Monday, August 13, 2012

College Bound ... and the Gift of Parents

Some of my friends are in the position of taking their sons and daughters to college around this time. I've heard some of them talking about what a difficult time this is—the joy of seeing a young adult child stepping out into the larger world balanced with the loss of having that child leaving home. I offer this blog post in tribute to those parents and to share a bit of my early history.

It was late summer in 1973. I was getting ready for college. 
That in itself was something of a miracle. No one in my familial line had ever gone to college.  Only those in my parent’s generation had even finished high school. 
In my little graduating class of about 100, few were going to college. Of those few, virtually all were going to state colleges within a hundred miles of our small town.  Most were going to remain on their family farms or find jobs in the banks and small businesses of our small town.
I had been a very odd valedictorian. I’m sure it grieved the administration to give me that award, but my GPA had earned it – despite my frequent battles against that administration, my scofflaw attitude, my smart-mouth relationship with underqualified teachers (in a poverty-riddled school district). I may be the only valedictorian who had been barred from the National Honor Society. I was not an egghead or a geek. I was a good athlete (in those days before Title IX), an “A” student without needing to work at it, and quite outspoken in expressing my convictions and acting on them. I did not suffer fools gladly – among my classmates or in the faculty and administration. My sassy attitude had earned me the reputation as a discipline problem. Unable to handle me, by my senior year, most teachers had banished me to “independent study” – which meant that, instead of being in the classroom, I spent most of my time in the school library preparing papers on topics they had assigned to me.
With a good GPA and having scored well in the SAT and ACT tests – as well as being a National Merit finalist – I received a lot of literature from a lot of colleges.   I made my initial sort on two criteria.  First, I would not attend a college that had sororities and fraternities.  I had observed the tyranny of social cliques in my small town and didn’t want to enter an academic community that mirrored that.  Second, I would not attend a college that engaged in serious intercollegiate athletics.  I had seen what a focus on athletics did to academics. I had seen the jocks slide by and suffered through history courses taught by coaches who had no grasp of the subject matter.  No more of that for me.  Those two criteria made it easy for me to toss most of the college promotional materials into the trash.
But one day I received a simple tri-folded postcard from the University of Dallas.  I don’t remember the details. I just remember it spoke of the value of learning for its own sake, the life of the mind, the joy of intellectual curiosity, a belief that truth is a thing to be sought.  I was hooked.  After many twists and turns, I was accepted and awarded a scholarship and work-study that would cover all my tuition and other costs. I had never even visited the campus, which was 600 miles away in an era where few people flew, and had only spoken with the Dean of Admissions. But the vision of that university matched my own longing. 
Throughout my search for a college, I had believed I was destined for something different (and, better, I believed) than most of my classmates.  I was sick of my narrow-minded little town.  I was going to “break the mold” and “make something of myself.”  Such is the hubris of an 18-year-old.
I vaguely remember the week before my departure for Dallas.  I remember spending much time visiting with my few close friends. …  I visited with a couple of fine teachers who had inspired and encouraged me, and expressed my deep thanks.  [Jim McInturff, I hope someday you Google yourself and find this posting. Your English classes gave me hope and inspiration.] … My parents had separated in early summer, but I had a rather amazing conversation with my father.
To get me and my few belongings to Dallas, my mother borrowed a van.  She, my grandmother, my younger sister, and I set out for Dallas.  We drove and drove and drove.  
Eventually, we reached the Texas state line.  I was astonished to see the highway sign declaring it was still another 200 miles to Dallas.
And that’s when I lost it.  The enormity of what I was doing finally struck me.
We had taken family vacations to visit relatives as far away as Florida or Mississippi.  But suddenly, the enormity of living 600 miles from home, far away from any friends or family – far from anyone I knew – hit me like a ton of bricks. 
I remember my mother was driving the van.  And I remember asking her (or was it telling her?)  to stop, turn around and go home. I said I would be really, really happy getting a job as a bank teller back home or maybe working in the public library. I didn’t want to go to college. I could find a job I would love at home.  That’s what I said, as the enormity of this journey struck me.
Today, I imagine she must have set her jaw and clenched the steering wheel more tightly.  She didn’t even look back to me.  She just said “no” and kept driving.  Surely she said something more than “no.”  But I don’t remember any details.  I just remember that I began rattling out how happy I would be in our little town in some little job … and that she said "no" and kept driving. 
My mother, sister, and grandmother helped move me into my dormitory room that day.  I remember seeing them driving off, and I remember feeling as alone as if I had been deposited alone on the planet Mars. 
That first semester was difficult. No.  “Difficult” isn’t the right word.  I was desperately, miserably homesick.  But I also became engaged with my classes, stimulated by my new classmates.  I found people with whom I could talk into the wee hours about literature and philosophy – thinking “deep thoughts” and dreaming great dreams.  At the University of Dallas I found a community like I had never had.  I ended up feeling “at home” and finding there a community I never could have imagined. I loved that place!  It formed me in lasting ways and launched me into the life and career I now have.
I don’t recall how many years it took for me to remember and realize what my mother did for me on that day as we drove toward Dallas. But I’ve known it for a long time now.  I can just imagine how much she must have wanted to say “yes” when I asked her to stop, turn around, and take me back to my small town and what would have been its small existence for me.  But she didn’t.  She – the daughter of sharecroppers – insisted on taking me to that university far from home. She must have had dreams for me – dreams that were strong enough to keep driving instead of capitulating to my fervent request and taking me back home.
I can’t ask her those questions, for she died a few years ago.  We had a “complicated” relationship in the last years of her life. But I will forever be grateful that – when I asked to back off of my dreams – she said “no.” She said “no” even though it was probably against her own selfish wishes. She said “no” because she had better hopes and dreams for me.  I will be forever in her debt.
Some of you are now in the position of my mother – though you are very different than she.  You are sending or taking your children to college. I salute you. I recognize the sacrifice you are making: Sending your children to their dreams, while your heart may be breaking as you send your child into the wider world.  God bless you. I hold you in my prayers, and I trust your children will be as grateful as I am to my mother. 

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Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

I watch all this play out these days and wonder if I am a dinosaur. In my family I was the first to go to college, like you. And I was told, "If that's what you want to do, you're on your own, because we don't know a thing about it." I ended up at the college 35 miles from home b/c that's all I had, and there was no taking me there. It was, "Goodbye. Don't come back till Thanksgiving." And now I have a parent that pulls "needy" on me and wonders why I am so "distant." But really, when my family was younger, they "got" it. They knew they did not know this world. Now I worry today's parents hold on too tightly. I am oddly grateful my parents had no intention of paying for something they did not understand nor pretend to have a hold on me after I left, even though some sort of odd tension remains. In our day, 18 was "adult." Now I see 30 year olds who don't even get "adult." What changed?

8/13/2012 9:23 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Kirke, I feel like a dinosaur, too.
When I went to school, scholarships and work/study were sufficient to cover my tuition, room and board. I am appalled at the student loans kids now assume.
Like yours, my parents "didn't know a thing about it." I, too, was on my own.
The difference, apparently, is that I had a mother who delivered me to college with grief, while it sounds like yours dumped you. I am sorry.
Feeling more and more like an old fart, I'm not going to engage the question of why today's students are so different than we were. My intent here was simply to offer encouragement to the many parents who are grieving this month as they send their children off to the next phase of their lives.

8/13/2012 9:36 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Well, and I think that's my point. I am not sure people "let go" as much anymore. I see parents still holding the umbilical cord...and I get what some of that is about. it's about the finances. I am also appalled at the debt families incur to put kids through college. But I am also thinking with the other half of my brain, "money is control." In that sense, your mom actually got to see it as grief. I am not totally sure with the financial umbilical cord more firmly in place with today's situation, parents grieve in the same sort of way, nor the youngsters feel that sense of "alone" in the same way you did. This sounds weird, but I think that's a shame. I think it delays something that is very important for both young adults and empty nesters. I don't think our society encourages feeling the full measure of grief or isolation in the way it happened 30 years ago. I think the illusion of financial control in the present day situation delays it. Perhaps the only thing left where it is intact is when youngsters go off in the military.

Your piece is timely...I hope people DO still grieve.

8/13/2012 9:56 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

You make good points, Kirke. In my case, it was about parents setting their child free. Nowadays, I am astonished at the debt that college students incur. That wasn't part of the equation for me.

8/13/2012 10:05 PM  
Blogger Kirkepiscatoid said...

Me neither. My "full ride" in 1978 amounted to $2100/year, which now is a laughable amount.

8/13/2012 10:15 PM  
Blogger Lisa Fox said...

Thinking more about this: One of the things I see around here is a surprising number of folks -- now in their 40s -- who went to college locally and still live with (or very close to) their parents. That strikes me as kinda odd. It's like they never establish themselves as independent adults. I even encounter people who have never left the state -- or only once or twice -- in 3-5 decades! That just doesn't seem healthy to me. But maybe that's because you and I became -- for different reasons -- independent so early. I dunno ...

8/14/2012 8:14 AM  

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