I spent the day yesterday at Northeastern University attending my son’s freshman orientation. He departs on August 23 for four months at the Dublin Business School, part of Northeastern’s program to spread around its incoming class and give a couple hundred of them an opportunity to start their college careers at affiliate campuses in Costa Rica, Australia, Greece, London or Dublin. This is a good thing I think. He will need to cook for himself, clean his own toilet, and deal with his own budget. I hope he returns with more than just good grades.
We were split up after the welcoming session. He went off with his cohorts to learn about making healthy choices, I went off with the parents to learn about “letting go.”
I sat in the back row, part of the cluster of battle-weary parents who all raised their hands when the dean asked if this was our third kid or more to head off to college. The ones going through it for the first time were predictably clustered towards the front of the big auditorium.
This one is my last. When he flies off on Aer Lingus at 6:25 pm, August 23 it will mark an interesting life-shift for my wife and me, one that definitely didn’t seem to get a lot of advance warning and pre-publicity in the human being guide book: the phenomenon of the empty nest. My wife, and the mother who spoke to the parents on “holding on and letting go” seem to get quite emotional about this big life shift; and understandably so as it must be wrenching for a mother to say goodbye to last of the litter and find a big gaping hole in the key thing that defined their lives. Me, I guess I’m pre-programmed like a bull walrus, beat-up grizzly bear, or dim-witted caveman to biologically greet the expulsion of the last of the litter as a good thing.
What amazed me as I sat through yesterday’s full day of parental instructions about everything from foreign ATM bank fees to smartphone data plans, fitted sheets to personal hygiene, Irish study habits (actually kind of interesting) to paying the $30,000 tuition for the term (kill me now), was the complete discordance with my experience in 1976 when I went off to college.
I had a deadline for arrival — the dropdead date to move into my dorm, register, and start my fall term. I prefer Cape Cod in early September to New Haven, so, on the morning of that last possible day in early September, my father let me, by myself, load my crap into the back of his Pontiac Grand Safari station wagon and together we drove down Route 95 splitting a six pack of warm Heineken. I had seen the campus once before, on an overnight visit the previous winter, but didn’t have a clue about where I was going, where I was living, or where I was supposed to be. I’d deal with it when I got there. My father certainly wasn’t concerned. Other than the tuition bill, I don’t think the college ever mailed him anything.
We found the dorm and I went upstairs and met my roommates, all of whom freaked out as they had been in residence for a full week and had written me off as a no-show because I had missed all the orientation and freshman bonding activities they had endured. “You know your course selections are due by 4 pm don’t you?” Whatever. I’d pick five classes, get the form signed by whomever had to sign the form, and that would be that.
Meanwhile, back on the sidewalk, my father had discovered my three-foot bong hidden in the sleeve of my blue blazer and was examining it with a puzzled look on his face.
I confiscated it back from him with the lame explanation that it was a lamp, thanked him for the ride, shook his hand, and accepted a twenty dollar bill that was folded and tucked into my shirt pocket like a stripper’s tip. He drove back to Cape Cod. His total time on campus was 30 minutes and he never entered my room. So there I was: on campus, in college, on my own, and extremely screwed as is turned out my last minute course selection guaranteed that I would sign up for five very nasty classes, two of which were graduate level and turned out to be way out of my league, and one of which, English 101 — the English major pre-requisite –was the most evil horrible experience I would ever endure in a classroom. By Christmas of that term my parents had decided to divorce, and by spring my tuition was going unpaid and I was truly on my own.
In 1976 my old man didn’t go to a Powerpoint lecture on “Holding On and Letting Go.” He didn’t hang a name tag around his neck, meet other parents and commiserate about tuition payment plans, he didn’t get a chance to sign up for the parent’s portal or have to understand the federal laws that protect a freshman’s privacy rights in terms of sharing their grades with their parents. He just delivered me to the door and paid the bill for a little while.
Now his generation was the last of the big smoking, martinis-at-lunch, unhealthy choices generation. Mine is all about yoga pants, paleo diets, tiger moms, and hovering. I have buddies who were former self-appointed pharmacological test subjects who have grown up to be stridently straight-edge paragons of virtue who say things like: “Marijuana is much stronger today, more like a narcotic …..” and who fret about peanut allergies that were non-existent among my classmates in the 1960s. Suddenly teenagers can’t seem to be trusted to cross the street by themselves, and are expected to carry their cell phones like court-ordered ankle bracelets.
Yesterday I was advised with all earnestness not to comment on my child’s Facebook page as that will tip him off that I am following his updates and photos and tracking who his friends are. Cell phones are mandatory. Waivers must be signed. Goodbye Animal House, hello House Arrest.
For the last three years I’ve volunteered my time as president of the local sailing school, the same one that I taught at in the early 1970s. A real issue for the current instructors is parental interference, so much so that the head instructor has had to ban parents from hanging around their kids’ classes and setting aside specific hours during the week when the parents can come ask questions and make their concerns known.
One parent apparently continues to launch a kayak and tries to paddle after her kid during classes just to keep an eye on her. My father gave me a sailboat, told me to pack my own lunch, and be home by dark. There was only one rule and that was don’t sail outside of the harbor. Life jackets were not mandatory. Sunscreen didn’t exist.
I guess all this vigilance is for the best. Right? After all it’s hard to find the moral ground to argue against a bike helmet after one has nearly died in a bike accident. But something inside me misses that world where parents didn’t have social networks to follow their kids, men didn’t wear baby slings, and an 18-year old could walk into a bar and order a beer like a grown up. Now we seem to be retarding them, hanging on for dear life, afraid to kick them out of the cave and into the tough world.