One in Three

The college counselor at our high school shared what seemed like an astonishing statistic: one in three students don’t graduate from the college they first attend.

We thought: That won’t be him.

We were wrong.

He only ever wanted to attend one school, and he only ever wanted one major with one career outcome. We asked all the questions, of him, of everyone; we visited the school and attended orientation; we took out the loan, proving we would do everything possible to back his dreams.

He called, sobbing, after his first class: “Mom, I’ve made a terrible mistake!”

It should have been the perfect school for him. Instead, he weathered the perfect storm of all the things that could go wrong–the roommate from hell with the toxic girlfriend who essentially moved in; the injury that kept him from playing his sport, his physical and emotional outlet; the advisor who suddenly seemed less supportive; the “friends” who proved to be anything but… We weathered the storm with him as he called several times a week, sometimes crying, other times, just to talk.

We listened. We prayed. We sent more mail than ever before in our lives. But we couldn’t change his circumstances. He needed to learn to advocate for himself, to set his own boundaries, to work harder, to develop persistence.

It was difficult for all of us, but he stuck it out. At one point he said, “I should have listened to you. I should have gone to community college.”

I responded, “No, this was your path. If we had insisted that you stay local, you would have been angry at us. You needed to discover some things for yourself.”

Today was Day 1 of Year 2, now at our local community college. Leaving his first choice also meant leaving his major, not readily available elsewhere. Instead he will experiment with classes in different majors as he explores what he might like to do with his life. The low cost of community college plus living at home equals low risk.

Over breakfast, he had only the to-be-expected first day jitters: traffic, meeting new people, and hoping for enjoyable course content. After school, he seemed relaxed, even happy. He had quickly established a relationship with both professors and engaged in helpful ways with the material, something that doesn’t easily happen when you have 500+ classmates. He immediately got online to order books, then ran out to purchase a few supplies. He jumped on homework like he never did in high school.

Did he make a terrible mistake? Absolutely not! We are grateful for his out-of-state freshman year. Do we wish things had worked out differently, that he had stayed at his first choice? Of course! When he went back for second semester, I challenged him to do everything necessary to redeem the situation so that, at the end of the year, he could say: “That was hard, but I did it. Here’s what I learned, and here’s how I’m a better person for it.”

He did it. He learned a lot–about himself, what he likes and wants and doesn’t; about others with different interests, personalities, and backgrounds. He learned he could stick through overwhelming circumstances, and that his family will always have his back.

Are we glad to have him back? For sure! He is stronger, more mature, differently centered. Our relationship has changed as we function less from the driver’s seat and more as passengers. We have become advisors offering encouragement rather than supervisors offering direction. And we will continue to cheer him on as we watch to see where he goes from here.

Care Packages

Our church has a tradition of sending care packages to college students as a way of continuing to share love with them even when they cannot be with us. Over the years I have enjoyed writing notes to kids I know, encouraging them to hang in there and that, yes, we do notice you’re not here and we care.

This year, just as my kid would be on the receiving end, the project almost fell by the wayside. I stepped up to save it since I knew just how much real mail could mean to kids weathering tough transitions. Truly, any college kid.

When I attended college, I got mail from my mom and my church. The church sent postcards for events I couldn’t attend because I was out of town, which felt insulting: did they not notice my address? And if they did, why not write a quick note? Or at least take me off the list? My experience fueled my desire to encourage other college students.

I’ve written previously that I have never before been to the Post Office so regularly as I have been since the Big Kid started college out of state. And while I am great at writing notes, and encouraging others to write notes, or cheerleading people acting as encouragers, I stink at administering details.

The project became one more stressor in an already stressful season. I often said, “I could use a care package!”

A few weeks ago, I went to visit my college kid. Minutes after we arrived at his dorm room he said, “Oh, Mom, I wanted to show you this…” He held up a reusable plastic envelope filled with cards. He explained, “It’s every card I’ve received since I arrived at college.” The notes from his dad and me, his grandparents, friends, church members and Scout leaders, the cards I was sure were being skimmed and recycled… No, they were being read and reread, treasured.

I should mention: he didn’t know I’d taken up this project. He shared because he knew it would touch me to know how much those cards meant to him. I took his picture, better that than welling up with tears.

Eventually it came together. We gathered 75 college addresses for kids who grew up in our church, or whose parents/grandparents attend our church. We collected donations of microwave popcorn and Halloween candy, and lots and lots of encouraging notes: many written to kids people knew and others written generically to kids no one knew well enough. We also collected dozens of home-baked cookies to send study break packages to small groups organized by our church’s mission partners working on college campuses—and included plenty of hand-written notes to those kids, most of whom we will never meet.

On a Saturday morning, about fifteen volunteers came together to assemble USPS flat-rate boxes, to write yet more notes, to stuff popcorn and candy and cookies into boxes. My morning had not gone according to plan (of course not, because life), and I arrived late and frazzled. Yet there they were, faithful helpers already on task loving on kids away from home.

It had felt to me like details enough to drown me, yet one dear gal said, “We’re like water, settling in to our well-worn spots.” Yes. My spot is encouraging, not organizing. But I stuck it out, I told the story, and people filled in their places in a beautiful whole.

When we finished in less time than we’d allotted, we gathered around the boxes to pray. And there it was: my care package. These friends and servants prayed for our kids, for strength and perseverance and guidance. They prayed for professors and mentors to come around them. They prayed for roommates and suitemates and hallmates, boyfriends and girlfriends, all of whom might wonder why a church would send care packages to college kids. They prayed God’s love and peace would shower over these precious young people. This time, I couldn’t hide my tears.

I couldn’t have imagined the impact on our postal workers. It took two of us making multiple trips with arms full to carry in all the boxes: their eyes went wide. I sensed their initial shock, then overwhelm, then deep breaths as they settled into a rhythm of typing in zip codes and printing labels, restacking boxes along the way. Eventually, they began to laugh, thanking us for supporting the US Postal Service.

They asked what we could possibly be mailing to individuals all over the country; when we explained, they grew visibly happier to have a role to play in this big act of encouragement. When after almost an hour we were done, they were also done for the day. One postal worker declared, “Since everyone should have a little something for joy, here you go!” He reached under the counter and pulled out two Dove chocolates for Guy and me.

Last night I received another care package: my kid, home for the first time, three months to the day since college move-in. Happy Thanksgiving indeed!

Not Alone

I have been to the post office three times in eight days. Four, if you count the trip I made to pick up boxes, which made for two trips in one day. I set a personal record.

So what? you ask.

What seems a normal act of adulting is An Event for me. You have no idea how bad I am at mailing things! We‘ve lived in our small NorCal town for eleven years and I’ve been to the PO, hmm, three times? (Yes, Guy is a rock star, actually, for putting up with me and handling All the Details). Unless we pay a fortune in postage–which we do, annually–only our hand-delivered Christmas gifts arrive on time. I’m bad at erranding in general, and mailing in particular.

So why this sudden run on the USPS? I sent a kid to college!

And he’s sososo homesick! He called after his first class ready to come home. Not that the class was hard (it wasn’t) but, after a weekend of trying to get to know as many people as humanly possible, he realized that the one person he wanted to spend time with–his roommate–had no time for him.

Roommate’s girlfriend also came to college (that would have been nice to know in advance), and they only have time for each other.

I bet my kid could overlook the sloppy mess invading his space if Roommate’s kindness also overflowed boundaries. But no. And he’s not sleeping because he doesn’t want to make things worse by asking that Girlfriend leave their room after midnight.

Easy enough to say, “He’ll get through it,” or “Transitions are so hard,” or “Everyone feels like that at first.” Yes, he can do hard things and we believe he can get through it. This is the biggest transition of his life and my drama boy takes it so hard. And no, not everyone feels this but yes, most will at some point.

The adults in his life have endured transitions. We all know he can do it. But he’s in it, and that makes his experience real-er than ours for the moment. Don’t you remember? The drive-thru car wash (mundane adulting) = dark, loud, and scary!

And the stakes are higher than ever. This was his #1 college choice. We believe this school is a perfect fit for him–in The Wizard of Oz “…if ever there was there was there was [because the college because because] sort of fit–overflowing with Emerald City potential for great opportunities! And he is not sure he’s going to make it. Because of a stupid roommate.

We sleep-trained Teen as an infant. Guy would throw his arm across me to prevent me from running to my crying baby, until the baby sobs tore through his own resolve, at which point he’d strap Baby-Teen into his car seat and drive around until the kiddo fell asleep. This made no sense to me (although I trusted him entirely and sank deeply into quiet/sleep!) because as soon as he took Baby out of Car Seat, Baby woke up and resumed crying.

Parents are crazy that way.

I feel like we’re at it again. Teen needs to learn to do this for himself, to self-soothe in whole new (and hopefully, healthy!) ways. And we’re learning new crazy.

Throughout his adolescence, we fought about Snapchat. He downloaded it–and I demanded deletion–every few months. During drop-off weekend, Teen asked his brother to create a Snapchat account for the cat, and to Snapchat him every day (he *loves* his cat). Since my phone is better, Snapchat resides on my phone…and I find myself Snapchatting my kid. Often. When I asked for a “1st day of school picture” he replied: “Absolutely not!” But he snaps pictures to “his cat” every day…

To add to the crazy parenting moves, I commented in the college-specific parents’ Facebook group that my kiddo is lonely. Other moms with freshman sons in the same major sent me pictures of their kids so I could send them to my kid; I did the same. OMG: I am setting up ‘play dates’ for my college kid (DS, Darling Son, to use the lingo)! He hasn’t mentioned if it’s helped. [I hope it is helping… Life is all about connections, right?]

I’m happy for these parents that their kids are getting to know one another, hanging out and making plans for Labor Day Weekend. Meanwhile, Teen will be alone in his dorm since Roommate and Girlfriend are going on a couples-only camping trip.

He will be fine. He will be fine. He will be fine…

So I send care packages. I didn’t take my own college transition nearly so hard (freshman roommates as they are, I investigated leaving, but couldn’t stomach another round of college apps), but I still remember my mom’s signature care package ingredients.

And I encourage my kid: what he knows (he chose this school for so many good reasons) and what he feels (I can’t do this) are in competition. He lets his heart lead most of the time; he needs to keep his head this time.

I encourage myself: he is strong, and he can do this. He feels alone, but he is not. I feel alone, but I am not. I rejoice with others, and they hang in there with us.

We are not alone, even when we feel it.

[P.S. As I wrote this, he texted: “Going to dinner with the boys.” No idea who “the boys” are, but hope. Always hope!]

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Orientation

Orientation [awr-ee-uh n-tey-shuh n]
noun 1. the act or process of orienting; 2. The state of being oriented; 3. An introduction, as to guide one in adjusting to new surroundings, employment, activity, or the like: New students receive two days of orientation; 4. Psychology, Psychiatry. The ability to locate oneself in one’s environment with reference to time, place, and people. Synonyms: direction, location, adaptation, assimilation, bearings, coordination, familiarization, position, lay of the land, sense of direction, settling in.

I awoke with vague dream recollections: three of my former professors (college? grad school?) had pulled me aside to say that I needed to go back to school. Apparently my Ph.D. awaits me, in some area of study at some school.

Do I have college-envy? I’ve heard other parents of college-bound kids say that college visits evoked similar responses in them, that they wish they could go back to school at this stage of life.

Last week Guy and I accompanied Teen to his college orientation. As we walked across campus I thought: “This is the exact right place for my kiddo, but I would have gotten lost here.” Something like 30 of my private, liberal arts college would fit on his university campus.

I do feel a tinge of envy at this exciting stage in his life: for all the things he will learn, experiences he will have, friends and mentors he will meet. But that’s far from my only feeling…

He is our first-born. I am grateful he’s found his place, and anxious for him to transition well. After helping him maneuver life for eighteen years, it is so hard to let go, to cheer him on from a distance, to know that he will succeed and he will fail and somehow it will all work out.

His departure will change the day-to-day reality of our family’s operational structure. I will carpool Tween to places Teen has shuttled his brother. We will redistribute his chores. Our grocery bill will decrease. I will miss him like crazy, and sometimes I will (quietly) exult in the new quiet his absence will create. We will hope that he will fit in time to communicate on occasion beyond “Dad, I need money!” (To which we could respond, “So do we!”).

None of us understood why the college required orientation prior to the days just before classes begin this fall. In fact, Guy almost didn’t sign us up for the parent-family track. We’re both college graduates—how much can have changed? Teen just wanted to register for classes online and spend every minute of summer with his friends at home. Turns out, we didn’t know how much we didn’t know!

We dropped Tween at sleep-away camp on Sunday and left for college Monday. Teen was quiet (tired?), then visibly angry (“I’m not carrying that bag!”), sullen and snapchat-focused, dismissive (“Stop trying to be funny!”), and finally, candid: “I don’t want to go to college!”

He does want to go to college. He knows this is his school, his program, his time. He knows that, even though his friends will mostly attend schools on quarter-system and it seems now that they have longer summers, they will leave eventually, too. He doesn’t want to be the one left behind. He just doesn’t know how to manage the biggest transition in his life thus far.

Thankfully, Session 1 of parent-family orientation addressed the emotional transition in which we currently find ourselves. The Associate Dean of Students referenced William Bridges’ book, Managing Transitions. Here’s the model:

And here’s the synopsis: It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, the reorganization of the roles on the team. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.

At any given moment, any of us can be at any stage of transition: not necessarily the same stage, and it can all turn on a dime. I had been feeling so excited for Teen’s new beginning (less so for ours, but it has its highlights as well); his fear and anger evoked in me both sadness that he was having such a difficult go of it and a panic that he might ditch the opportunities before him.

With a travel day on either side of the two-day orientation, over four days we watched Teen ride an emotional roller coaster, moving at break-neck speed through All the Big Feels related to this transition: loss, grief, loneliness, anger, denial, resistance, despair, excitement, hope, doubt, fear… We saw him wipe away embarrassed tears, endured his angry barks, listened when he overflowed, all in snippets of time that our orientation tracks intersected.

We asked if he wanted our opinion (sometimes yes, others no). We asked questions he sometimes answered. During one conversation I admitted that I, too, had been on the verge of tears throughout the day. He responded, “But Mom, the difference is you will never lose me. I will always come home to you. But things will never be the same with my friends…”

We encountered so many moments confirming his choice of school, from conversations with staff, to the presentation by his major advisor, to watching him make friends. And our conversations with other parents confirmed that our experience was far more common that we could suspect. One dad said, “I am so grateful for that transition presentation, because I’m watching my son live it out before my eyes.” Yup, us too. Another dad said, “To look at people, they seem like they have it all together. But when you talk to other parents, you realize that we’re all dealing with the same things, the joys and fears, anxieties, situations…” So true.

Teen had a great roommate for the dorm overnight. At a different stage in his own transition, they talked from 9:30 pm to 1 am, helping Teen process in ways his parents could not. That next day Teen was like a different person, calm, tip-toeing into the excitement of all to come. But later that day he talked with friends from home, one who was freaking out and another who was currently at his own college orientation. They’re all on this crazy ride and they’re jostling each other this way and that.

Back home we are orienting to the present moment, enjoying summer and friendships and down-time. The college shadow looms, but for now he wants to stand firmly in the sun. And that’s fine. Orientation introduced us to new surroundings both physical and emotional. We’ve done a lot of healthy processing of emotions and details. Settling in will take time.

 

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Jumbled

My kids don’t do transitions well. I know this, and sometimes it still surprises me.

During a still-early fall hallway conversation with Tween’s then-2nd grade teacher, she commented that Tween didn’t seem to be taking school seriously. Without missing a beat I responded, “Give him until Thanksgiving and he’ll be great!” She looked at me cross-eyed, as if I had given the most ridiculous answer. Maybe I had, but time proved me right.

What should surprise me is how little I recognize that I don’t do transitions well. Summer is more than half flown, we’re only weeks from the start of a new school year, and I haven’t yet settled into the rhythm of this season. And it’s about to change, another transition.

I can’t help comparing this summer to last. Apples to oranges but, as I want to continue to learn the lessons packed into our two-month Costa Rica sabbatical, I keep checking our blog to see what we were experiencing and learning last year.

The Costa Rica sun rises around 6am and sets around 6pm and I have never felt so physically in tune with the Earth’s rotation. Not an easy morning person, the sun beckoned me to new adventures each day, at least after a cup of coffee enjoyed facing this view:view

Leisurely mornings, adventure-filled days, and extended togetherness… Costa Rica sunset meant Family Time to eat, talk, play games or watch movies or read aloud. Of course Teen prefers friend-time to family-time, I get it. But a year ago we were making the beach safe for sea turtles and swimming in secluded waterfalls and mugging for the camera with toucans on our shoulders, making memories.

Guy and I took two weeks off for a camping vacation. And then every itinerary we discussed had some strike against it. We researched, Google-mapped, discussed, contacted friends, prayed, and persisted for hours over weeks before coming up for air with the same befuddling conclusion: we need to stay home this summer.

First world problems, I know. But I’m still disappointed.

So instead of adventuring out, we have ventured in to the crazy jumble of our garage to create a hang-out space for our kids and their friends.

We have vision, and still I’m overwhelmed. Cleaning the garage means face-planting in All The Projects I never got around to. I shafted some straight into the trash, donated others, and shuffled some back into the house. Projects covered every surface, and a few miraculously got done. And the panic-stricken late-night realization that the cleaners were coming in the morning meant that a whole bunch of projects went, yup, back into the garage. Oy!

Thank God Guy is an Energizer Bunny! Day 1 we began sorting and donating. Day 2 he pulled Too Much Stuff into the driveway and added storage areas to the rafters, then moved our extensive collection of camping gear up and out of sight. (Inside I’m screaming: “Don’t put it away, I want to use it!” Ugh.)garage

Day 3 we went to work, because that’s what happens when you work at a church and don’t leave town. To be honest, I’ve worked every day of what was supposed to be our vacation, because we are not on vacation, and I mostly work from home anyway. Sigh.

The garage is jumbled but better. I am jumbled, and a discipline of gratitude will make me better.

I’ve just finished reading The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. The surprise ending? A laser-beam focus on gratitude in two steps:

Step 1. For one week try to be aware of your tendency to criticize, to see what is missing, to focus on what is not there and comment on it. Try instead to focus on what is right. Notice what you have and others contribute. Search for things to praise. Begin with simple things. Praise the world. Appreciate your own breathing, the sunrise, the beauty of a rainstorm, the wonder in your child’s eyes. Utter some silent words of thanksgiving for these small wonders in your day. This will begin to change your focus on the negative.

Step 2. Give at least one genuine, heartfelt praise to your spouse [or child, neighbor, whoever] each day for an entire week… extend the exercise one more day. Then add another day…. When you meet someone new, look for what is special about this person. Appreciate these qualities. Remember, this all has to be genuine and heartfelt. Don’t be phony… Tell people what you notice and genuinely appreciate about them.

So I will refuse to criticize this summer, to see what is missing. I will be grateful for the progress we’ve made, the project we’ve undertaken. I will search for bright moments (Teen offered to help me do his laundry – progress!) and offer generous praise.

And eventually the garage will be clean, and I will be grateful.