Last week I wrote about returning to school 11 years after my college graduation. Besides adjusting to homework that isn’t my first-grader’s and reading textbooks while patting my 3-year-old son to sleep, the experience is nothing like it was a decade ago, for one important reason: This time I view everything not from the context of my own world, but from that of a mother.
Even five years ago, when I had no school-age children, I would have felt like a peer to many of the undergraduates. Seeing them walk across campus might have brought back memories of my own walks to and from the dormitory. But I seem to have crossed some invisible boundary, the same one that causes you to abruptly stop shopping in the juniors department and browse instead in the section of the store you thought belonged only to your mother. I have crossed from identifying with 20-somethings to identifying with their parents.
One day, while driving on campus, I saw a young male riding his bike on the sidewalk. He wore a knit snow hat, an iPod on his arm and a book bag on his back. There was a time when I would have thought he was cute. Instead, however, I found myself consumed with thoughts of my own boys going to college, and transferred those feelings onto the college student outside my window. I even grew a little teary. Does that boy have friends, I wondered. Is he hungry? Should he be listening to his iPod while riding a bike? Has he done his laundry in the past week?
Watching my oldest son, Ford, get on the school bus for his first day of kindergarten was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I almost chased the bus down the street in my bathrobe. A few years later, I wrote about overcoming the powerful urge to follow Ford into the dugout during a baseball game to console him after making an out.
I can only imagine what it will be like to send him off to college.
On Sunday, I took my oldest boys, Ford and Owen, to the university and we had dinner in the student union. The boys had many questions for me. They wanted to know why a grown-up goes back to school, if the students around us live away from their parents and, if I become Dr. Smiley, would I be able to fix their sore throats and runny noses. Owen decided that he wants to go to a school close to home, because he would miss me if he didn’t. Ford promised Owen that if they go to the same school, he can be his roommate. And when he was finished eating, Ford said he was considering the University of Maine for college, because “I already know I like their pizza.”
The boys wanted to see the dormitories before we left to go home. Their eyes grew wide, a mix of fear and surprise, when they saw the unexceptional brick buildings.
“Can you come live with me there?” Owen asked.
We passed fraternity houses as we exited the campus. This brought even more questions from the back seat.
Ford: Why do some students get to live in a house and other students live in a brick hotel?
Me: Those are fraternity houses. Fraternities are groups of people who like the same things and work together on projects, like volunteering.
Owen: Were you in a fraternity?
Me: Boys are in fraternities; girls are in sororities. I was in a sorority.
Ford: Can anyone join a fraternity or sen … sen — what was it — senority?
Me: Sorority. Fraternities and sororities choose who they want to join their group. Usually they pick people who have similar interests.
Ford: Is there a fraternity for people who like Star Wars?
Me: Not really.
Owen: Then I don’t want to join one.
Me: But fraternities have secrets, like secret handshakes and stuff.
Ford and Owen: Whoa.
Ford: Like real secrets?
Owen: What were your sorority secrets?
Me: I can’t tell you.
Ford: So if we join a fraternity, there will definitely be secrets? Do all fraternities have secrets?
Ford: I want to be careful when I pick a fraternity. I’m going to worry if I like them, not if they like me. And I want one with lots of history.
Me: The older the fraternity, the more history and secrets it has.
Ford: Thanks for that information. I’ll keep all this in mind, Mom.
I turned onto the interstate and looked in my rearview mirror. Ford and Owen were flipping open their handheld video games and giggling about the noises they made. Owen wiped his nose with the back of his hand. A tuft of Ford’s hair was sticking up above his ears. In another few minutes they were engrossed in a game of “Mario Bros.” I smiled to myself. No sense shedding tears over them leaving home just yet. They may be growing fast, but for now, they are still my little boys.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at email@example.com.