I took my 18-year old son, Alex, to “moving in” day at Indiana University a short time ago. He was joined, on that sprawling campus in Bloomington, Indiana, by 7,000 other freshmen. It is hard to see the singularity among 7,000, but there were signs you could not miss. Traffic was bumper to bumper at 8:00 that morning, the leaves from some trees already lay on the ground, a phenomenom that I, from Tampa, Florida, did not take easily for granted. Alex had been raised by his mother, and I was, or so I thought, essentially, and literally, along for the ride. Alex and I spent two days driving west. The conversation was, how shall we put it — “restrained,” — as it is with a hormonally-challenged 18-year old setting off on the most important venture of his life and knowing absolutely positively that his mostly absent father had little to contribute. Seven thousand parents could only stand and watch. Some made an effort to help lift up some boxes or suitcases, others, like me, let their strong sons do all the heavy lifting. “Grandma, over here,” I heard one girl say. It was nice to see three generations represented. Alex, for his part, was more than happy to see his parents leave. I told him he had to hold out another four hours before he was officially liberated, so he might as well humor us. I looked around at the items strewn around the lawn in front of his dormitory; 18-year olds reducing their adolescent years to what would fit in half of a dormitory room the size of a small prison cell. Half of Alex’ space was taken up with is hockey gear. All the goals he scored in his high school years were fragments of a past he would try to hold on to, but I knew he would not succeed. His roomate, with whom he had exchanged e-mail messages, was not there yet. From his name, he was clearly of Indian descent, and I patronizingly told my son my intersection with the culture of that nation. I counted five connections — “I probably won’t use any of them,” said my son. I should have known that if it came from a father, he would discount it automatically. I walked through his dorm — co-ed, boys in one end, girls in another, beds moved around into incredbly creative positions. Each door had the names of the new incumbents — there was Alex and his roomate Santosh, farther down Alan, and Chris, and Bill, and Paul. And down farther, Kimberly, and Alice, and Carmen. Each name had next to it another name, strange to me, until my son pointed out that they were Disney characters. Disney characters for 18-year olds? What kind of twilight zone had I inadvertently entered? Why would Indiana University even try to find Disney characters’ names for 7,000 eighteen year olds who had, it seemed to me, left Disney behind, or at least I hope they had. I left him there, told him to call — not that I believed he ever would — and took a plane back home. I arrived late at night, went to the room of my sleeping seven year old girl and eight year old adopted boy, and took great solace in knowing that it would be ten years before I would ever have to do this again. By then I would, I was pretty certain, be the oldest father in the new freshman class wherever that would be. I looked at the wall next to my little seven year old’s bed, and saw all the Disney characters she had plastered next to her bed. Disney characters are for seven year olds, but I was perfectly willing to defer to the Indiana University officials on this one. I left a cell phone message for my son, knowing full well he would probably not call back. Why should he? That first day of college, that moving in traumatic experience was just a stepping off point for him, but for me, though it might not have been all it could have been, it was something I shared with 7,000 other parents, and grandparents that day. So I still believe in that first day of college, that moving-in experience. As I lie in bed that night I could hardly wait for it to happen again ten years later, and I pictured it in my mind, and it was more real than I could have ever have imagined.
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