I SENT A KID off to college this week. As the car carrying him and his mother rolled down the alley, I had conflicting emotions. Part of me said "It's about time." Another part of me wondered "Where did the time go?"
My mind flashed back to a morning 13 years ago when I had walked the kid down the same alley to begin his educational career in the kindergarten of MountRoyal Elementary. As a kindergartner he had carried an empty Roi-Tan cigar box to hold his pencils, a gift from his dad.
Now as a freshman at Boston University he was heading north with a car full of clothes and an empty Upmann cigar box, another gift, that the kid would probably use to hold headphones.
Unlike most going-off-to-college cars, the shocks on ours were not straining from a heavy load. That's because most of the kid's belongings had already been shipped to Boston. I was warned that the separation process might be wrenching, but I didn't know that much of the pain was back pain that came from lugging bulky boxes to the UPS office. Over the last month I made several trips to the Quad Avenue office buried in the industrial maze of East Baltimore. One night the car broke down. After it was revived I arrived with a station wagon stuffed with a boxed-up computer - 15 minutes after the place had closed. I came back the next day.
Watching the kid roll off to college also reminded me of the nights my wife and I had waited for the kid to return home. That very morning we were waiting for him to come home from Harford County, where he had spent the night with buddies from his high school, St. Paul's. He arrived late, explaining he had been stuck in morning rush-hour traffic, then had taken an ill-fated shortcut. His mother, who was anxious to get on the road to Boston, was ready to clobber him. It was time to go, in more ways than one.
In retrospect, I see that nature has ways of preparing both parents and kids for the departure of the young from the homestead. A major factor in this separation rite is what goes on at home during the summer following the kid's senior year in high school. While kids of all ages seem to regard the family home as a full-service hotel, by the summer after their senior year they have perfected the hotel lifestyle and are especially adept at coming and going during the wee small hours of the morning. Another factor that helps parents push the kids from the nest is the packing process.
Getting a kid ready for college is the culmination of years of packing him off to summer sports camps and school trips. There is the same gathering of underwear and socks, the same purchasing of expensive gear, and the same general indifference of the kid for the proceedings, except when it comes to packing CDs.
The difference, of course, is the length of the stay. When you send a kid off to college, there is the assumption he is going to stay there for at least a semester. However, older parents tell me that your kids, even your college graduates, return to the nest from time to time. As the car carrying the college boy traveled down the alley, it turned and rolled past a dorm of the Maryland Institute, College of Art. A few days earlier the street in front of the dorm had been clogged with parents from around the country depositing their kids.
While sending our firstborn off to college may have seemed like a milestone to my wife and me, the hubbub of daily life would continue, as our younger son, 15, quickly proved. No sooner had I waved goodbye to our older son than the younger son reminded me I was supposed to drive him to his football game later that afternoon.
I took the opportunity to quiz our younger son about his college plans. He said he wasn't sure where he would end up, that college was still a long way off.
I wanted to tell him time sneaks up on you, one day you are out in the alley taking your kid to kindergarten and then before you know it, you are standing in the same spot, watching him head off to college.
I didn't say that because he is a kid, and I am parent, and time moves at a different pace for each of us. Instead I told him what I had often told his brother when he had lived at home and depended on me to help make his way in the world.
"Be ready when I pick you up."