Wednesday, September 3, 2014

When Your First-Born Leaves for College

It's the scene I've dreamed about since the day she was born. My daughter, delighting in showing me around her new home, a college campus. She is talking a mile a minute, giving me historic details of the beautiful grounds at the University of Arkansas, nestled in the Boston Mountains in the charming town of Fayetteville, and dating back to 1871.

Two weeks ago, her dad and stepmom did the hard stuff, driving a loaded car six hours and saying goodbye. I would have cried all the way home, and was grateful they took on the task. Instead, T and I got to see her settling in; our excuse for a visit, her birthday. Her boyfriend of a year--a bright, capable, and (best of all) calm, young man--is also attending, and when we met them for dinner the night we arrived, it seemed we were socializing with an adult couple, and that she had grown up in a fortnight. I remembered her summer before kindergarten, a time I thought I might reach the end of my parenting tether, only for her to grow into a delightful little girl after a few weeks of big kid school.

--Old Main, University of Arkansas

Not long ago, I visited my alma mater after almost two decades away. As T and I walked around the ivy-covered campus at Queen's University, I recollected how anxious I had been; as a kid from the sticks and holding a keen sense of the social pecking order, my status was surely that of an imposter, and it was only a matter of time before I was found out. It was exhilarating to be around all of these brilliant people, though, and eventually I realized that just reading and writing all day was a luxury I might not enjoy for a long time to come. When my years at school came to an end, I grieved it deeply. The time was coming to face the real world, and fear reared up again with a vengence.

Talking with my daughter over the weekend, I saw a woman with a plan. She said that people look at her sideways when she raises her hand in class to ask a question. Oh, you're the girl I was so in awe of, said I, truthfully. (This elicited a proud smile.) Her confidence has always awed me, as she's been in possession of it since she was a toddler.

On Saturday, the kids decided to go to a football watch party, as the Arkansas Razorbacks were playing Auburn. T is much better-educated than I, but he did it the hard way and didn't get the idyllic undergraduate experience of my youth. College football in the South is a thing unto itself, though, and Texas has taught me what little I know. But I love the game and find the tribal customs behind it fascinating. We decided to hit the sports bar near our hotel to catch a bit of it ourselves.

From a quiet parking lot, we entered a riotous, noisy sea of red. The second quarter had just started, and it looked as though the underdog Hogs, as they are called in local parlance, had a chance. Hope was in the air, and it was making its voice heard. We managed to find one seat at the bar and procured a weak Margarita. The drive began, and so did the call. "Soooey. Sooooooey." T had that wide-eyed look he gets, the one that makes me hysterical with laughter. Watching all of these fans in the grips of the fight song, he was like Anthony Bourdain on location, a stranger in a strange land.

At my daughter's birthday dinner that night, she was telling us about friends who are off at other colleges, and wondering aloud about some of their decisions. "She doesn't know what she's doing," said my daughter about one. I looked askance. She smiled. "Well, maybe I don't either, but at least I act like I do." Fake it 'till you make it. If only she had been around to give me this wisdom when I was eighteen.

The world of work offers us very few clear victories, and on a daily basis, parenting gives us even fewer. Sometimes, though, our children give us moments that rival a Nobel Prize. Watching my girl this past weekend, I know I must have done something well. Until the inevitable bumps ahead, I am going to rest on my laurels for a bit.


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