Loner Dad’s Long, Proud, Awkward Day on Campus

college presentations

Consider, if you will, the following case of orientation disorientation.

This past Monday my son’s college held a special all-day program for incoming freshmen to undergo orientation, hear intros to their respective schools, meet their advisors, register for their first semester’s classes, experience an actual dorm food-court meal, and endure a self-guided campus walkabout to accomplish all the other activities at various buildings, only some of which are next door to each other. I tagged along to multitask the roles of chauffeur, navigator, sidekick, and personal ombudsman whenever he needed to question or vent about something. By and large, my parts were played with utmost competence.

I didn’t crash during the 70-minute drive to or from campus, despite sleep deprivation. We had to leave home at 6 a.m. to ensure prompt arrival and minimal traffic interference. As my MCC time stamps will testify, I’m not a morning person. Worse still, we guys got to chatting so much that I barely drank half my coffee before we arrived. Braving the late-afternoon return trip without benefit of further caffeine, and after the day’s extensive walks, without nodding off at the wheel was quite a trick as far as I’m concerned.

I was in charge of the official school maps and escorting him from points A to B to J to R and so on. Theirs is no modest, single-block private campus, and they provided us three different versions of their official map, each with differing points of interest and color-coding. Our family’s annual road trips have thankfully sharpened my cartography skills, though I just now remembered as I’m typing this that the school also has an app I could’ve downloaded. Too late now.

Most of the important bits he handled himself — paperwork, interviewing, confirming his major going forward, choosing his schedule, etc. I did have the parental pleasure of explaining one peculiarity that began to irritate him: for the next two to three years, no other three-word phrase will plague his every conversation one-tenth as much will the ubiquitous ice-breaker, “What’s your major?” He’ll have to get used to that one whether he likes it or not.

memorial union, chandeliers

The hallowed halls of the student union. If you enter insincerely, a chandelier falls on you.

While I performed my assorted duties, the day’s surreality struck me on three different fronts:

1. I can’t believe I’m old enough to have a college-bound kid. I see high-school acquaintances on Facebook daily swapping tales of their smaller, bouncier tribes. I have no current pics of a cute, huggable tyke who says adorable things that would look great pasted on an e-card in Impact or Comic Sans. Despite this blog’s entire premise, I still don’t feel middle-aged yet. I suppose I should take some comfort that I looked to be one of the younger parents in attendance. Even so, I wondered to myself more than once if I were old or wise enough to shoulder the parental part of the responsibility list.

Fortunately, I’m told this is part of that transition period when he’ll need to learn to shoulder more responsibilities, both as an adult and as an average member of the American rat race. My, how he complains up a storm about the latter.

2. I can’t believe this particular kid is of college age. I remember the day he was born. I remember what a nuisance he became when he learned how to walk and yank all the books off my lower shelves. I remember when his three-year-old self blew a coworker’s mind by telling her his favorite dinosaur was a pachycephalosaurus. I remember sitting with him at a new preschool as he struggled to adapt to the other kids’ lunch routines and singalongs. I remember him crying when Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla died at the end. I remember the precious few years when Jeff Parker, Paul Tobin, and Fred Van Lente were writing readable Marvel titles aimed at his age demographic, even though they were out of continuity. I remember when he collected Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, and I remember when his interest in them died a heartbreaking death after his most powerful cards were stolen by some future hobo-in-training at his school.

He’s now twice as tall, several times smarter, and much more disapproving toward any Roland Emmerich film except 2012, which we agree is pretty much the pinnacle of his career. I have to remind myself consciously that this guy who’s taller than me is still my son, not some evil interloper trying to pull an outlandish con on me.

3. College culture still feels alien to me. As previously explained a while back, I’m a two-time college dropout. Without rehashing that previous entry at length, it’s partly evident that I’m fairly lousy at belonging to groups. In the two decades that have passed since my previous failures, conditions haven’t improved dramatically for me.

I tried not to raise an eyebrow while we watch video after video starring smiling, satisfied college students displaying what I interpreted as an intense form of school pride that I never learned how to channel for myself. I politely opted out of buying any school-logo merchandise, not even one of their numerous T-shirt selections, not even with the discount coupons included in our gift bag. When my son uttered a few skeptical comments here and there, I tried to keep my answers sincere, unironic, and in the school’s defense, even if that meant wandering two area codes outside my comfort zone. When the occasional passerby recognized us as visitors and shouted the school’s current catchphrase (“BOILER UP!”) at our group as they walked or jogged along, I assumed my best Jim Halpert straight face and kept my reaction cordial instead of bewildered.

Don’t get me wrong: the day’s programming was outstandingly organized and thorough, all the more to knock out several errands at once so students won’t have to make multiple trips before the school year begins in August. All the volunteer helpers were informative, friendly, engaging, and not put off by our occasional lapses into silence. Honestly, the school had so many guides stationed all over campus, all offering their assistance, that I felt guilty in the afternoon when they still wanted to rise to the occasion long after I’d run out of questions for any of them. On the post-game evaluation form, I had no constructive complaints, except perhaps some mild disappointment when I learned that the parents’ waiting room outside the student registration room had run out of free cookies. Also, they never told us where to turn in our post-game evaluation forms. Otherwise, grade-A services on their end from start to finish.

But I didn’t like that the day kept forcing me to face an awkward truth: it now falls to me, the so-called “nerd” according to his classmates, the guy who made exactly zero friends in college, the student who never owned a single article of clothing from any of his erstwhile schools, the firmly entrenched non-fan of sports, the wallflower who finds the emptiest spot in a party room and abides out of fun’s way till it’s time to leave…this guy is in charge of seeing that the next chapter of his son’s life — a chapter in which social acclimatization can make or break the young — starts off on the right foot as an awesome adventure into a new frontier, not as a brutish shove into an alligator pit without the necessary steely resolve or proper weapons.

I suspect he’s better equipped than I think. Just the same, I’ll be spending more time over the next several months on praying than I will on dispensing wisdom from experience. Maybe I’ll just keep texting him occasional reminders to do the opposite of what I did.


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