Off-to-college reflections

Published 3:56 pm Friday, September 5, 2008

Some of you — many of you, I hope — read a column on this page last Sunday written by 2008 Franklin High School graduate Michelle Stainback.

Michelle works at The Tidewater News part time, doing a variety of jobs, and doing them well. She’s also a very smart young woman who is experiencing a difficult time felt by many high school graduates when their friends go in different directions.

Distance, preoccupation with making new friends and simply moving on seem to derail the best of intentions expressed during the final days before high school graduation: vowing to stay in touch.

After Michelle’s column appeared, I was asked whether I could relate to the separation anxiety Michelle wrote about. Truth is, I remember that day driving to college as if it was yesterday, which is saying something, because that “yesterday” was more than 30 years ago.

My mother is — and always has been — quick to dispense advice, whether or not it was sought. But one piece of advice stuck, and has done so for those many years. She said, “The worst thing anyone did was schedule the freshman year of college after the senior year of high school.”

If that didn’t turn out to be true.

I remember driving with my parents in their 1969 Mercury Montego to the Shenandoah Valley. It was a 440-mile, eight-hour trip. Every half-hour or so, I remember hoping my parents would say, “Aw, it’s just a test. Come back home, stay with your girlfriend, drive our car, eat our food, and stay with us rent-free as long as you want.”

Somehow, that didn’t happen.

For years, high schoolers toil to find their way, to realize where they fit and with whom, or to develop the attitude and fortitude to go their own way. Regardless of the path, it’s a difficult course to follow.

For those going to college, or the workplace, or the military after high school, it doesn’t matter. Once teenagers reach their senior year and “arrive” as having achieved status, comfort, freedom, or simply reach a point where they get things figured out, the next level comes along and knocks them down a few rungs.

That’s how I felt about the whole post-high-school experience. I was driving; I was dating; I went to parties; I was shaving; my body filled out; I was feeling pretty good about things.

Then came college. BANG. Back to the bottom of the social food chain.

Like most of my classmates afloat in similarly lonely life rafts, we exchanged letters often in the first few weeks. The frequency of those letters dropped off as the weeks went by until there weren’t many at all.

But that’s where technological achievements made during one generation have had a huge impact.

For us to stay in touch in the mid-1970s, we could call (which required a relative ton of money) or write letters. That process required having an envelope and a stamp (very often supplied as parental gift bag, their hoping that most of those envelopes and stamps would arrive in their mailbox. Pity.) And the time to sit down and hand-write a letter.

Today, that process has been streamlined: cell phones with unlimited monthly rates. Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries — I don’t know; I don’t have any of them. E-mail. Text messaging.

But I’m guessing one thing: The staying-in-touch issue is easier these days, but I’ll bet that for Michelle and her friends the motivation to do so dissipates just as quickly as it did 30 years ago. More’s the pity.

Paul McFarlane is the Editor of The Tidewater News. His e-mail is