John Kelly's Washington

John Kelly on the College Drop-Off Dance

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By John Kelly
Monday, September 21, 2009

The curly-haired woman rounded the corner, stopped, then shouted gleefully over her shoulder to someone we couldn't see: "Greg, there's a piano!"

And there was a piano, a baby grand in the common room of this residence hall of this college in this Midwestern town. None of us were thinking about the piano, though. We were thinking about the curly-haired woman and the tremendous faux pas she'd made: showing excitement, showing any emotion, in this setting.

It was freshman move-in day, and feelings were running high on all sides. Some parents were dealing with the fact that they were old enough to have a college student. Where, we wondered, had our youth gone. Others were contemplating a nest that was finally emptied, or that was one baby chick closer to that day.

But it was the freshmen who were most roiled by emotions: familiar adolescent urges mixed with twinges of adulthood. No matter how much you love your parents, no matter how proud you are of them, there are times when you want them invisible. Freshman move-in day is one of those times.

They need our car, they need our duffel bag- and mini-fridge-hauling skills, they need our $50,000 a year, but would it kill us to turn to vapor when potential new friends are around?

To shout, "Greg, there's a piano!" was, in these teenagers' minds, like walking around in clown makeup, it was announcing to all that her son played the piano or had never seen a piano.

I never did see which one was "Greg." Perhaps, mortified by his mother, he turned around and started walking back home.

We had been herded -- we parents -- into this room to wait, asked by college administrators to cool our heels while our children queued first in one line, then a second one, then a third, before finally going up to their dorms.

Some of us had been ordered away with a firm word and a stern look from a son or daughter. Others of us hovered momentarily. We knew we were supposed to wait in the other room, but what if he forgot to ask about the meal plan? What if she forgot to ask about campus security? What if they lose their key?

But being a grown-up means waiting in lines by yourself.

We thought back to the first day of school -- nursery school or kindergarten or first grade: the new outfit, the new school supplies, the child so impossibly small. Could this be the same person?

That first day had gone well, the girl skipping ahead to meet her teacher and classmates. Or it had gone badly and the boy hung on our leg, crying.

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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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