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Yes, He’s Off to College!

What to Expect When the Kids are Exiting

It isn’t like we didn’t get plenty of notice that our firstborn was heading off to college. Progress through school follows such a predictable pattern that it’s easy enough, even at birth, to guess when the first week of college will eventually be, isn’t it? And there are additional clues, too, like the year-and-a-half spent talking about it, and that high school graduation ceremony I sat through tearfully with my wife. And yet, despite the fact we might have circled the date on a perpetual calendar in the late twentieth century, the day of our son’s move to college still carried a significant jolt of surprise. How can this be?

Being a parent means experiencing a series of deeply moving moments, but not many (if any) involve actual moving. That kids are said to “go off to college” (even when it’s around the corner) hints at the not-necessarily-geographic spaces extending between parents and their older children. We get a working version of this during their high school years, when they’re out on their own and come home with their own opinions. Still, though they’ve begun to leave home well in advance of the actual departure date, food continues to disappear, and laundry to accumulate, so we know they’re here somewhere. They’re independent, but also, not.

Nevertheless, in the short summer between high school and college, they eventually pack up to leave, and two things happen. First, the actual packing. Because the departure to college floods you with memories of his or her infancy (You’re leaving? But you just got here!), it will be easy to remember your first trip to one of those giant baby-goods stores. Remember how agog you were? Do we really need all this stuff? you wondered. The answer was no, and as it turns out, that’s still true.

Shortly after Fourth of July weekend, you’ll see ads for all sorts of dazzling dorm room enhancements. Although this is an area where matters occasionally divide by gender (girls’ dorm rooms have a wide range of looks, while boys’ rooms are virtually interchangeable – and almost indistinguishable from their fathers’ dorm rooms!), recycling those ads is probably the way to go. College kids don’t need much, but if yours wants to bond with a roommate over purchases of a color-coordinated roomful of shiny gear, great! Still, a mother would do well to notice the expression on her son’s face when she’s fingering a pillow sham and matching comforter. Focus instead on basic bedding (extra-long twin) and cross your fingers for weekly laundering. Most kids will hook up a printer, plug in the ubiquitous dorm-size refrigerator, slap up a couple of posters, and call it home. We tried to get ours to take a little throw rug, but I think we brought it back with us. His room’s finished look was a kind of cell block D/medieval monk’s chamber hybrid – but with girls a floor above – and excellent Wi-Fi.

The other thing that happens is that waves of nostalgia begin to build within the family home. Kids are naturally less susceptible to the pull of wistfulness in this instance, since they are totally psyched about the whole idea of being on their own. The thoughtful ones know better than to blurt out this hankering for the independent, curfew-free future, now just weeks away. They know you’ll miss them, and accept your need for them to at least theoretically miss you, too. Slowly, they’ll come to recognize that you’re treating them a little differently. You’re less demanding and more willing to withhold judgment, even when they eat the last brownie. The hug quotient rises throughout the house, all summer.

In our house, when the date we could have red-lettered on the calendar during the (earlier) Clinton administration arrived, we loaded the car and pointed it toward the future. As it turned out, we didn’t drive our son to college, but we did drive all his stuff to college to meet him on move-in day. His school offers a variety of pre-orientation programs, so he flew up early and spent a week backpacking with a dozen other incoming classmates and a couple of older kids. By the time we arrived with his desk lamp and pillow, our son had a bunch of contacts on campus. If your son or daughter has such an opportunity, get behind the idea, even though it means letting go a week earlier.

Move-in day might be the same everywhere. Everyone vibrates with a peculiarly collegiate excitement, mixed with a little unspoken apprehension. While parents and younger siblings dive in and out of cars, carrying crates of goods into identical dorm rooms, the arriving college kids are hurrying through the exercise, trying to unpack and get a read on each other at the same time. Parents are hoping not to be too embarrassing, and their kids are keeping their fingers crossed on that, too.

Perhaps there will be time for lunch before you leave, perhaps not. I know these are much-anticipated moments, and will vary from family to family, but I can offer a few guidelines based on my limited experience. Resist the temptation to encapsulate eighteen years of advice into a phrase or two at the last minute, because how could you possibly do that? Similarly, save your catalogue of memories for the long ride home. Normal people don’t do such things at lunch, and in any case, nobody’s able to listen right now. Also, stifle the impulse to sneak any favorite childhood stuffed animal into your kid’s luggage or dorm room; the inclination to do so betrays the disabling nostalgia the leave-taking is creating in you, so deal with that yourself and leave Fluffy on the shelf at home, where he (or possibly she – we never really knew) belongs.

Then, importantly, don’t forget to leave! The moment arrives suddenly after just eighteen years, but it also catches your sons or daughters at the gate of something pretty wonderful, so hold them briefly, but don’t hold them back.

In our case, the moments surrounding our actually leaving our son at college engendered in him a kind of divided loyalty between his love for us and his joy at being a college kid. You’ve all been waiting for this, but it means different things to each of you. Photographs? Just make them quick! We took a couple to memorialize the event, but with all of us riding a lurching series of emotions, who knows what faces we made. Hugs and kisses? He tried, and we loved him for that. Then, poof!

If there is a parallel experience to dropping your firstborn (or second, or third) at college, it’s his first day of kindergarten, and when the car points toward home, the conversations have a strikingly similar content: He seems fine. He seems a little young. He’s prepared, right? Did he look happy to be there? Should we have stayed longer? Is he ready? It took a few miles for my wife and me to remember how stirring the first year of college is for almost everybody, and there’s nothing like a little envy to make one’s tears sting less.

It’s a big change for the family, though. For months after, you’ll baffle restaurant hostesses by requesting a table for four for your party of three. You’ll buy cereal that nobody in the house likes, and sometimes tiptoe, so as not to wake someone sleeping 500 miles away. It’s okay. You’re just getting close to the end of the old foreseeable timetable of events. Now, anything can happen, and in its own sweet time!


Goodbye from the Son’s Side

 by Real Son William Maddock

You’re absolutely determined to carry the mini-fridge from the car to your dorm room by yourself. The stairs and the August heat say no, but your subconscious urge to prove yourself unquestionably independent of your parents says yes. You’re barely past the smiling upperclassman holding the door before your father catches up to you, and Mom’s, “He can’t carry that by himself – he’ll hurt his back!” reaches your ears from the car thirty yards away.

Move-in day is up there among the most anticipated days of your life to date. You wake up (if you manage to sleep at all) with a familiar, fluttery excitement. This is it – the day when you’ll finally be on your own and totally independent! you think to yourself, while following your parents across campus as your mother points out things on a map you struggled to read.

You grab lunch somewhere, trying hard to just blend in and draw as little attention to yourself and your parents as possible, with moderate success. You have yet to be irreconcilably embarrassed. Chalk that one up in the win column.

Back in your newly half-furnished room (wow, there’s way more wall space than you anticipated), your mother expresses her doubts about your ability to wake up for that morning class, and your father waxes philosophical about morning lectures and cut classes being part of the college experience. You do your best to appear unfazed, though you fully realize that some (perhaps even most) days, the snooze button on your alarm clock is dangerously inviting.

The day goes by fast. Before you know it, it’s time for goodbye. You say you’ll call twice a week, which may or may not happen. When you do call, you’ll promise that you miss home, which… well… maybe you should just plead the fifth. You hug your mother, and assure her you’ll make good decisions (mostly). You hug your father, and promise him you’ll have fun and not work too hard (like you needed a reminder).

And then the car doors close, and the minivan pulls away from the curb. You’re left wondering where all the tears and fanfare were supposed to fit in. It’s almost like there just wasn’t enough time in the day, like those details had to be cut from the script you’d been writing in your head for the last nine months.

As you walk to the dining hall for dinner, you feel absolutely ready for whatever college has in store. Fifteen minutes later, you realize you have no idea where you’re going and stop to sheepishly ask someone who isn’t your mom for directions. Absolutely ready, you repeat again in your head, chuckling. Absolutely ready.

"Real Dad" Jerome Maddock lives in Richmond with his wife, Elizabeth, and their kids. He teaches middle school English.
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