By Larry Scott
It’s the time of year when many of last spring’s high school seniors are leaving home to become this fall’s college first-years. After the hubbub of packing and unpacking, hooking up the computer and meeting the roommate, there will come that moment when parents depart.
This is a singular moment, a quantum jump in the journey to adulthood, and as a parent you may wonder, as I did, what words of wisdom are appropriate. You don’t want to say too much, but there is much you want to say. You want to keep it upbeat, but at the same time you want to let your kid know that the training wheels are coming off and the road may get bumpy.
Before my parents drove away from my freshman dorm, my father, not usually given to classical references, had one bit of advice: Avoid the lotus eaters (it was the ’60s). At that time I had no clue what he meant, but it did make me curious about lotuses.
The most perceptive advice for a first-year college student that I ever heard came not from a parent but rather from a roommate.
Over a couple of pints, a rugby teammate of mine who went to college on a football scholarship told me the following story about his first day on campus.
After freshmen orientation and meetings with the coaching staff, he was sitting in his room in the dorm reserved for athletes, writing a letter to his high school sweetheart. He was about three pages into it when his roommate, an upper classman, showed up.
The roommate introduced himself, shook hands and suggested that the two of them go out to the nearest bar to have a couple of beers and get better acquainted. My friend replied that the coach had told all the freshman not to drink if they wanted to play football, and that he was in the middle of writing a letter to his high school sweetheart, and besides, he didn’t really like the taste of beer anyway.
The roommate sighed, sat on the edge of his unmade bed and said, “Look, you are going to do three things before you graduate: You are going to break up with your high school sweetheart, you are going to learn to hate football and you are going to learn to like beer. So you might as well get started now.”
My friend took a long pull at his pint and concluded the story by saying that all three predictions had come true, although not in that order.
In the days leading up to the moment my first-born would disappear into her dorm, I spent some time thinking about and rehearsing what I might say. Clearly the advice given to my rugby teammate, although accurate, was not appropriate, and I’m sure my daughter would be just as puzzled as I was about lotus-eaters.
But there were dozens of things I did want to say: warnings, encouragement, praise, hope, worry, jokes, advice, what to embrace, what to avoid. But when the moment came I was silent during our goodbye hug, and as she walked away I said only, “See you for Thanksgiving.”
The drive home with my wife and son was exceptionally quiet, each of us turning over in our minds the new orbits in our revised family solar system.
I recalled all the parting words I had left unsaid, but I figured we had had 18 years to shape and influence this young person, and a few words more or less at this point weren’t going to make much difference. And sometimes a hug can say more than words.