“If he’s not as cool as I am, that’s not cool. And if he’s cooler than I am, that’s not cool either.” So declared our son, half jokingly, half not, upon receiving his college roommate assignment at Middlebury College.
This phrase captured a major aspect of his fear of the unknown: what 18-year-old wouldn’t feel some trepidation about leaving the only home he’s ever known to live five hours away in close quarters with a randomly chosen stranger?
We have just finished moving Will in, and luckily this fear has turned out to be for naught. His roommate, Van Barth, from Los Angeles, California, is a photographer and environmentalist who already has been successful in getting local legislation passed. He gives me hope for our environmental future. To boot, he seems like a genuinely nice young man. With Will’s fears allayed, I could now turn to mine.
Don’t loft his bed too high. What if he rolls and falls off? What if he forgets how high up he is and twists an ankle getting out of bed? Don’t hang that sign over his pillow. It might fall off and give him a concussion. Yeah… move it right… over there. Perfect.
He took his long board to travel quickly to class. No helmet. The path from the chapel down to the library looks like a ski slope. Black diamond. Please don’t get it into your head to skateboard down that monstrous incline because you will surely hurt yourself and take out any number of students like bowling pins.
There is a small waterfall over the bridge leading from town into campus. As we all leaned over to look into the dark rushing water, I reminded Will not to be tempted to jump in. You don’t know the depths. You could kill yourself or break a leg.
Some might think a warning like this might plant the seed of an idea that had not existed before. With Will, however, we have had 18 years to understand that we have to anticipate what ideas he might get into his head. We have learned to launch pre-emptive strikes before he can turn a dangerous idea into action.
My worries are not only about his physical safety. Will his roommate be nice to him? Will he be nice to his roommate? Will he be able to get himself out of bed in time to get to class since we have served as human alarm clocks throughout his classroom career?
You will not be missing a single class, we warned. We didn’t actually whip out a calculator to figure out the value of each hour of class time. But he got the idea.
We were sitting at breakfast before his first night in his dorm when he said, “What if I wake up in the middle of the night and want to come home? When I was little I remember thinking it would be the greatest thing to have a sleepover, but whenever I went over to my friend’s house to do it I would wake up in the middle of the night and want to come home.”
That triggered a long-ago memory that made me laugh; being woken up in the middle of the night by his friend’s mother who told me that Will would not go to sleep; he wanted to leave.” So at two in the morning I drove over, wrapped a blanket around him, exhausted but wide-eyed with anxiety, and brought him home to his own bed. He was asleep when his head hit his pillow.
Did he bring enough warm clothes, I worried. This is Vermont, after all. Will he have enough space to accommodate the clothes he did bring? Will he put his dirty clothes in the hamper and get them into a washing machine in timely fashion? We did not sign up for the laundry service, and I hope this is a decision we do not come to regret. But I feel that doing laundry in college is a life experience that should not be missed.
Middlebury has its own ski mountain, its own golf course, and beautiful squash courts. This summer, Will played squash for the first time and loved it. I felt a stab of guilt. Never exposed him to the sport. But he did take tennis lessons and like a horse led to water, he let us get him there but refused to drink.
Are there things we could have, should have, and would have done differently? Of course. But we did our best and should not second- guess ourselves. Moreover, he’s only 18. The world awaits with new challenges and opportunities. Now he has to take the wheel, even though we will always be there to ride shotgun.
There has been much hue and cry recently about the “vocationalization” of college, even at such bastions of liberal arts as Middlebury College, where the president, at her welcome address, touted the core values of writing well, speaking well, and developing analytical skills, all so critically needed to address the diverse issues of today and the problems of the future.
But into all of this creeps the omnipresence of technology and the need to speak its language. So take those writing and art courses, Will, but try out computer science and programming; learn economic theory, but get some math behind it. We have to give our children the skills not only to navigate the future, but also to lead it.
We have said our good-byes and are now heading home. Will, with his trademark humor, defused the emotional weight of the moment of the farewell by saying, “Hey, family, it’s been a great 18 years, thanks for everything and I’ll see you soon.”
On our part, we kept it simple: keep an open mind, be safe, be kind, and always show up with your best self. Good advice for a college freshman and for the rest of us too.