University- seeking son meets his match

April 22, 2000|By Rob Kasper

BOSTON -- Last week, when our firstborn finally decided where he wanted to go to college, a great weight was lifted from my shoulders, namely the kid's bulging backpack.

During one segment of this college visit, I had ended up carrying the kid's backpack. As most parents knows, a kid's backpack weighs more than Jesse "The Body" Ventura. This one held enough books to fill a wing of a university library, plus the required CD player and extensive collection of discs that seem to accompany every traveling teen-ager.

This happened during the "getting serious" stage of the college hunt, when high school seniors spend the night at one of the colleges that have accepted them. In previous springtimes we had been in the "just looking" mode, the stage many high school juniors are in now, taking ganders at a series of colleges that later might merit a longer look.

As the kid got ready to spend the night in a college bunkhouse, he decided he didn't want to lug around his backpack. He handed it off to me.

I, like most dads, readily accepted the role of beast of burden.

I loosened the straps and twisted my creaking torso, trying to slip the backpack over my shoulders. I trudged through the streets, presenting the unlikely visage of a middle-aged man in a wool topcoat struggling with a knapsack full of rap music. I carried the backpack with me as I rode the Boston light-rail line out to my brother's home in the suburbs. There I set the backpack down, consumed some liquids and never went near the backpack again.

My bout with the backpack struck me as a metaphor for the college search experience. It stretches you in ways you don't expect, it delivers shots of pain. Then when it ends, you feel relieved. My wife and I probably devoted too much attention to the college search for our firstborn. We can't help it; we're baby boomers. There are so many of us, and there are so many of our college-age offspring, that every transition in our lives has become a magazine cover with a headline reading something like "The Coming Crunch in ..."

We started "just looking" at colleges when the kid was a sophomore in high school. In the ensuing years, we bought guidebooks, surfed Web sites, took batteries of timed and untimed tests, wrote and rewrote soulful essays, and visited so many far-flung campuses that we felt like Al Gore scrambling for Super Tuesday delegates.

Last summer, if we drove through a town that had a institution of higher learning, such as Lewisburg, Pa., home of Bucknell University, the car automatically toured the college grounds.

I say "we" because the college search was a joint effort between parents and child, like those science projects "we" did in middle school. And like the science projects, there was an ongoing struggle for control. Suggestions were offered and rejected. Voices were raised. Doors were slammed.

Looking back, I see there are three ingredients needed by parents embarking on the college hunt. Those would be comfortable shoes, a good book and a thick skin.

The shoes are important because you do a lot of walking around college campuses. Often you end up following a perky tour guide, who possesses the amazing ability to simultaneously walk backward and tell you how many volumes are housed in the university library.

You see countless cafeterias and dazzling athletic facilities. You see fewer dormitory rooms -- ostensibly because the students want their privacy. The few you do see seem surprisingly small. However, they appear quite normal to your kid, who notices not the size of residence, but the wattage of the resident sound system.

The good book is necessary because at some point in the proceedings, your kid will gleefully leave you sitting in a soft chair while he strikes out on his own. Teen-agers aren't enthusiastic about hanging out with their parents in any circumstance, but certainly not when they are touring a college campus, trying not to appear geeky. Parents, of course, are innately geeky. We ask stupid questions. We laugh at the wrong times. Our behavior is odd.

Last weekend, for instance, when I followed my kid and a clump of other high school visitors as they walked to a Boston University classroom building, my kid accused me of "stalking" him. This part of the tour, a visit to a college class, was reserved for the kids.

I had no desire to go back to a college classroom, but I did need to know the location of the building so I could rendezvous with the kid when class was dismissed. While the kid went to a philosophy of science class, I ate fried corn tortillas and read my book at El Pelon, a nearby Mexican restaurant. (It was recommended to me by a colleague at the Boston Globe; his kid had recently traveled to College Park to check out the University of Maryland.)

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