"Did you pack an umbrella?" And Other Things Parents Say When Dropping Off a Child at Their Dorm

When I count all my years of education, including both my years as a student and my years teaching, I've completed 40 first days of school. I've endured this rigamarole 40 times. FORTY TIMES. Four-zero.

Forty is a lot of first days of school. Back in the day, I was just a kid learning my teachers' names, figuring out my class schedule, and hoping I had friends during my lunch period. Now, I'm just a middle-aged Associate Teaching Professor who learns my students' names, figures out my class schedule, and is happy to eat my lunch by myself, quietly, in between classes, perhaps while sitting on a bench under a nice tree on campus. I come home to hear about how my own kids navigated their own first days.

This year's back-to-school routine feels more poignant than ever before. You see, last week we moved our oldest daughter into her dorm. I've been teaching college students for 18 years. Now it's finally happened: I'm the parent of a college student. As I write, she's nearly one full week into her college experience.

She's grown up in this university town of ours, and the fact that she's now attending college here is fraught with its own complexities. Not everything is new to her, which is good and bad. While there's comfort in familiarity, there's also concern that college will merely feel like 13th grade, that it will be too familiar, too close, too been there, even if she hasn't done that.

That's why we felt it was important for her to live in a dorm. Of course, the dorm is a mere 3.1 miles from our house and her room is the size of a Wheat Thin, but it's her own Wheat Thin and it's away from us.

What an experience for her — and for all 8,000 new first-year students at our university. They're paired with a stranger who becomes a roommate, and they're now working through the nuances that happen when two people with different personalities, schedules, preferences, and idiosyncrasies suddenly share a tight living space.

As I carried plastic bins of my daughter's earthly possessions into her dorm, I considered how this exact process was unfolding with thousands of others: rolling carts and stacks of clothes, desk lamps and extra long fitted sheets, Command-hooked twinkle lights and posters for the cinderblock walls, school supplies and four-by-six area rugs to make the room a little more soft and homey, a little less sterile and impersonal.

I overheard snippets of conversation, snippets that likely have been and will be repeated again and again through the millennia of parents dropping off their kids at college: "I told you that you should have taken an upright laundry basket, not that big one," and "At least your dorm is close to the dining hall," and "Your roommate seems nice," and "Did you pack an umbrella? I don't think we remembered to pack an umbrella."

Underneath these obvious remarks about the new surroundings, and the inconsequential commentary on what items were forgotten at home, lies the deeper sentiments:

Please make good choices.

I love you.

I'm excited for you, and I'm a bit nervous, too.

I already miss you. This is one of those important markers signifying that life will never quite be the same again.

Even though my daughter is still so close, I know how this story goes — or, at least, how we've been planning and preparing for this story to go for the past 18 years. We raise our kids so they can leave us. We raise them so they step foot into this vast world on their own, even if they might call to ask questions about laundry. We raise them so they will venture out with confidence and competence and a good head on their shoulders.

This process somehow feels unequivocally set into motion when you first drop them off in their dorm room while pestering them with inane comments about umbrellas.

Thirteen years ago when she started kindergarten, we had a newborn and a two year old at home. Those were wonderful, harried, glorious, exhausting days. My husband and I both worked full time, so we alternated our hours on campus and our hours at home. It was an era of constant juggling, a season of swapping cars and car seats. We somehow made it work, though I'm not quite sure how.

One particularly tiring afternoon, I made a chart in the back of a notebook. In each row, I listed a year and what age the kids would be during that year. Three rows down, it signified three years later when our middle child would start kindergarten. Five rows down, the chart signaled that the youngest would join the ranks of school-attenders.

That afternoon, when I was nursing a baby, and playing with a toddler, and grading assignments, and trying to figure how I was going to mobilize everyone to the bus stop to pick up the kindergartener while maintaining nap times, I believed that the next five years would span eons. It would be an eternity until my kids were all in school, until I had a moment of breathing room, until my days opened up again.

And it was. And it wasn't. Those five years somehow were both fast and slow, rushed and drawn out, blink-and-you'll-miss-it quick and painstaking long all at once. 

That's why I know something now that I didn't know then: when our oldest hits a new milestone, it's both feels both forever and immediate until our youngest hits that milestone. Then, it was entering kindergarten. Now, it's entering college.

We're dipping our toes into an entirely new stage of parenting.

So, as we made trips from our van, up the elevator, and into our daughter's dorm with our arms full of her shower caddy for toiletries and granola bars for snacks, it felt familiar and different all at once. She might still be close, but this is a significant step. And since I didn't quite know what else to say when I hugged her goodbye and drove the short distance home, I said what I could:

I love you with my whole heart.

I'm so proud of you.

Did you pack an umbrella?

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