Parental Angst: A Son’s College Story

I remember the phone call verbatim. 10 years later.

“Mom, I left my luggage on the train.”

Jacob, then 17 and a high school junior, had taken the train from Newark, NJ to Philadelphia, PA. He had transferred to the suburban train line to reach Swarthmore College, where he had arranged an overnight stay with a student host and had an interview scheduled the next day.

“You what?”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  He had become engrossed in conversation with another passenger.

“What will you wear to your interview? ”

“I’ll borrow clothes. Don’t worry.”

Imagine my response.

The next day, after sleeping on the floor, he donned a pair of khakis and a semi-ironed shirt offered by his host, Zach, who had pointed to his closet and said, “take.

The interview went well and Jacob was accepted early decision. (And he retrieved his bag on the way home.)

His freshman year, we packed our mini-van and brought him to college. I made his bed, unpacked his things, gave instructions on how to do laundry, said goodbye, and cried practically the entire ride home. He was the first child to leave home.  

Returning to Swarthmore this past weekend to watch our daughter play tennis– the team traveled 8 hours by bus from Ohio- memories of Jacob’s college years returned.

An avid reader, Jacob used to walk the dog while reading a book; he refused to purchase required books, opting instead to borrow 30 or more titles from the college library about the subject. The librarians all knew him and loved how he boosted circulation. He acted in a play, campaigned for soy milk to be offered in the school cafeteria, founded a massage practice, and volunteered as an evening escort, accompanying drunk or drugged students back to their dorms.

By his sophomore year, he was disillusioned with college and announced his plans to leave.

We were devastated. He and the school had seemed a perfect match. We tried to convince him to finish. “Stick it out. Finish.” My father, furious, also attempted, telling him, “You have opportunities I never had.”

We argued. And finally acquiesced. There was no point wasting time or money if he wasn’t committed.  His college education- and that school- was our dream, not his.

I remember picking him up for the last time. Unmaking the bed, stuffing everything into the car. Frustrated. Annoyed. Worried.  We went out for Thai food as a family; the discussion dominated about what he would do now. Two gentlemen sitting nearby, eavesdropping, couldn’t help interjecting: “It won’t be the worst thing in the world if he drops out of college.”

They were right.

Allowing him to leave college and pursue his own path was difficult. In retrospect, what seemed so important at the time really wasn’t.  Part of letting go, we learned, is allowing children to make decisions themselves.

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4 Responses to Parental Angst: A Son’s College Story

  1. Thanks for sharing that. When my son decided not to apply to college, I was devastated. He sat in his room. That year, he learned to do his own laundry and to cook. He also decided to go to community college. He did eventually graduate and go on to NJIT. He decided not to march. . Again I was devastated. I have learned it was not about me but about him. He has found his way own his own. It is hard to let go and let our children choose. My girlfriends and his grandmother all said he will be fine and he is.


  2. I have one that will be leaving for college in a few years. I wonder how I would react if she dropped out. Not gracefully, I am sure. It’s so hard to see them make what we perceive as mistakes and trust that they will do alright.


  3. You could tell the rest of the story–why it wasn’t so bad, and post pictures of your grandkids and a link to my website 😛


  4. Barbara klein says:

    Right on, Jacob, Love Grandma


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