A lot of teenagers are preparing to go away to college, often the first long-term separation between them and their parents.
My parents never had that experience because my siblings and I all lived at home while we were students at our excellent local university. I am told that there are countless others like me, who did not leave their nuclear family while college undergrads.
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Somehow – and this would make a great research topic – we made it through, but at what cost?
We’re the ones who suffered by seeing the dentist and doctor regularly, attending cousins’ birthday parties, wearing laundered clothing and eating balanced meals. Mom was to blame for all these indignities.
I, in the bloom of my youth, was forced to work through a lot of child-parent pathology by sharing living quarters with the very people I found most disagreeable and intrusive. As a result I had to develop extensive duplicitous skills, weaving countless convincing stories about the necessity to remain on campus until 2 a.m.
My parents made sacrifices, too.
They never had the pleasure of spending money on trendy, color-coordinated, university-appropriate bedding, because in the home linen closet there were plenty of serviceable sheets and pillowcases which fit the bed in the room I grudgingly shared with my sister.
My parents never enjoyed the bliss of accompanying me on a stressful college tour, during which they would worry and drink caffeinated beverages while I tried to charm 12 different admissions officers at 12 colleges in the scope of one week.
My parents never developed the strength to deal with the following from afar:
1. I was so homesick that I couldn’t eat or sleep.
2. I hated my roommate so deeply that I couldn’t eat or sleep.
3. I’d lost my cellphone and iPod so that I couldn’t unwind enough to eat or sleep.
4. The college food was so repulsive, the beds so lumpy and the walls so thin that I couldn’t eat or sleep.
5. Everybody except me had a car, an unlimited credit card, a boyfriend and a part in the University Follies, so all there was for me to do was eat and sleep.
My siblings were denied the entertainment of receiving messages from me, many states away, describing the communal bathrooms, communal laundry rooms and communal use of my clothing by other co-eds whom I hardly knew.
I missed the opportunity of dwelling in a sub-heated room in a non-elevated dorm in Michigan or Boston. I was deprived of sharing a suite with four intermittently-depressed women in a sub-air conditioned flat in Arizona or South Carolina.
I also missed the opportunity to share the cost of a textile remnant, euphemistically called a “carpet,” and a tiny, mercurial cooling receptacle, optimistically termed a “refrigerator.”
It will be different for families who expect their children to go away to school.
What fun for the whole family to get into that out-of-town college spirit, dazzled by glossy, sophisticated university brochures and appealing invitations to join one of our country’s military forces. How thrilling to consider mastering the maritime, grooming or mining fields.
Most exciting of all, after filling out applications and sending in fees, is travelling to institutions of higher learning located in remote towns where your children can wait for the UPS truck the way many Jews wait for the Messiah.
Don’t dismiss those character-building phone calls among high school seniors, revealing who got accepted or rejected, who got financial aid and whose parents were taking a third mortgage on the family home.
Most exhilarating is the day you and your children wedge yourselves, along with a freight-train’s worth of possessions, into the car and head to freshman destinations. What a relief for families not to worry about how to use expendable incomes or be forced to know whom your children are dating.
You can be sure that your children, with the advantage of separation, will grow independent from their brothers and sisters, making them more like amiable strangers and less like the excessively intimate siblings before they left.
Your freshly-liberated children will come home for winter break to talk about Paolo and Berush and Shprintze and Tica who are now their real, true friends, in a deep and meaningful way that their old friends from high school never could be. They’ll come home for spring break to explain how close – really close – they are to their Eastern Religions professor, who lived in Pakistan for many years.
This incredible woman makes all the philosophical and religious beliefs and practices of their ill-spent youth seem trivial and superficial. They’ll glow as they reveal that they feel as close to their philosophy instructor, a first-year grad student, as to you, their incidental birth parents.
Maybe these new freshmen will become so wise about their privileged lives that they’ll return at summer vacation to declare their decision to drop out of college altogether.
They will endeavor to help you understand the errors of your way of life, determined to cast their lot with folks unencumbered by middle-class family possessions and values. They will no longer pose for family pictures because it’s narcissistic, nor waste water by daily bathing.
My siblings and I didn’t sever the restrictive cords until grad school. I’m equally sorry that my benighted parents, with all three of us at home as undergrads, alas, missed out on so much happiness!
About the writer
Chana Shapiro notes that university classes start just as we enter the High Holy Days. As 5774 begins, she begs your indulgence and forgiveness, acknowledging that she often makes fun of human trials and tribulations (see above.) That’s not to say that she won’t continue to do it in the future, but in the light of these “days of awe”, one can’t be too careful. She and her family wish all of you a fulfilling, meaningful and joyful year, wherever you may be.