The anticipation of formally sending off our first-born child to college has been like watching the arrival of the passenger train that seems forever slow as it rolls to a stop and the doors finally open. However, the train of reality eventually arrives and the time to let our protected, fragile bird fly free is upon us. Our arms open in release of a child, as the doors of a university open to receive a fertile young mind for cultivation.
The ritual of sending forth a generation of youth into the world of higher education has been in the mainstream of our country’s culture since the industrial revolution. Yet, the excitement felt by one generation walking onto a college campus as freshmen is lost upon the same generation, as parents, sending forth a new round of innocents into a world of unknown variables.
For 18 years, parents focus on nurturing and protecting each child, in hopes of preparing them for the future – a future without parental oversight. Yet, somehow as parents, we cannot help but worry about what we left undone or unspoken. As parents, we can only take solace in our self-reassurance that we did the best we could, under our respective circumstances. Now, our minds wrestle for a sense of hope over anxiety about the future of the next generation.
We are anxious whether the professors and teaching assistants will take in our child with the sensitivity and care necessary for her continued growth and development. We are anxious about the intellectual prowess of PhDs, and whether they will nurture or negate our child’s current worldview perspective. Yet, we are hopeful that someone will stand in the gap to prevent her from falling into the traps of youthful folly. And, we are hopeful that someone will reassure her that failure is only measured at the end of a lifetime and not at the end of a date or English 101. Such thoughts consume parents as part of the ritual of the sending forth, the letting go.
The details of the ritual play out differently for each family, but the similarities are great, nonetheless. Mothers take the lead in logistical preparation. They are the inspectors of the full inventory of what leaves the house with the college-bound student and what stays behind as a memory of the child too young to leave the roost. The drama is especially rich when siblings experience the departure of the first-born. The feelings are mixed. Everyone secretly wishes they were in college, while pondering their respective new position in the hierarchy of the household. Fathers try to be strong examples of encouragement and advisors on adventure.
If there is a road trip involved, it becomes another family vacation; denial driving everyone’s behavior. The finality of unpacking the last box in the dorm can be too much to bear for some, and lingering does not help. The room may be small for two college co-eds, but it feels comfortable for the family of six. Maybe we should all stay and enroll together. And, before the final exit, the new comforter on the bed requires a final tucking and the fresh throw pillow needs one more fluffing.
The return trip is no vacation. Silence steers us homeward, as we wonder what’s going on with the one we’ve left behind. Finally, after a full hour of torture, the text message arrives: “Thanks for your prayers. They are working.” Hope returns, especially to the parents. The tether snaps and the real education begins for another university student.
Professors, deans, student advisors, active alumni and an entire city now become an inclusive flock for which we parents pray. Although we may be a wireless call away, we pray fervently for those who our young daughter may encounter. May her new dwelling be a warm and safe place. May her education be rich and rewarding. And may her new city welcome her as its own and provide her the encouragement and enjoyment of her life.