Friday, August 21, 2009

College Daze

I just returned from dropping one of our daughters at the university where she begins her second year. The school she attends (at least I hope she does, attend that is) is nestled amid the gentle hills and cornfields in the middle of America. Some intrepid soul decided in the mid-1800's to begin teaching those seeking higher truths and plopped it right down in a spot quite lovely, almost pastoral. Regrettably--or not--when President Eisenhower inaugurated the Interstate Highway System, no one thought about this school. As a result of that bit of missed opprtunity, all that sprouted from the fertile ground around the school defines this bucolic little place as a quintessential 'college town'. Like so many other towns, this is a place somewhat insular if that concept is possible in the world of 24-hour news.

I don't write of all cities and towns that are home to institutions of higher learning, but of those burgs that grew up around what were mostly called 'colleges' . Of course, this was before the cognoscenti changed all the names to 'university' in what I submit was a vain attempt to appear larger, more important. Mercifully, the term 'college towns' has never been updated, never followed conventional wisdom to become 'university cities' or worse.

I had the good fortune to spend ten years in college towns early in life, delaying the inevitable slide into the 'real world' as long as possible. If I'd been any good at science, I might have tried med school. In any event, I love college towns, every one I've visited. Despite the general liberal bent of the professors, these are enclaves of literacy, art and science surrounded by entrepreneurial businesses--coffee shops, diners, music stores and the like that have quietly emerged around the borders of campus to address the whims and fancies of the students fortunate enough to matriculate. These towns seem lost in the '50's to a degree, many being quaint, but which inflate to bursting like festive balloons in school colors for home football games and Family Weekends and graduations. Despite the antics of kids who mostly have been cut loose from home for the first time, there is a wholesomeness about these places. Yes, yes, I know many kids take part of the tuition money and spend it on beer and worse. I guess the good news is that they spend the rest on riotous living. Kidding. We as parents tell them that the years in college will be "the best years of your life". I've parroted that bromide to our kids as I took a trip down Nostalgia Lane recalling those 'coming of age' days. Notice I didn't say 'growing up days'. I'm not sure I believe those were the absolute best years as I've been blessed with so many, but my years on campus were pretty damn good--all ten of them.

And our daughter couldn't wait to return to campus. After a half-day's drive, we arrived in her college town. It's one of those places that "you can't get there from here." We negotiated all of the twice-a-year, move in move out traffic, played 'chicken' with another family for a parking space (not a hint of guilt when I won) and joined this most American of migrations. I was going to hold onto to that space as long as possible before the annual trek to the nearest Wal-Mart to buy even more 'essentials'.

My vessel called 'heart' overflowed with joy for our daughter as we hauled all of her stuff' up the stairs to her room. She loves this place. Packing the car for the trip was one thing, but finding nooks and crannies for the bits and pieces of a young girl's (woman's?) life presents other challenges and this is before the annual trek to the nearest Wal-Mart for more 'essentials'. And her roommate had yet to arrive. The two spoke by phone no fewer than six times to determine the ETA. Our daughter has learned easily how to share limited space and enjoy this secret life, known only to those who sit cross-legged on their beds far into the night sharing pizza, but more importantly secrets and laughter.

Coeds are different when it comes to the reunion following the first summer back at home. I've born witness to it more than once. For the unitiated, the ritual involves plentiful squealing, jumping and hugging, but most of all there is smiling and laughing. And then the chatter. Like keys on a keyboard. Nonstop. In a patois all their own. Books and classes are but distant clouds on the horizon, a necessary adjunct to the socialization.

With modern technology, it's not as if the girls didn't communicate every day while separated--talking, texting, emailing, Facebooking and iChatting. Those disembodied discussions, however, pale in in front of the brilliant fireworks that explodes when, like salmon to the origin of their friendships, kids who have eased past the nascent stage rejoin as if never apart. They are bright young people who come from near and far to this town where each Fall life begins anew. It has a special smell, a taste to it. Like our skin, college towns are places of constant renewal, cells falling away only to be replaced by new ones. In college, seniors are gone, but uncertain freshmen take their places on the lower rungs of the undergraduate ladder while the others move up in the inexorable process of life. College towns are places set apart from the rest of us, and not just by the vagaries of highway engineers. For the most part, they are havens, safe from much of the ugliness in the world. They are not quite Utopian, that has been lost to us, but they are the next best thing. Students do dumb things in college towns and in all but a few instances they enter the pantheon of 'no harm, no foul'. The hilarious part when questioned about the rationale of such hijinks is the answer, as if it were self-evident: "I'm in college." Duh. Like, what did we expect? It's college for goodness sake. It is an excuse for knucklehead behavior in their evolving minds. I well know as I was once one of the knuckleheadiest. Perhaps still am.

As many schools now begin the Fall term in August, the nip of Autumn is not yet in the air. It soon will be. The campuses in college towns will be aswarm with kids running to and from all sorts of things, learning, growing and edging up that ladder until the day the cap and gown go on. Only then is it time to leave the security of the college town, to venture forth into the wider world. Or not.

Tomorrow morning another daughter and I embark on a ten hour marathon drive to college. I get to do it again. Ain't life grand?

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