It’s a curious thing, sending my son Andrew off to school this year. Technically, it’s his second year in college–my husband and I have the dwindling savings account balance to prove it– but at the same time, Andrew is not quite a sophomore. Sure, he took the requisite classes as a freshman at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, but he never lived on campus, went to a fraternity party, or attended a football game. His professors lectured from home and dismissed students based on what time zone they were living in. Andrew couldn’t tell you which campus cafeteria has the best food, because he still hasn’t dined in any of them. In all fairness, he did go to the library…once. It opened while he was studying for finals in May, and he just couldn’t resist the opportunity to see inside one of the buildings.
Does your son or daughter exhibit some of these same qualities? Did they live completely independently in an apartment somewhere near their shuttered, phantom university, cooking meals with za’atar and baking Instagram-worthy cakes? And, although they can follow a New York Times recipe to the letter, they don’t know how to swipe their ID card at the Xerox machine at the campus copy center. In fact, do they even know where the campus copy center is? Is there even a copy center? Can your child drive the state’s freeways with ease but not know his way from point A to B on campus? Do they have lots of great friends, people they’ve bonded with and even completed class projects with…but never met IRL?
Then you, my mom and dad friends, have exactly what I have, a Class of 2020 high school graduate who spent most of his first year of college in a virtual state. Their social and academic lives were paused, upended, and morphed into something downright post-apocalyptic in feel. These children need no introduction, but since they’ve had little fanfare over these past two years, let’s give them a drum roll anyway, as I present the hybrid model college student: the freshmore.
Part self-sufficient adult, part giant baby, this fledgling creature cannot wait to have their giant do-over this fall. They deserve it and they know it. Masked, socially distanced, and tested weekly, they were told over and over again by the adults in their lives to stay safe their first year in college. For perhaps the first time in American history, no one was talking about sex, drugs or alcohol. These freshmores have had their fill of online welcome ceremonies and virtual meet-and-greets. They are ready for the real thing.
But what is the real thing in a post-not-post-pandemic world? According to Andrew, it means having some semblance of normal. “Normal” to him means in-person classes with other masked and vaccinated students, the chance to grab an iced Chai at the Coffee Bean, gathering with friends around a table in the cafeteria, and an actual hug from a college friend.
He’s really not asking for a lot.
And we parents of the freshmore want–and deserve–a giant do-over too. We have our battle scars and war stories, after all. Tales of no college drop off at all, or of a college drop off in a field on the edge of a giant pastoral campus, our children living in dorms we weren’t allowed into, much less able to help decorate. Or better still: dropping them off at the border between the US and Canada for a daughter attending McGill. (One friend’s true story!)
In our case, I flew with Andrew across the country on January 6th of this year (yes, that January 6th), double-masked and wearing a face shield, watching the news on TV unfold from The Capitol. I clutched Andrew with one hand and Pepto-Bismol tablets in the other and boarded our plane, wondering if flying into a pandemic hot zone during a national insurrection was a good idea, all so my son could have some semblance of half a freshman year.
Turns out that it wasn’t a good idea. It was a great one.
Because, for him, and for us, there was really no other choice: getting Andrew out of his childhood bedroom in Rhode Island and into an apartment near USC for second semester was paramount to his mental and emotional well-being. It was foolish, it was courageous, it was inspired, it was nuts. It was not recommended by the CDC.
“I’m so sorry I’ve put you and dad through this,” Andrew said, when I dropped him off at his apartment in LA after we literally and metaphorically survived a trip to Bed, Bath and Beyond.
If you happened to have read my essay about Andrew in Grown & Flown, then you know that we’ve decided his life is an epic quest, akin to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. I assured him that this was just another chapter in that adventure.
And now, after a summer at home, it’s time for Andrew to head back out again. But instead of feeling fraught or worried, he feels hopeful: an in-person convocation ceremony awaits, with the marching band playing the Trojan Fight Song on endless repeat. There is something called Splash Bash and live outdoor concerts. He’s looking forward to elbow-bumping his professors and actually buying books in the campus bookstore.
College, which always meant a great deal to him, is now a priceless, hard-won destination that he treats with gratitude and a little bit of awe. He will never take it for granted. He has gained the kind of wisdom that comes from loss.
And, since Andrew already has an apartment set up in LA, with friends who can pick him up at the airport, I don’t go with him. He flies across the country alone. My husband and I drop him off at Logan, hug him tight and wish him well. We know he is ready for the solo journey. And then, because I can’t help myself, I remind him to text me before take off and upon landing. And to set up a FaceTime soon.
He smiles, dimples flashing. “Okay, Mom. See you in October at Family Weekend.”
And then my freshmore waves goodbye.