Higher Learning at Parents Weekend

By Contributing Author, The Major of Kay Nou=Our House

I began looking forward to Parents Weekend at my son’s college the instant the shiny pamphlet advertising the event arrived in my mailbox.  My oldest son, Subway Dude, attends a fantastic school called SUNY Geneseo, located in a gorgeous part of upstate New York.  Nestled on a hillside in the Genesee River valley, over the past 20 years the institution has evolved from a sleepy, local campus in SUNY’s mammoth system to one of its academic crown jewels.

From the first moment that we dropped Subway Dude off in late August for his freshman year, we knew he had selected the right school.  Since then, we have taken comfort from the fact that our child is part of an academic environment in which he is challenged, while feeling that he is a member of a community, and not just a “face in the crowd.” I wish the same feeling of peace to all parents who entrust their sons and daughters to institutions of higher learning.

As Parents weekend approached, my enthusiasm was sky-high.  For some reason, I was really excited about the prospect of staying near campus, attending classes and demonstrations, dining in its facilities, and going to special events there.  I had rearranged my schedule – I asked a judge to give a speech in my place at the New Jersey Bar Association.   We had booked a room in an old (and supposedly haunted) country inn nearby.  After determining that she was staying home, we loaded up our high school daughter with her favorite foods for the weekend.

At dinner with our student on Friday night, we were raring to go.  However, we had overlooked one thing: our 6-year old.  For those of you who are not familiar with our story, we adopted Island Boy from Haiti in 2010.  While he has brought much joy to our family, we have also experienced significant challenges.  Apparently, his expectations of what this college experience would provide were different from mine.

Early Saturday morning, we found ourselves with other parents in the Integrated Sciences Center for coffee and pastries.  While we waited for Subway Dude to rouse himself from his dorm room slumber (he had unrealistically assured us the night before that he would meet us at 8:30 a.m.), Island Boy turned his attention to the Foucault pendulum swinging gracefully in the lobby of the science building.  For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, in 1851 Monsieur Foucault suspended a pendulum affixed to a rotating hinge from the ceiling of the Paris Pantheon.  As the arc of the pendulum remained constant, the floor turned beneath the device, thus demonstrating to all doubters the rotation of the Earth.

A stern warning was issued to Island Boy not to touch the pendulum.  Moments later, the work of a renowned French physicist was undone by a curious 6-year old.  Made to sit on bench nearby and to reflect on his misdeed, Island Boy was unrepentant.  “You’re mean,” he exclaimed to his exasperated father.

Time for class.  A well-known ecologist taught us how students collect and apply statistical data.  He then turned his lecture to climate change.  Avoiding the temptation to scold a thoughtless generation of über-consumers over the peril of our planet, the professor used dark humor to get his point across.  He joked early on that we parents may wish to take a 50th wedding anniversary cruise to the North Pole as the polar ice cap would be completely gone by that time.  However, he later showed that this year’s September melt of the Greenland ice pack had proceeded at an unprecedented and scary rate.  As a result, he informed, we may be able to take that cruise as early as 2016.  There were audible gasps from the lecture hall.

When the professor asked if there were any questions, Island Boy’s hand immediately shot up.  In a crowded room of about 200 adults, I suppose that a small, brown child might stick out.  The speaker immediately pointed to my kid.  It became apparent that Island Boy never realistically anticipated that he would be selected.  Like Foucault’s pendulum in the lobby, the course of science was altered by my child’s actions.

Sometime during the next lecture on the 2012 presidential election from a political science prof, our 18-year came strolling into the lecture hall holding the largest Starbucks coffee I have ever seen.  In order to enhance our return-to-college experience, Subway Dude gave us an accurate portrayal of what today’s college students look like in class.  My father had once told me that (as a freshman in the early 1960s) he had to don coat, tie, and a degrading beanie in order to attend college courses.  Let’s just say that our son’s appearance was about as far as possible from that look.

We had lunch at Subway Dude’s favorite campus dining facility, a fusion bar.  Middle-Eastern kababs were served side-by-side with burritos, Vietnamese Pho, sushi, and various gourmet sandwiches.  I was amazed.  If they had offered this fare at my school (nearly 30 years earlier), I might have remained on the meal plan instead of bagging it after a single semester.  The food was wonderful.  And this was just one dining option on campus.

After lunch, Subway Dude left us to do whatever freshman do on Saturday afternoons.  We continued our academic journey.  At the wavetable demonstration, a professor specializing in coastal erosion handed us miniature, wooden houses and had us construct our dream beach home.  Despite my brilliant measures to combat the sea, when the teacher turned on the waves, my dwelling became a houseboat in less than 10 seconds.  “That was due to normal wave patterns,” he explained.  “Now, let’s see what happens when hurricane-force waves attack the shore.”  All of this was eerily prescient of the devastation that Hurricane Sandy would inflict on New York City in just a few weeks later.

The professor then hit a button and dramatic waves began to assault the model coastline made of sand.  In the midst of this graphic demonstration, the entire wavetable suddenly shut down.  The professor was visibly annoyed – this was not part of the show.  “Someone hit the emergency kill switch,” he stated.

I looked down at my 6-year old.  A large, red button was at his immediate hip level.  It was at that precise moment that I realized that I had adopted Bart Simpson.  His exact words: “I didn’t do it.”

The physics department’s nuclear accelerator demonstration was next on our schedule.  My wife and I looked at each other and shook our heads.  Bart Simpson would sit this one out.

A few more classes and we were all officially done.  Island Boy’s ability to control himself was completed gone.  His parents’ nerves were frayed.  A trip back to the haunted inn provided little comfort.  Mom and dad wanted to rest.  Island Boy was just getting going.  He had tried to behave for so long on this day.

As I became more and more upset with my child’s behavior, I realized that I had set my expectations for this event way too high.  I had placed unrealistic demands on my little guy.  He was doing the best that he could under the circumstances.

Later that evening, we had plans to attend a Second City comedy event with Subway Dude.  We went to his dorm room to pick him up.  It became apparent to us immediately that all was not right between our son and his girlfriend, who was present in the room.  I slipped my son his ticket and we beat a hasty retreat.  We would meet him at the show.

He arrived just before show time.  He was crest-fallen.  Things were not going well in his romantic life.  This too is part of the college experience.  We felt terrible for our kid.  In our eyes, he has grown into a fine man.  Yet, we still see the vulnerabilities of a little boy as only parents can.

We took Subway Dude to breakfast the next morning.  He was down.  To pick up his spirits, we took him shopping at a local mall.  Then we returned to campus, dropping him off at the door of his dormitory.  This is always a bittersweet moment for us.

In the weeks that have passed since Parents Weekend, the lessons that I learned during my time on campus have sunk in.  That weekend, as in life, my most profound learning did not come from the classroom.

About the Author: The Major is an attorney and former Army officer.  He and his wife (and fellow blogger) Running Girl are doing their best to raise a family of five in Western New York.  Please visit their family blog at  Kay Nou = Our House



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