As my older son heads off to college in a couple of weeks, I’m repeating myself. Even I can tell it’s annoying, but I don’t stop.
I tell him: Go to office hours. Get involved in extracurriculars. Don’t skip classes like I did, after finding a boyfriend freshman year. Be curious, find something that interests you, get out to exercise. I’ve told him these things 10 times, 100, and yet I keep saying them like a talisman.
Underneath all this practical advice lies the unspoken: The house will be quieter without you. The cat will yowl for you. The grocery bill will shrink. The bathroom will sparkle. There will be a hole the size of you, now an adult, in this household that has held you in all your sizes for 18 years.
Most of all unspoken: Have we done enough?
On the Brink
The question of “enough” is a feeling familiar to all teachers, I think. At the end of the year in eighth-grade history and civics, I often feel my students and I are just getting started, sliding into a rhythm. By May I know each of these kids. I understand something about how they learn, what makes them smile. I recognize how they glide into class when they’re buoyant or slip in like a shadow when they’re struggling.
By these spring days, we’ve often just hit our stride in discussions about politics, reform movements, why we go to war or what makes peace. In these last weeks – weather warming, giddiness rising – I try to make them laugh. I sit on a student’s desk and ask how their horse show went this weekend, or how their sister in college is doing, or whether they got more sleep last night than the night before. In my best years as a teacher, by this point we have found community, and I love them, all of them.
After they return from the summer these students will be different – more mature, and more able to cope and manage, and for sure mostly taller. And I know they will never inhabit this moment again, eighth graders poised on the brink.
My older son is also on the brink right now. He is freshly 18, ready to drive up or down the coast at a moment’s notice to see a baseball game or a cool beachfront or a new restaurant. Last month he was a counselor for eight 14-year-olds in a cabin, in what he called the best week of his summer. After they hiked up a mountain, he talked with them about their life goals, just as his counselor did when he was 14.
He is mentoring. He is ready to be mentored. He is as independent as one could wish, probably more so.
So why is it so hard to see him go? Isn’t this what we’ve been preparing for all along?
In teaching, we’re in the very business of kids leaving us. Often we get them for one year –sometimes, if we’re lucky, for two or three or four. And then they move on. Some will come back, but often precisely to show us how they have changed. And it is marvelous. They are becoming our colleagues, our peers, true adults, citizens with purpose.
In contrast, in parenting we’re in it for the long haul. Our kids don’t leave us, until one day they do.
In teaching we always think there’s more we could do; in parenting there’s always more to be done. Some outcomes are immediately measurable but others latent, waiting for the right moment to sprout – in both cases, so often, precisely when we’re not around to see it.
For teachers, we measure skills, grades, mastery. For parents, we hope our children will eke their way through young adulthood just a little better than we did. We see our flaws and dreams refracted in them and wonder how they will manage. How we managed.
The Right Time
In these last weeks before my son leaves, just in case this is a moment when he wants to talk, I show up when I hear him go into the kitchen at night. I load dishes or cut cucumbers or fold laundry.
Often it’s clearly not the time. He burrows into the newspaper at our kitchen table, trying to create as much privacy as he can in an open room with the sink running.
But once in a while it is the right moment, as he’s scooping hummus onto pita chips straight from the bag or watching something on his phone. He’s suddenly open, and I hear about where he went last night with his friends or about his latest creative writing idea.
If the time is right and I’m feeling nostalgic, I might share one of my mom’s favorite sayings, knowing he won’t really listen but that it could land somewhere: “It will be revealed to you” or “One does what one can.”
Or I might mention a poem that I’m sure he must have read but somehow missed. Maybe tonight it’s “Year’s End” by Richard Wilbur, a favorite of both me and my mom, both of us English teachers.
Will he be all right without having known it? With all the books that I read to him as a child, how did we miss this poem? Will he ever understand the urgency of the last stanza, asking for us to wrestle with “sudden ends of time” that “give us pause”?
By this point, of course, I’m asking questions not of him but of myself.
And in a flash I remember: Not only have I read him “Year’s End,” but I memorized it when he was a baby. I was desperate for something to do during feedings in the dark and recited it to him over and over. I have not thought of this in 18 years. And now he’s sitting in my kitchen, eating pita chips.
Like my students after the summer, when he comes home at Thanksgiving he will be different. More grown, more mature. No longer on the brink.
And, I hope, ready to talk to me in the kitchen while I soap the dishes, salt the soup. I’ll be standing at the sink come November, just in case.