Frankly, it was not at all how I expected it to go.
There we were, my husband Adam and I standing on the cobblestone walkway outside the all-girls dorm with Sophie, our daughter, looking a little bit forlorn and quite a bit grumpy.
Forlorn, because we were just about to walk away, get in the car and begin the 14-hour drive that would take us back north to the East End, leaving her to fend for herself for the first time in her 18 years.
Grumpy, because for the previous half hour, Adam had been toiling in her dorm room at the College of Charleston in an attempt to jury-rig a small fan that would keep her cool at night in the upper reaches of her very high bunk bed.
Yes, it was a lovely, fatherly gesture. But there was nothing obvious to attach said fan to. As a result, he was probably putting way too much energy into figuring out a solution, as evidenced by the curses, and certainly expending far more energy than Sophie thought the task warranted, which is why she wanted him to just go away and let her get on with her new life and freshman year in peace.
In the end, sensing the time had come for us to be on our way, I said, “Forget it, she’ll figure it out on her own.” So we left the fan where it was in sort of the right position and made for the exit
In many ways, that simple task was the perfect and perfectly mundane illustration of the push me, pull you dynamics that encapsulate sending your kid off to college. We had just learned all about it during orientation over the course of the previous two days — days in which we were separated from our children, whom administrators henceforth referred to as our “students” (apparently the preferred nomenclature for colleges keen on severing the rotors of parental helicopters).
So while we were in our sessions learning all about letting go, Sophie was in hers learning all about stepping up. That means navigating and negotiating the ins and outs of all things collegiate, from designing a social contract to set boundaries with her new roommate and admitting to professors when she’s in over her head, to informing the college of her hurricane evacuation plans in the event a named storm bares down on the Charleston coast in the weeks ahead, which is more likely than not if recent history is any guide.
Oh yeah, she also has to decide whether or not she’ll give us permission to see her grades — that one seemed to throw a lot of parents for a loop.
When we finally reunited at the end of orientation day two, Sophie had her brand new schedule in hand and we promptly visited the college bookstore website to reserve the textbooks she needed for physics, calculus and French. As expected, all the prices were shockingly high, but the worst by far was the French book which was coming in at $300. Really? $300 for a French book? I checked the online description to see if it came with a plane ticket to Paris because, you know, at that price it damn well should!
Meanwhile, Sophie had jumped on her phone to check out other websites and quickly found a place where she could rent the French book for $20. We’ll still have to buy the code that gives her online access to the class assignments and supplemental material, but hey, it saved us about $100.
Alright, I thought. She’s figuring this out, just like she’s supposed to.
And that’s the kind of thing they mean when they tell you to let go. “No,” college staff inform parents in orientation, “there are no wake up calls provided, and no, professors aren’t going to call you when your student doesn’t hand in their homework or they miss a week of class.”
Just this week, the Wall Street Journal ran an essay that questioned the emotional readiness of today’s kids for college. The authors suggested that many college bound teens are short on the emotional maturity needed to deal with their newly acquired adult independence. Not surprisingly, they have found that the more parents help their teens prepare, often the less ready those kids are to handle problems alone. As a result, they end up in therapy if they’re lucky, or spiraling into despair and worse if they’re not.
Personally, I’ve always been a big proponent of less is more in the parenting realm, especially in the teenage years, which may be why our final farewell on the College of Charleston cobblestones was so utterly anticlimactic. To top it off, none of the other students had yet arrived, including Sophie’s roommate, as we had taken part in the final orientation session of summer and were able to move her into her dorm early. So the whole goodbye scene took place on a practically empty campus that was eerily quiet and after we left, she knew she’d be spending the first night in her room alone.
And that’s when it started to drizzle … and then, pour. So we hurried things up, exchanged good, but totally rushed, hugs. I told her she’s going to be great, she nodded. I asked if there was anything else she needed, she shook her head no, and that was it, we were off.
We drove several hours and lots of miles, putting two states between us before stopping for the night at a Best Western (which was mediocre at best, truth be told). After hitting a local barbecue joint, we were settling in back at the inn when a Face Time call came from Sophie.
I could see she was sitting in her bunk bed, eerily lit by the phone and her eyes were wide with panic. The pathetic sound of a poorly mounted fan whirred in the background.
“Are you freaking out?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “A little.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
That’s when she admitted to being afraid her classes were going to be too hard, but I think her real fear remained unspoken and was more of an overall anxiety about the unknown road ahead. Alone in a dorm room perched high on a bunkbed on the precipice of a college career, waiting for your roommate to arrive and life to begin. Who wouldn’t be afraid? Anticipation is almost always much more stressful than the event itself.
Probably more than anything, she just needed to know I was still with her. So I told her to hang in there, get some sleep and see what the morning would bring, besides her new roommate. If she needed to talk more, I said, I’m here.
And that was that.
In the days that followed, dorms filled up, cafeterias opened, classes started. Now, with the first full week under her belt, there’s been barely a peep in terms of communication, which I’m taking as a good sign.
The other day, a friend who is currently going through the same process, recounted his own daughter’s panic on the way to her college in Florida. At one point during their journey, she was ready to call the whole thing off, turn around and go home. But she stuck it out and now, all is well as she has adjusted quite nicely to her new environment.
He compared the process of going to college to fledglings taking the leap of faith required to leave the nest. It’s a great metaphor, I think. A blind jump, followed by a panicky plunge into the abyss, and then, wings you didn’t know you had and had never before used instinctively stretch out, do their job and lift both body and spirit.
As parents, that’s the best we can hope for.
And Sophie? By late in her first week, it was clear there was really only one thing bothering her, as revealed in this most telling text — “You should send me bagels soon. I miss them.”