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My son departs home, arriving at adulthood


© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 12, 2001

The trip to New Haven, Conn. began badly.

Colin, my son, and I were late getting to the airport for the 7:15 a.m. flight (my fault), parked on the wrong level (my fault), and got off on the red instead of the blue side of the terminal (again, my fault), leading to a manic dash across the building hampered by three stuffed duffel bags, a suitcase, two carry-ons, a backpack and a laptop computer.

As we stepped onto the plane I said, "We forgot the garment bag."

Such was the start of the ritual autumn trek called Going Away to School, this year involving more than 1-million freshmen who are entering four-year colleges and universities.

It is the culmination of a process parents initiate the first time we take our children to preschool, and it is an occasion of both joy and sadness, of firsts and lasts.

I had never seen the Yale University campus before last week. It is beautiful, its neo-Gothic spires rising like the towers of Ilium above old oaks and maples.

Colin, who visited Yale several times last year, took me on a tour. We walked through the Payne Whitney Gymnasium, a seven-story marvel that looks more like a cathedral than a gym, the Sterling Memorial Library, another Gothic building with 15 stories of stacks holding millions of books, the Harkness Bell Tower, the grand University Dining Hall, the Beineke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, its Gutenberg Bible on display, and the residential colleges, designed to recall those of Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Most moving was Memorial Hall, a rotunda with marble walls inscribed with the names of graduates who died in the Civil War, World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars. It was the inspiration for former Yale architecture student Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

And then we came to Colin's dormitory. It is a Victorian-era pile of brownstone, its only concession to the 21st century seeming to be indoor plumbing and computer hook-ups. The building does not have an elevator so we hauled his stuff up four flights of stairs (okay, they were marble). It was very hot. The one overhead light did not work. Others shared that problem: A woman screamed from another room, "For $40,000 you'd think we'd get light bulbs. In New York we have supers to take care of these things."

It started to rain, which did not matter much since I was already soaked with perspiration.

Colin and his roommate Kyrill, who was born in Russia and now lives in Virginia with his mother and stepfather, professors at the University of Virginia, are assigned a space that measures about 5 by 10 feet. In it are bunk beds and two dressers. If you stand with your back against the bed and face the dresser, you cannot fully open the drawer. They share a slightly larger common room with Edwin, a 6-foot-5 basketball star from California. It contains desks, a radiator and a non-working fireplace. Incredibly, no bookcases are provided. Edwin's coach popped in for a visit and opened the door emblazoned with the message "Emergency Door -- Do Not Open," setting off an ear-splitting alarm that drove us out of the room and required a visit from campus security guys who had us sign several forms swearing we were not subversive.

On streets ringing the campus, a diaspora of sorts seemed to be taking place, a caravan of SUVs and expensive foreign cars disgorging people, boxes, luggage and furniture. As the day passed, a wall of discarded cardboard containers rose along the sidewalk, creating a tunnel effect.

We bought a desk lamp and fan at the bookstore, which we took turns standing in front of, and a small refrigerator from Alexus, a senior Colin befriended last year. I stuck my head in it a lot. I left him alone for a while so he could begin the process of meeting his peers.

I walked up the street and toured the university's two museums, the Yale Center for British Art, which contains the most comprehensive collection of British art outside of Great Britain, and the Yale University Art Gallery, the first university art gallery in the Western hemisphere, with 80,000 pieces in its permanent collection.

A fleet of UPS trucks and vans arrived, two blocks in length, to deliver shipped goods to waiting students.

Colin and I dined at an Italian restaurant. Then he returned to his dorm, I to a bed and breakfast. During the night, a front moved through the northeast and Saturday was like a fall day here, with temperatures in the low 70s.

That morning, I made my way to Woolsey Hall, the vaulted auditorium dripping with decorative plaster and gold leaf, for Freshman Convocation. The class of 2005, the day before a motley assemblage of T-shirts, cut-off khakis and Birkenstocks, entered wearing dresses, coats and ties, probably the only time they will do so this year. The president, deans and masters of the residential colleges processed down the long aisle in their academic robes, speeches were made, and hymns were sung. Sitting in the balcony, I did not expect to find Colin in the crowd of young faces below, but I did. I thought about my father, who sat in Woolsey almost 60 years ago as a freshman, and who graduated early so he could go to war.

We spent most of that day together and went to a movie late in the afternoon at a small theater near the campus. We said goodbye on the corner of Broadway and Elm streets in front of Au Bon Pain. With so many students filling the sidewalk tables, I did not want to cry. I did anyway. Colin put his arms around me.

A writer -- and I wish I could remember who -- observed that all stories are based on only two ideas: A person leaves on a journey or a stranger arrives. Colin's story is like those of all young men and women who leave home for education or work or love or war, stories both of departure and of arrival. Some of the stories will be better than others. I believe Colin's will be a good one. I would have kept him with us longer. But, like so many parents before me, I would not, for the world, hold him back.

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