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We took the missus’ nephew up to college last weekend. It was his first time and he seemed less excited than I was. Not that he was insensible of the moment; he’s just equanimous by nature and takes things at a low boil and even keel, and vice versa, and good for him, that’s the way to handle life if you have the temperament for it — he doesn’t have to pick a major till the end of sophomore year and I’m sure he’ll be as ready as Rocky Balboa when it comes. But he was happy, with the bright gaze of an adventurer.
You know me, given to sudden enthusiasm and fancy flights. The moment we pulled into the campus I was sent straight back to my own first day at college many, many years earlier. The nephew’s campus is much more grand than mine, at which brutal 70s architecture predominated; his has much more of the flavor of old college movies and books — The Group, Good News, The Paper Chase — Gothic and Norman and porticos, with a touch of brutalism and postmod, too, for seasoning; quads, halls, gates, fields; inscribed benches. I saw my own dorm room behind every newly-opened tiny window with a box fan stuck in it, and my own seat in every good brown wood tablet-arm chair. In my head I was hearing Boola Boola and Gaudeamus Igitur, even though I never heard or sang these when I was at school, and felt the tang and shiver of fall though it was still hot.
Memory can be much stronger than present reality — memory of what you actually went though, but also of what you were thinking it was at the time. A lot of my college experiences were major firsts, more than for most because I came in poor, unsocialized, and a bit off. I had to learn, for example, how to do my own laundry, how to be a good roommate, how to talk to a girl I liked, how to deal with rejection. I did not get good at any of these while at school; some of these took me long years to figure out, and some, like that abomination we call time management, I have yet to learn at all. (I did get good at taking speed and staying up all night to cram for a test.) As with everything, there was a lot I’d have done differently then had I but known; but I had not known, and not knowing did not result in tragedy, so it was fine. In fact, that being stipulated, it was more than fine. There’s something wonderful about being a dumbass when you have room to do it and college is as good a place for it as you can get. It was like Candyland, only with drugs instead of candy, and if there were snakes as well as ladders, what of it? The game was fun and is now over. I’ve heard for years from professional grumps that college is not What It Was back when only rich men's sons went, and how every Goofus can waste time and money in the ivory tower when they should be doing something useful. Wow, that sounds even stupider than I remember. Anyway, I graduated with honors.
With the nephew we also experienced the dorm load-in — moving the surprisingly small, surprisingly light furnishings around, and seeing the little piles of gear and clothing outside the little doors, and the parents moving uncertainly among the students who were all self-assurance even though it was they who were entering the unknown. We met the roommate, met the roommate’s parents, and navigated the exit, making sure the kid was okay and finding with a slight shock that there was no need for us to be there. (There’s another great thing about not having kids — you can observe and even take part in these rituals without the messy extra feelings of pride and abandonment.) And then we were off. The adventure is now his. I never wonder how it’s going, because I’ve been and I know.