This summer, my wife and I are preparing to send our youngest offspring, our twin 18-year-old daughters, off to the colleges of their choice.
I was raised in a time, and a family, where you picked your school by saying out loud the name of the state you lived in and then adding the word “university” after it and sending in an application because that was the only college you’d heard of. The alternative to college involved either standing in the hot sun wearing a reflective vest and holding a “Men Working” sign or working around heavy machinery that would inevitably claim at least a finger or two before you could claim your retirement watch. Your first sight of your future alma mater was when some family member dropped you off at the curb with a duffle bag full of old clothes, a faded towel and a toothbrush.
Today kids apply to a whole slew of schools -- including ones they’d never dream of attending -- and must tour the campuses to make sure they’ll fit in. The first thing you find on a college tour is that your child will be cradled in the lap of luxury. After years of trying to convince them they’re not going to have everything in life just handed to them, a huge institution is promising to do everything in its power to spoil them rotten.
The first stop is the “food court.” When I was in college, the “dining hall” was a completely different animal. You stood in line, clutching a plastic tray, and a disgruntled old lady ladled out a scoop of whatever was the meal of the moment. If you knew what was good for you, you shuffled to a table and ate it, even if it wasn’t all that good for you. If you didn’t like beef stroganoff when it happened to be beef stroganoff night, you nibbled quietly on a roll. It was much like dinner hour in prison, only you didn’t have to constantly worry about someone sliding a shiv between your ribs.
Today students are greeted with a vast array of culinary choices, from omelet bars to yogurt buffets to taco stations to prime rib. (That’s right, prime &^*%(% rib.) Kids don’t have to worry about the cost because they “swipe” in to the hall when they enter. (The swipe is a sophisticated computer system that deducts somewhere around 12 bucks every time your child walks through the door, even if they just come in for a cup of coffee. It’s a triumph of technology over pocketbook.)
The toughest part of the tour is realizing that in the fall your children will be spending lunch hours strolling around like a Kardashian, wrinkling up their noses at various gourmet options while you’re back at work, gnawing your way through the ham and cheese sandwich, stale potato chips and two Chips Ahoy! cookies you hauled to work in a brown paper bag.
The tour will move on to the Olympic-sized indoor pool, the gourmet coffee bars and well-appointed lounge areas. Then you’ll move on to the dorms, where you’ll find that in addition to the normal amenities provided by the school, any good parent will provide additional “necessary” items, such as upgraded carpeting, a refrigerator, a microwave, a wide-screen HDTV and a new laptop. (Your kid already has a laptop? Sorry, it’s not good enough for college work. Why not? The fact that you even asked that question marks you as a bad parent!)
And while the college tour is designed to help the student deal with the emotional upheaval associated with the big transition to the place that’s supposed to be the actual transition to real life, the average parent will feel his or her own range of emotions. You will experience a mix of nostalgia (Oooh, it seems like yesterday that this kid came home with a finger painting from kindergarten!), concern (Will they be OK without me, and more importantly, will I be OK without them?) and dread (Wait, room and board, plus tuition, times four, adds up to…Oh my God, I think my heart just stopped ... I wonder if this tour includes the health center?).
Mostly though, if you’re like my wife and me, you’ll experience a fair amount of bitter jealousy (Hold on a sec: They’re going to live in this cool place while I’m heading back to that shack with a leaking roof and 10 more years of mortgage payments?).
Don’t get too freaked out about Junior leaving the nest, parents. The good news is, in this economy, in just four short years he’ll be back at home, living in your basement, playing X-box and asking why the kitchen here never serves prime rib.
Peter McKay is a longtime Ben Avon resident and syndicated columnist. He can be reached at his website, www.peter-mckay.com.