College is a learning experience - for Dad, too

May 15, 2004|By ROB KASPER

GETTING A kid through college, someone told me once, is a marathon. It feels more like a sprint to me.

Tomorrow our older son, a member of the class of 2004, is getting his undergraduate degree. It seems to me it was just the other day that I was attending his high school graduation on the lawn of St. Paul's, getting a sunburn on my furrowed brow. Time flies, I guess, and so does tuition.

I bring up tuition because last fall the board of trustees at Boston University, my son's soon-to-be alma mater, paid a guy $1.8 million not to take the job of university president. I figure that since the university has this practice of rewarding unemployment, it might offer a tuition rebate to the parents of graduates who do not yet have jobs.

Sadly, this policy of compensating people for not working appears to be a one-shot deal, restricted to Daniel S. Goldin, the fellow who was almost picked to be president. It is a lesson in life, one of the many I have learned during my son's collegiate career.

Another is that once college kids get out of your sight, they tend to keep going. They bounce around the planet with ease and curiosity. During the last four years, the kid and his college friends trekked to New Zealand, England, California and every hamlet in New England that has a rugby field. Later this summer, when I am home tending tomato plants, he plans to be in Greece watching the Olympics.

I learned that when kids are in college, their minds change. Mostly they get wider. Much to my wife's delight, our son pursued an interest in opera, taking a couple of courses and taking in several performances in the Boston area. He also developed an interest in journalism and started writing for a school paper.

I learned that your kids encounter people in college - professors, students and other sorts - who have ideas different from Dad's. How else could it be explained that my kid voted for Ralph Nader?

I learned that when your kids go away to college, they get a fresh view of their old hometown. A city boy who once skateboarded around Baltimore, my son enjoyed living in downtown Boston. He rode mass transit - the "T" - to Celtics games, to plays, to North End restaurants, and walked to nearby Fenway Park. But as much as he enjoyed Boston, he preferred Baltimore. Its mass transit system is not as good, but Baltimore is a real community, he said, home to more than the well-to-do and college students.

I also learned to let the kid fight his own battles. At the beginning of my son's sophomore year, there was a housing crisis, precipitated when his planned roommate did not return to school. In its wisdom, the university housing office replaced the missing roommate with a 40-ish lawyer who, understandably, did not have the same schedule and lifestyle as a 20-year-old.

Appeals to the housing office, an entity that can wield power like the Kremlin, went unheeded. The situation was resolved when my son, not the housing officials, nor his parents, found other accommodations.

But despite that rough patch, my son's years in college have been good ones. And at tomorrow's ceremonies, I probably will experience those dual sensations of welling parental pride and the inevitable march of time that often overcome parents as they watch their offspring get a diploma.

I will probably feel them again three years from now when our younger son, who just finished his freshman year, winds up his undergraduate career. But if I had to sum up, in one story, my initial experience of being the parent of a college kid, it would be the story from the 2003 Boston Marathon.

Months before the race, our older son announced he was going to run, even though he was not a registered entrant. He said he would join the mass of unnumbered runners who traditionally line up far behind the legitimate entries. I thought it was a bad idea and tried a familiar parental ploy, long-distance discouragement. I e-mailed him the rigorous, weeks-long training regimen that marathoners adhere to and suggested he take a pass. He replied that he was going to run, that he was training on his own.

I still felt confident the kid wouldn't run, if for no other reason than logistics. He did not have a way to get to Hopkinton, the Boston suburb where the race starts. A few days before the race, however, he told me had a plan: He was getting a ride that would drop him at a highway exit near the start.

That's when I hopped on a plane to Boston. I carried packets of awful-tasting gooey stuff that marathoners eat to replenish their depleted bodies. I carried a newly purchased, perspiration-wicking, brightly colored running shirt and special running socks. As I had done in many other undertakings requiring parental judgment, I waffled. One minute I was the voice of gloom, the next I was an enabler.

I ended up driving him to Hopkinton. I beamed hours later when I saw him in Wellesley, the halfway point. I gave him some Gatorade and reminded him, because it was warm, to take it easy.

Later I hopped on the T to travel to BU, where his college friends had gathered to cheer him on. I was on the train when the cell phone rang; it was his girlfriend. He'd stumbled at about mile 23 and been taken to a hospital emergency room. But which emergency room was not clear. It was not a great moment in this parent's life.

But, thanks to the woman sitting next to me, I got a fix on which hospital - St. Elizabeth's - was the likely one. Then I jumped off the train, ran through the BU campus and met my son's girlfriend. The two of us grabbed a cab and headed to the hospital.

After what seemed like an interminable wait outside the emergency room, we were allowed inside. We found him on a gurney in a hallway, one of many frustrated marathoners who had ended up with IVs in their arms and silver, insulated blankets wrapped around their torsos.

He smiled when he saw us. "I was worried about you," he said.

I didn't know whether to hug him or throttle him. I still don't.

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