Today is the first day of autumn. It’s also ‘Move In Day’ at Western Washington University for the university’s 15,000 students. Ninety-two percent of the incoming freshman will spend the next school year in residence at the dorms. On this day, parents and their students descend upon the university campus in vans, SUVs and station wagons stuffed to capacity with pillows, towels, rugs, desk chairs, DVDs, computers, whatever it takes to make their assigned dorm room feel like home. Neighboring streets are jammed with the traffic as everyone waits their turn to pull into the nearest dorm parking lot to quickly unload their belongings in the allotted 20 minutes. Western students wearing T-shirts printed with the word ‘HELP’ are strategically posted around campus in order to direct both students and parents to their intended destinations.
It’s a day full of emotion for both. Emotions to which I can readily relate having gone through this ritual myself with my own three sons. Any parent who’s ever taken their son or daughter to college can recall that day in considerable detail. There’s the excitement of seeing your student off to a new adventure, one which many of us probably embarked upon ourselves. But it can be bittersweet to say good-by and head back home minus that young woman or young man who spent the first 18 years living with the family. It’s a period of adjustment for everyone.
As I look back, my memory of that day for each of my sons comes back into sharp focus. They each started off alone, at different schools, in different states in locations where they had no immediate family. The experience for each of them, while similar, was also different. Two of them flew off on airplanes to their college cities, taking with them whatever they could pack into their duffle bags and my extra suitcase. One loaded up a moving truck to the max with whatever furniture we could spare as well as his own bedroom furniture so he could furnish the little apartment he had rented for himself off-campus. Upon his departure, I climbed the stairs of our home to the second flor and went into what had been his bedroom. It was empty except for one barren bookcase and a pile of dirt that had been swept to the middle of the room’s wooden floor. That’s when I realized that he was truly gone and the tears welled in my eyes.
Yet it’s a happy time too as memories of your own college experiences come rushing back. I’m sure it was just as hard for my parents to say good-by to me as it was for me to see my sons leave. I don’t remember that, of course. All I recall was the thrill of finally being out in the world on my own, of trying out new things, of making new friends and of getting a pretty good education along the way. College is a bridge between the known and the unknown. Crossing it is a big deal, for everyone.
I remember the last thing my oldest son said before hopping into the rental truck and driving off to his university. He turned around, took a long final look at our house as if committing every detail to memory, and said aloud almost exactly what had been running through my own mind: ‘So this won’t be my home anymore.’
He later learned that wasn’t exactly true. He could always call our house ‘home’, but from that moment on, it would never be quite the same. He was growing up, about to find his own way and to learn to live and lead his own life apart from ours. Now, years later, as I watch the students and parents at WWU unload their cars, stroll together through the campus one last time before hugging each other and going their separate ways, I smile knowingly. And as I pass by them, a tear or two still comes to my eye.