For those of you not hovering near the mailbox and/or over your senior's shoulder as they open emails and receive messages from colleges, it is the season for answers. Dreams sparked by an article, a favorite player, a fantastic program, or an ideal location, will come true. Or not.
My boy has more nos than yeses (with three answers still to arrive) and I feel a combination of fury and pride every time he receives an answer that isn't yes. I am furious because he's done "everything" he has been told to do. And, he's my old soul; he was born 45. He makes jam and visits our 99-year-old family friend without prompting. He reads the New York Times (thanks to a good friend's gift of a subscription) and will discuss his favorite museums, music, and artists whenever he has the opportunity. He told me, last summer, after returning home from a conference in Chicago, he will change the world. I have no doubt.
Yet, he isn't the kind of student a few schools with single and low double-digit acceptance rates seek this year.
21 years ago, I applied to Western Oregon State College and, after encouragement from a beloved teacher able to successfully ask to have my application fee waived, to Willamette University. Never in a million years would I have been brave enough to apply elsewhere, and certainly not at schools with fancy names. The anxiety I felt as I waited for answers lurks in my memory and had a deeper foothold than I realized.
Several years ago, as any forward-thinking, fiercely protective mama would, I decided it was my job to manage his expectations. I started mentioning the extremely high hurdles he would have to clear and the unpredictable nature of acceptance to the most select schools. His eyes rolled and I resisted the urge to explain that I just want him to be happy. I wanted, and still want, nothing more than to prevent him from hurting. By doing so, however, I began to fear he heard my words as doubt in him rather than the doubt in process. I felt like the critic, commenting from afar, while he battled in the arena.
My job isn't to crush his dreams before he has a chance to try because I'm afraid he will get hurt. My job is to make sure he understands the risks, the reasons to be afraid, and walks into the arena anyway.
Now, I'm a hands-off mom. He advocates for himself at school and in the world. He makes and keeps his own medical appointments. He is 100% in charge of the college process; I don't know for sure if he has all of the paperwork, etc. submitted. I occasionally receive emails from admissions offices that I am sure are designed to prod me into prodding him. And I do. But I leave it up to him to decide how or if to respond.
As my days to parent him during this phase slip away, I watch for signs he's okay. I yearn to be near him. He and four of his five best friends come a day early to the beach house where our family will spend a few days of spring break. I am there as a fly on the wall, a chaperone of sorts, just in case. I'm really there because it is an opportunity to be with him in these waning days of his childhood.
The guys arrive mid-morning and a few fellow seniors, girls, join for the day. They collectively play board games, walk on the beach, laugh, and shriek. They have been friends for years and there is a sense of ease in the way they engage. Their smiles are real and wide, they are comfortable.
After dinner, the sun breaks through the clouds and they decide to run down to the beach for one last group adventure. I lag behind to take some photos. When I notice they are trying to take a group photo, I run down the giant stairs and toward them, offering myself as photographer. The sun begins its final descent and the light is golden. They humor me as I ask them to stand in a line so I can take a photo as their gazes sweep the horizon. I think about how precious these memories will be for them, someday, and tell them that they are lucky.
Before we head back to the house, I ask one of his friends to take a photo of Steven and me. We are windswept, relaxed, and happy. Tears well in my eyes; I blame the wind.
We walk back to the house to get the girls on the road. I listen to one final burst of sound as goodbyes are shouted. I exhale deeply after the door closes and the quiet returns. One of the guys starts working on the dishes. I say I can finish and he responds that the dishes are the least he can do to say thank you for the night away and for dinner. I grin. He is a member of my robotics team and an incredible kid; I am not surprised. I tease Steven about drying the dishes and soon all of the guys are helping. I stand out of the way and watch, soaking in the moment.
Whatever schools are lucky enough to land these guys as students will be forever better. Spending time with them, experiencing their joie de vivre, makes stress about the future seem silly. They will be fine and perhaps stronger as a result of these few months of uncertainty.
Ryan, Ian, Tyler, Hayden, Ben (even though you were only there in spirit), and Steven: I become tongue-tied when I try to express my pride in all that you have done and the men you are becoming. This is just the beginning of your adventures but I hope you continue to make brave choices along the way. Try. Fail. Try again. Keep failing. Fail bigger, harder. You'll never know what is possible without taking risks, as scary as risk-taking can be, and I promise you'll never regret trying. I'll be cheering for each of you from afar. I can't wait to watch you fly.