I WASN’T TOO HAPPY about him leaving at kindergarten, either.
As I watched my son Ian race up the steps to the school’s front door, he suddenly looked defenseless and tiny. I had obviously not been feeding him enough, causing malnourishment in some essential way. He bravely disguised it with that twinkle in his eye, that flashing dimple in his cheek, and that lilt in his step. When he broke away from my hand to run into the classroom and grab a sheet of green construction paper with a yelp of pure glee — “Cool! I can draw Ninja Turtles!”— I knew he was being strong for his mother. Driving home, I had to pull over and work my way through an entire box of Kleenex in sympathy for his loss.
When I left him at St. Olaf for his freshman year, I drove home clutching another box of Kleenex. My husband repeatedly listed all the things Ian had eaten lately, giving my meals four stars for nutritional value. Wise man. We stopped at T.J. Maxx and bought a backpack. Then I went back to school.
Back in the Paleozoic Age, when I was a journalism undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, the temptations of going into the world to write won out over the subtler charms of going to class. I left school, got a job, and spent a happy couple of decades writing and editing magazines. I still loved my work but now wanted to teach, as well — and for that, I needed initials after my name.
My first day of class, I stood in the hall and seriously considered running home. What was I doing here? I was old enough to be the mother of these kids yawning and slouching against the walls around me. I was the mother of one of these kids. I yanked my phone out of my embarrassingly new-looking backpack and dialed Ian. “Are you slouching?” I asked him. He was barely awake. “Never, Mom,” he said, and went back to sleep.
When I walked to the classroom doors and took a seat, my knees were shaking. But this was a big auditorium, so I figured my advanced age and patella castanets would go unnoticed. Behind me, a young man my son’s age loped down the aisle, clipping pretty girls on their shoulders and saying witty things like “Hey!” and “Yo!” I look younger from the back — trust me on this — so he clopped me on the shoulder, too. But when he got around to the front and looked into my face, he jumped and grimaced. “Steady, fella,” I said. “They usually don’t recoil in horror.”
In history class, the professor asked who had ever seen footage of the Vietnam War. I raised my hand. Of the Kennedy assassination, Civil Rights marches, Nixon’s resignation? Up, up, up went my hand. Later, when the instructor mentioned the Spanish-American War, half the class turned to look at me, expectantly.
Ian had a better first day. He sounded excited about his classes and happy to have found some old high school friends living in another dorm. “Did you try to make friends at school, Mom?” He asked.
“No,” I pouted. “I don’t want to.”
“You’ll have more fun if you make friends.”
We began mutual cell phone advice sessions, as he walked from Kildahl to Rolvaag and I wandered through Coffman Union looking for vending machines.
“Did I remember to tell you never to plug in a hairdryer near the shower?”
“Eggs. Did I ever teach you how to make eggs? You should know how to make eggs.”
“Got it, Mom.”
“Can I use your scientific calculator? I need to figure moon observations for my astronomy class.”
“In my top drawer, under the socks. Gotta go, Mom.”
“Are you eating well?” I asked him. “Because the kids in my classes look hungry. And tired. Are you sleeping enough?”
“I’m getting used to the top bunk,” he said.
“Do you need some shorts with all those pockets and some flip-flops? Everyone here is wearing shorts and flip-flops.”
He hung up, laughing.
Something shifted through that fall, his first at St. Olaf and my first back in the real world of reading assignments and midterms. I began to see him less as a boy who needed protecting and more as a sage young man with his own brand of wisdom to share. We became colleagues of sorts, a mother and son sharing what friends share — a mutual sense of doom as finals approached.
“Are you doing your homework?”
“Do you participate in class?”
“How are your grades?”
“Look, Ian, I have to go now. I have class.”
“Study hard, Mom.”
This was published in the St. Olaf Magazine, September, 2004, p. 56.