Cedar and Pearl

Coin toss

By John Piotti | Apr 25, 2016

Somehow, Anna held onto the news for several days. Our daughter was waiting to see us in person, which would occur the next Saturday at Maine Maritime Academy, where Bowdoin was playing rugby.

Anna is not one to keep much of anything to herself. If an idea is going through her head, she talks about it. And because she calls home daily, we hear about it. It must have been exceptionally hard for her to hold back, especially given that it was such big news: She had been awarded a Fulbright!

At Bowdoin, where Anna is a German major, her work-study job is in the office that helps students with all sorts of foreign study, everything from planning a junior year abroad to applying for a post-graduate fellowship, like a Fulbright. And since her freshman year, she’s been telling us that she was going to win a Fulbright to teach in Germany.

Anna’s declared intention to be a Fulbright Scholar presented a challenge that all parents know: How do you encourage your child to dream big without unduly raising expectations — so that you minimize any risk that she will be crushed if plans don’t pan out. For over three years now, Susan and I have been treading oh so carefully whenever Anna mentioned Fulbright, saying that, although it would be great, she shouldn’t get her hopes up.

Thus the news, when it came, filled Susan and me not only with pride, but with relief. And we shared in Anna’s joy simply and completely.

But life with Anna is not without drama for long. A few days later she called elated to say that she had also been awarded another fellowship, similar to a Fulbright, but offered through a lesser-known program specific to Austria.

Anna’s elation at receiving both honors soon faded, as she set herself to the task of deciding which one to accept. The next week was a torment for Anna — as she painstakingly thought it all through. Her calls to us during this period were even longer than usual, more frenetic, and no fun.

The Austrian fellowship had great appeal. She would be teaching outside Salzburg, a city Anna knows and loves. (She studied there last spring.) Better yet, she’ll be at an agricultural boarding school that promises a close-knit community and all the attractions of a working farm.

Conversely, with the Fulbright, she'd likely be placed at a standard German high school — though she wouldn’t know where until after she accepts. The uncertainty of not knowing where she’d be living is a challenge to someone like Anna; whereas at the Austrian school, Anna was already communicating by email with the woman who would be her supervisor, and with an enthusiastic American who is just ending two years teaching there — the same role Anna would fill.

But the Fulbright comes with a prestigious name. And winning one now would only help if Anna pursued another Fulbright during graduate school or as a postdoc. Not surprisingly, Anna sought counsel from the faculty within Bowdoin’s German Department, as well as her boss at her work-study job — and every one of them urged her to take the Fulbright.

At this very time, Susan and I kept stumbling upon references to Fulbright. We picked up Time Magazine, and there was an article featuring a woman lauded as a three-time Fulbright winner. On Netflix, where we had begun watching The West Wing, a series we missed back when it was on television, we viewed two episodes in the same number of days where the label “Fulbright Scholar” was applied with a great reverence. Sharing all this with Anna couldn’t have helped.

Anna was fretting over her choice. This was truly a difficult decision for her. On the one hand, the Austrian fellowship offers a familiar setting, welcoming people, and barnyard animals — the stuff that brings smiles to our daughter. Yet Anna is wired to please others — so how could she disappoint all those folks at Bowdoin whom she admires, including the same professors she works so hard to satisfy. And could she really walk away from the prestige of a Fulbright, especially since it has been her professed goal since freshman year?

My fatherly advice was that she should flip a coin. I didn't offer it in jest, either. I think that flipping a coin is often a good way to know how you really feel. Let the coin advance a decision, and then see how it sits with you. If you are satisfied, then you’ve made your choice. But if you are not satisfied, if upon seeing the result of the toss, you begin to feel regret, or begin to reflect anew on the arguments against the choice the coin has made, then one of two things is happening: you either haven't yet made up your mind, or you’ve made it up the other way.

I’ve never abdicated an important decision to a chance toss of a coin, but I have tossed a coin to help me learn how I really feel. In that instant when heads or tails is first staring up at me, I know exactly how I feel about the decision at hand. The coin toss has revealed what’s in my heart.

Anna never took my advice. She knew herself well enough to know what was in her heart without having to tease it out with a coin. I think her decision was so difficult, not because she didn't know what she wanted, but because she knew what so many other people wanted for her. She chose for herself — a bold choice for Anna, another sign of her growing maturity.

So, our daughter is off to Austria next fall. She will not be a Fulbright Scholar — at least not yet.

We could not be more proud of her.

John Piotti of Unity runs Maine Farmland Trust. His column “Cedar and Pearl” appears every other week.

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