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My daughter inhabits a college world that didn’t exist when I was at Bates.

I realized this moments ago. I had finished instant-messaging Hilary, who is two weeks into her freshman year. Then I “went” to Amazon.com to buy and send her a couple of books for her writing class. On the way “back” to instant messaging, I visited a newspaper Web site and e-mailed an article I thought she might enjoy. By the time I was done, her instant-message reply icon was bouncing on my desktop – all in the twinkling of an eye.

When I went to Bates, my only desktop was made of wood, an instant message was a paper note on the door, electronic mail didn’t exist, and Amazon was first and foremost a South American river (though, as an English major, I became acquainted with other meanings). My word processor was a tiny portable Olivetti typewriter. Cutting and pasting text involved scissors and glue. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the arrangement of the alphabet on the keyboard.

When my parents delivered me to my dorm, I hauled my favorite record albums in milk crates. My monster speakers and hi-fi components the size of an air conditioner took up more space in the station wagon than my clothes. Hilary’s favorite music? She has more tunes in the iPod in her pocket than in all of my milk crates combined. Digital has come to mean hi-fi – and so much more – while station wagons have morphed into sport utility vehicles.

I thought back to the day I dropped Hilary off at the schoolhouse door for kindergarten. I couldn’t have predicted how different some aspects of school would be by the time she reached eighth grade, let alone the brisk 12 years until she started college. I did intuit that her school wouldn’t and couldn’t prepare her for any specific career. Some careers wouldn’t be invented for awhile yet, while others, perhaps even the paths followed by her teachers and parents, might no longer be appropriate for her. Other career paths would disappear altogether.

And that was just as well. The greater educational mission was not to teach her what to think, but how to think.

When I shared those first-day feelings with a friend, he snail-mailed me Howard Nemerov’s poem “September, The First Day of School.” Nemerov holds his tearful son’s hand at the first-grade door, a parent fighting his own tears of familiarity with the departure and the endeavor, first as a son and now as father to a son. A new generation embarks on the path of knowledge and experience, and an older generation’s heart skips a beat. Nemerov writes:

A school is where they grind the grain of thought,
 And grind the children who must mind the thought.
 It may be those two grindings are but one,
 As from the alphabet come Shakespeare’s Plays,
 As from the integers comes Euler’s Law,
 As from the whole, inseparably, the lives,
 
 The shrunken lives that have not been set free
 By law or by poetic phantasy
 But may they be.

The poet understood the soul of the great ritual confronting me: the delicate terror, trust, and continuity of letting go, of delegating parenting, learning, and kindness to others – most importantly to the child herself.

This instant poetic message has taken me my whole life – and many generations of family life – to receive, by word, gesture, and now e-mail. Here at the schoolhouse door once more, both dropping off and waiting for the child I’ve entrusted to fine teachers, I am also waiting for myself. It feels like a renewal of my own quest for the freedom to grind the grain of integers and alphabet into new equations and sonnets, every day being a schoolhouse door.

I cannot begin to envision the medium Hilary will use to connect with her own child, when she becomes the parent at the schoolhouse door. But I trust the messages we’ve shared will endure, and be shared again with the next generation.


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