This op/ed appeared Thursday, August 23rd. I was substituting for Nicholas Kristof.
A Freshman All Over Again
by Jennifer Finney Boylan
Thirty-six years ago, my mother and father pulled up in front of a dormitory at Wesleyan University in a cream-colored Oldsmobile Omega. “At last!” my mother declared. “College!”
From the back seat, I glowered at her. Then I looked out the window and glowered at the ivy. It was clear enough: I was going to die here.
My father unlocked the trunk. It contained a suitcase, a stereo, a box of records by the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, a leatherbound journal, a psychedelic poster of the cover of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” a copy of Coffin & Roelofs’s “Major Poets,” a three-legged milking stool and a bong shaped like one of the statues on Easter Island.
It still wasn’t clear how I’d snuck past the dean of admissions. I’d been rejected for early decision, then deferred in the spring. When they finally let me off the wait list in July, it felt as if admissions had accepted me out of sheer exhaustion.
We found my room, Butterfield A 132 B. There was a desk in one corner. My mother looked at it with tears in her eyes. “Right here,” she said, “is where all the magic is going to happen!”
An elegant, feline man appeared in the door. He had a shaved head. “So I’m Bruce,” he said. He pronounced it Bruuuuuce. “Your R.A. There’s Heineken in the fridge. There’s pizza in the lounge. Welcome to college.”
Later that day, I went into Bruce’s room to ask for his assistance with something and found him handing an ounce of pot to an older-looking person, who in turn gave my R.A. a wad of bills. Bruce introduced me to his guest, a member of the college administration.
O.K., I thought. So this is different.
I’m thinking about all of this now because in a week’s time my wife and I are dropping our firstborn son off at Vassar, where he will begin his freshman year (or “first-year experience,” as we are now supposed to call it).
After nearly 25 years as a college professor, I am at last a participant in the ritual of the station wagons. Don DeLillo describes the annual unpacking in “White Noise”: “the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags,” and the parents, standing “sun-dazed near their automobiles, seeing images of themselves in every direction.”
Back in ’76, my parents and I had a dignified farewell on the lawn of Butterfield. My father, a reserved, diffident man, shook my hand. Then they walked away. I’d be home for Thanksgiving, and until then, I was Bruce’s problem. In some ways, that was the first and most important thing I learned at college — what life was like without them.
It’s different now. At Colby College, where I teach English, I see my students talking to their parents on cellphones — some of them three and four times a day. Occasionally, when things aren’t going well, a parent will Skype me. (“What can Charlie do to improve his grades?” one anxious parent asked me. “Fewer drugs,” I suggested.) Parents and children follow one another’s progress on Facebook. They post photos of the campus lobster bake on Instagram. They tweet. They text. They Tumbl.
There are times when I want to tell my students that if they want to learn anything at college, their first step should be defriending their parents. Write them a nice letter, on actual paper, once every week or so, but on the whole: let go. Stop living in their shadows, and start casting your own.
But now I know exactly how impossible this is. Before I became a college parent, it was easy to come up with rules of disengagement for my students’ mothers and fathers. Now that I am one myself, I finally know what it is parents are going through — not just letting go of a child but of an entire chapter of their lives.
Late in the day so many years ago, long after I thought my parents had headed back to Devon, Pa., I went for a walk. I wandered around the brownstones for a while, stared up at the facade of Olin Library. I realized I was a long way from home.
That was when I caught sight of my parents, coming back from the president’s reception. When I saw them approaching, my first thought was, Oh, no. Not another farewell.
They just smiled and wrapped their arms around me. I did not want them to go. I was not ready to begin this new life, in this new place, without them.
My father kissed me on the cheek. “You’ll be fine,” he said.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a professor of English at Colby College, is a guest columnist. Nicholas D. Kristof is off today.