Leaving our college freshmen, and getting back

Aug. 25, 2013 @ 01:48 AM

"It's déjà vu all over again."
Those words, attributed to Yogi Berra, described my feelings a few years ago when I left my youngest child for the beginning of freshman year in college.
Last week I watched younger parents bringing their children to Chapel Hill.
So much is the same every year: Heavy trunks to carry up long stairways on the first day. Ancient buildings. Giant oaks. Professors -- giants of teachers -- whose love of scholarship and service is exceeded only by their commitment to the opening and nurturing of the minds of their students. Smiling, happy kids. Serious kids with wrinkled brows worrying about the meaning of life, or something more important -- like a broken date.
What makes taking the last child to college such a milestone for parents -- such a passage? Is it the sudden freedom from the hour-to-hour worries of child rearing? No more waiting up past midnight, waiting and worrying. No more strain of daily negotiation for the use of cars, time of meals, attendance at church, volume of the music or use of the bathroom.
All of a sudden the house is peaceful -- and so empty. Gone is the daily joy of their companionship. Gone is the excitement of their new ideas. Gone is the richness and seasoning that their growing up brought to our lives -- every day.
Every day they are gone. And you have to ask yourself, "Does life have meaning without children to watch over?"
The answer is not certain.
Former Davidson President John Kuykendall gave a short "freedom and responsibility" sermon each year to new students and their parents to help explain what this business of leaving home for college is all about. He explained that colleges and universities no longer pretend to take the place of parents. They no longer impose strict parental rules that dictate how the students will act. The hard cold fact: They are on their own. At 18, they must seek and find their own moral guides. And freedom means the freedom to fail.
New freshmen would smile. Some parents cringed.
He would then talk about responsibility, explaining that free people have the responsibility to develop and accept rules if they are to live together in harmony and dignity. Our freedom to make choices makes us responsible for those choices. Freedom gives us the free choice to serve others. Freedom gives us the opportunity and the responsibility to search for the truth. That quest brings us toward the goal of a college education -- a liberated mind, a mind that never stops searching, and never stops learning.
If our children's college experience makes us partners with them in a search for truth, then the pain of physical separation and giving them up to their own freedom can bring us together in a way that gives our lives rich new meaning.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. This week’s guest is Duke Professor Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational.”