OUR DAUGHTER IS coming home from college this weekend for the first time since she went away a couple of months ago. Musings about this coming short visit evoked a flood of reminders that her life is no instant replay of my own.
Our children, like those of most '60s-generation parents who happen to be black and middle class, sit on a shelf that is far different from the one on which we perched. When your firstborn goes off to become a college freshman, the tradeoffs that life demands of each generation leap more clearly into focus -- and perhaps into question, as well.
From the start, our daughter's anticipation of college matched our own for her. All agreed the time had come for her to try her wings. When we drove off to school, an Ivy League campus 12 times the size of the small black Midwestern college I attended 20 years ago, I felt a sudden sense of loss and a swift and astounding urge to cry like a baby.
When my parents packed me off to college, I don't think my mother cried anything but tears of joy. My father was a college graduate, and my mother had completed "normal school," the Southern equivalent of junior college. College was part of her high expectations for me. It was a joyous occasion when their struggles and hard work paid off.
There was no such feeling of personal accomplishment for my husband and me. If I was weepy with concern for the special problems my daughter would face as a minority on a predominantly white campus, I suspect I wept a bit also with the realization that I was old enough to have a child in college.
The first sense of loss ended as we climbed out of the car after the long drive home -- to the ringing of the telephone. It was our daughter, calling about nothing in particular. The umbilical cord had been restored by Ma Bell. How different to have a telephone in her dormitory room. If I never looked back when I left for college, my family finances also dictated that I also never called back. Any anxiety or triumph that could not be communicated by mail remained buried within my own psyche.
And we seemed to have fewer anxieties when I was in school. College was a new adventure. My mind was filled with professional ambitions, but during the early years, they sometimes seemed less important than men or my pride at becoming a sorority member or a fraternity's queen. College offered breathing space, time to pause before the burdens of adulthood were placed on my shoulders.
My daughter and her friends don't seem as carefree. Although they enjoy the frat dances and the football games, there is also an underlying seriousness that seems unusual for freshmen students. They seem to need to define not only who they are, but who they will be. When we talk with my daughter, the conversation is as much about the difficulties of economics and the challenge of mathematics as her joy at becoming a cheerleader.
When I was in college, we were optimistic about what we could obtain. My daughter and her friends are worried that this sluggish economy could shatter their dreams: What will the job market be when they graduate in 1985? Will there be a place for liberal arts in this highly technological society? And if they make the wrong career choice now, will the marketplace be flexible enough to offer a second chance?
My generation was armed by family, church, and schools with a certain self-confidence. We have done the same for our children at home. Beyond that, however, they received good academic training from supportive teachers at integrated secondary schools far different from those I knew. Yet they have not had the luxury of black role models -- those loving teachers we had who went a step beyond good academics to point out that we would have to overcome special problems as black people.
So while my daughter has missed out on one level of confidence, she has gained another. In many ways, she is more at ease in a fast-paced Ivy League setting as an 18-year-old freshman today than I was when I attended a similar school as a graduate student two decades ago.
What is clear among the tradeoffs is that one generation builds upon the other. I want college for my daughter to be a time of freedom to explore ideas, to learn to think and be daring, and to develop and to find herself to a greater degree than did I.
But the real test of time is yet to come. How will my success and her new experiences affect her life? She worries about her future.
And so do I.