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Home » Chalk Talk – Back-to-School Lesson from A College-Bound Kid

September, 2007

Taking my first born to college for the first time had me, of course, awash in emotions. Over the previous few days as we made last minute trips to pick up essentials, it was hard not to collide with the commercial (albeit helpful) assault by stores to get the perfect dorm paraphernalia.

The day before the big drive, I awoke to the blare of the Today Show previewing tips for coping with saying goodbye to your college first. As I pondered the advice throughout the hours, I realized something was missing from the hype and kind offers of advice that, now that I think of it, is absent in all of these annual rituals for the college-bound.


Amidst the search for the perfect trunks, the bathroom carts, the extra-long sheets and even the how-to for mothers emotionally distraught over saying goodbye, there has been absolutely no recognition of how to really prepare for the moment which for many is a make-or-break life proposition. Simply put, students who graduate from college are much more likely to secure employment which produces a steady income and career. That employment will allow them to contribute to their communities, their country and their world.

College is not just another chapter of growth in a young person’s life. It’s a gateway to adult life, and one that assumes a certain amount of educating has taken place to allow this transition to occur.

Education. Not towels and over-the-door hooks.

While learning starts in the first days of infancy, the journey for my first son’s formal education started in the quest for the best elementary school . His parents were determined to choose a school that best met his needs, and not simply default to the school to which he was assigned just because it was there and boasted a great reputation. We would find that out on our own.

The memory of that search – and some of the inevitable challenges of that choice – are as vivid in my mind today as they were thirteen years ago.

First there was the exploration of the “very best public schools the county has to offer” in one of the most highly rated public school systems in the country. That’s the conventional wisdom in the county in Maryland where we live (as it is so many places. Parents and community members simply assume – regardless of data – that the school in their own back yard must naturally be good. See year-after-year Phi Delta Kappa polls). But it only took about fifteen minutes to realize, after the boasting from the principal of this one elementary school, that inventive spelling and whole language approaches to learning would not be the choice we would make. Back in the early 90s, I was plagued by the knowledge of what those mistakes had done to California and countless districts across the country. My son would not suffer the same tailspin that had since led education leaders to do magna mea culpas over the loss of education to millions of children when those experiments yielded negative results.

In the midst of our search, we realized we wanted our son to be part of a school that would offer a sense of community, that would reinforce the values we taught at home, and that would, of course, put forth a challenging education program.

We got all three for the first few years, but as the grades in his first school progressed, the educational programs did not. A subsequent choice for 5th grade ended taking him all the way through to twelfth grade graduation. In almost all ways, that school fit our son like a glove. It was very challenging academically, and it provided leadership opportunities in which he thrived and activities that engaged him both in sport and art. And equally important, he was part of a community that provided essential support to help him and other young men grow into great people.

With the colors and shapes of all the college necessities touted by Container Store ads and Target aisles still echoing in our heads, we landed on the college campus to dutifully send off our first college freshman. The unpacking and arranging went off without a hitch, and after getting his books, we dawdled just a little and said goodbye. Did we forget anything? Will he know where to go? What will he do if he has problems? Will he call? Will that closet be big enough? Will he do okay? I worried. He was worried about being smart enough.

It was my son who kicked my brain back into gear about what this was all about. While I had obsessed (thanks to all those helpful-hint articles) over getting his dorm ready, he had reminded me that this was the culmination of years of schooling.

He was looking at his books, about government, public speaking, philosophy. “Cool,” said this pretty non-bookish kid. “I can’t wait to meet these folks,” he said, speaking about the professors.

I thought about this much of the way home. Education. He was looking forward to his higher education. And he was prepared for it. And not because of the color-coordinated sheets and towels and great supplies we bought. No, he was privy to some great educating over the last twelve years, thanks to the choices we were able to make. We found the fit for him that didn’t necessarily make him a ‘brain,’ but made him prepared, on so many levels. Over the years, he worked hard, he learned, and steadily, he achieved.

Four days later, after his first day of classes, he called me to tell me how great it was. He was excited by what was in front of him, about the content of the classes. He saw his professors as experts, and was eager to get to work. It was because he felt prepared and ready. His challenging and content-rich education, despite his never being at the top of his class, gave him the knowledge and confidence to know he could handle just about anything thrown his way.

Not only did his schools help him, they helped us all to recognize his strengths and weaknesses, with honest accountability and appraisals all through those years before graduation.

My jitters and worries were now gone. The much ado about the packing and the perfect dorm set up seem silly now. My three others won’t suffer the commercial college hype when they depart. Oh, we’ll make it all special, God willing, but we will know, having continued to put ourselves (not school systems) in the drivers seat, that our children will have had the best education we could find for them, and we will be better armed for their foray into higher education, thanks to this experience with the first-born, and the reminder that the stress over education all these years has been worth it.

It’s worth it to have to stress over whether a school is right for your child; it’s worth it to push over homework, and doing better, and doing more, even when it creates a little tension between you and your child. It’s worth it to expect them to do well on tests, and to keep trying to make that happen, and keep that happening. (The parents who indulge their kids and decry the stress that accountability and high expectations bring are doing them no favors. But I’ll save that for another time.)

I just wish the media producers would put the focus on education first, over clothes and accessories, when they produce their run of back-to-school shows next year. For if parents were treated a bit more to the long view of education, they not only would strive harder to make great educational choices, but they’d have a few less jitters – and perhaps a few more dollars in their pocket – when they send off their first college-bound kid.