Caltech should not be the same one you write for Amherst. Your mission, should you choose to accept it (see what I did there?), is to find a school that aligns your academic ability with your vision of the future. Data is helpful. Stats are important. But fit, ethos, campus community, and your ability to be honest with who you are and want to be– that’s the best way to approach the process.

The other day my son was inconsolable. “She got presents on my birthday, and I never get anything on hers. It’s just not fair!” Finally, I just grabbed him, held him, and kept saying, “I know, son. I know.” So listen, you may not feel any better after reading this blog. Still angry. Still frustrated. I get it. I just wanted to save you that part of any email you send schools or the first part of a phone call. You can go right into other grievances and skip the “it’s not fair” part. We know, we know.

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The Magic is in You (Part 2 of 2)

In case you’re just joining us: to recap our Disney trip: we had a plan, we had a vision, and ultimately our experience was completely different than what we thought our day would look like.

You can read the details of that in Part 1, but the bottom line is while our day diverged from our initial concept, it was indeed magical, largely because our kids were thrilled with rides and experiences that we had not included in our original plan.

That being said, if you are a parent of a senior and you’ve had less than a Disney-rific college admission experience, this blog’s for you (isn’t that how the saying goes?). Anyway, we’re going to keep it very simple: One question, one favor, and one suggestion.

A Question:  Who is more disappointed, angry, hurt, frustrated or embarrassed?

Space Mountain is closed. Repeat: Space Mountain is closed. It’s tough to watch your kid cry. It’s tough to see others walk onto the ride who are no smarter or capable or talented. I get that. But before you go berating a “gate agent” or calling the folks you know “at Disney” or pulling out a checkbook or making threats and spewing insults, check in to be sure it’s really that big of a deal to your kid.

Sure, articles are written every year about the kid who gets into every Ivy League school, and people love to go home and brag about how they “rode every ride by 2 pm,” but at the end of the day, you can only attend one place. And if you’ll really stop to listen and consider what they’re saying, you’ll be amazed at how often they’re cool with a different space galaxy.

A Favor: No. I’m not going to do anything for you. I’m asking you to do yourself a favor: Give yourself a break and enjoy the ride. We both know you booked the hotel, packed the snacks, set the alarm, and had everyone there on time. You did all you could. Look. Rides break, power goes out, apps fail, and then there are people. Don’t get me started. But this is not about finger pointing and blame. This is not about what is deserved or fair or right. I’m not going to lie, I felt like I had failed my family when we got shut out of Seven Dwarfs Minetrain. Does that sound ridiculous? Well, my friend, I understand that the analogy between college admission and Disney is not perfect, but it’s also ridiculous for you to be blaming yourself or feeling guilty because your kid did not get into Duke or UCLA. Fact. Do yourself a favor: Enjoy. The. Ride.

A Suggestion I’ve talked to many parents over the last few weeks who have shared admit letters, financial aid packages, and scholarship offers from schools around the country in hopes of altering our decision- be it to get in, come off the waitlist or increase our aid award. 

If this is you, I want to suggest that instead of continuing to “refresh the app” hoping that more FastPasses are going to open up, you get fired up about Barnstormer or Buzz Lightyear. Go on! Buy the Space Ranger merchandise at the closest kiosk and get super excited because these are amazing rides that will take your kid to new heights and provide them with an awesome experience! Now, I recognize that was a lot of superlatives and exclamation points. And that is intentional. Whether you believe it or not, they always have, and will now take their cues from you. Celebrate! Late April is a time for excitement. It’s a time for dreaming. It’s a time for hand holding and ice cream and fireworks. Yes. I’m suggesting you provide that. Because, at the end of the day, MAGIC does not discriminate based on age- and IT IS IN YOU!

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