Last month we took our son to college. Well, “to university”, as the Brits say, since it’s the University of Vermont.
It was, and still is, a very strange experience.
One reason Owain choose UVM is because he really wanted to live in a city. He loves technology and industry, and prefers to be immersed in evidence of the classic model of progress, of construction and growth – i.e., not in a small town.
Now, Burlington isn’t a big city. In fact, Wikipedia notes that “It is the least populous city in the U.S. to be the most populous city in a state.” But it’s a world apart from the town where he’s spent the past decade, with our lack of a single stoplight and our population not even reaching 600 on a crowded day. Moving to Burlington is definitely a major geographical and lifestyle change for him.
Hence Owain’s first tweet in his new life:
(Note that this is one way we communicate, here in an odd pocket of the 21st century. He uses his mobile phone to capture a photo, feeds it into Twitter, and adds a caption. I see this in my Tweetdeck column labeled “Family”. Owain also pings me through GChat on his laptop, relishing a stable and fast broadband connection, and occasionally asks me to eyeball some writing in Google Docs. We do use email (both Gmail) as well. He never uses a phone for voice communication, being a late Millennial/early Gen Zer. There’s no texting between us, since there’s no cell reception within 30 minutes of my house, unless I’m in Burlington.)
So already he’s getting new technology, machines, buildings, construction, and excitement! Just what the lad ordered.
Does this make me feel sad for choosing a hyper-rural lifestyle for him to grow up in? Did we do wrong by raising both he and his elder sister in the countryside? This gnaws at me. As a futurist, I know the trends about cities (growing) and rural areas (dwindling). Did we… deskill our children, by forcing them into an antiquated, retrograde period of their lives when the rest of the planet is moving full speed in the other direction?
I wonder. Maybe we’ve instilled in them a love for the green and the wild. Perhaps some rural habits and tastes will return later in their lives. As children I know Gwynneth and Owain romped in the woods and along the mountainside. They played in blizzards and build forts out of snow and birch all over the homestead. Perhaps over time they will, as C.S. Lewis observed in his dedication to the first Narnia novel, “be old enough to start reading fairy tales again”.
Do you know this passage? It’s amazing, and I can’t read it without tearing up:
“My Dear Lucy,
I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again. You can then take it down from some upper shelf, dust it, and tell me what you think of it. I shall probably be too deaf to hear, and too old to understand a word you say but I shall still be
your affectionate Godfather”
Yeah, I can’t think of my son at nineteen (19!) without also seeing him much younger. The future and the past cram into the parallaxed present, and it’s the changing weather, or C.S. Lewis, making my eyes mist over.
But all of that’s not now. Not yet. Now Owain’s taking classes, getting to know a roommate, exploring a campus and city on foot, learning how to get gluten-free food from which sources, figuring out the university’s wellness regime, and getting his moorings in a new world. This is what being a traditional-age, first-year student at a residential campus should be.
I so, so badly want to help him. Too much, really. My job, my career is about higher education. As Owain works his way through the university’s toils all of my professional attention is activated. I want to engage his professors and examine their assignments. I can see how the general discussions around student life are bodied forth in his hall’s RA and the dorm’s programs. The library’s staff and services leap to my mind, as does the general campus organization and philosophy. I read about UVM scientists making discoveries, and want to drag Owain to their labs. I want to talk policy with the registration staff and financial aid offices. I want to sit down with the IT staff and discuss tech support, LMS structure, their pedagogical thinking, their approach to maker spaces, and….
And I can’t. It’s Owain‘s time, not mine.
So I haul my professional self away from the city and retreat back home, back to the autumnal trees and winter-dreading animals. But I still follow my son on Twitter, and only sometimes blink away moisture from my eyes.