It was about a year ago, following a college visit trip to Washington and Oregon, that my daughter said a profound thing, “$54,000 feels like a lot of money for “I think I want to study developing nations.” Grace went on, “How am I supposed to know, Mom? How can you know, if you’ve never been to one?”
It was three months ago when I said goodbye to that same developing girl on the curbside of Jet Blue departures at JFK. Tears escaped my eyes as she hugged me and then hoisted an enormous backpack on her shoulders and blithely announced, “See ya in 3 months.” And she was off: San Francisco to Tanzania to Kenya to Uganda to Zanzibar.
When I got home, I went to Grace’s room girded to take on her post packing tornado. But there were no remnants of a storm. Rather, the floor which had been covered for years with discarded clothes was bare, and drawers perpetually half-opened, spilling out tee-shirts, were closed. Pillows were neatly set atop a comforter which spent most of its life in a billowy ball. Shoes, sneakers, boots, and moccasins were lined up like soldiers. Jewelry hung from a metallic tree, and as I opened her closet door, which in the past was an invitation to horror, I marveled that before she left she gave hangers the respect they deserve.
On a chair in the corner were clothes she regularly snuck out of my closet. They were folded with precision.
My girl was more than ready to hop on that jet to spend three months in East Africa.
I adjusted to her absence and utilized Facebook to try and document her Gap Semester. I think it’s fair to say that Grace has never appeared so frequently on my Facebook feed. I have been careful to avoid editorial comment in my posts. I posted so that my friends, who have invested so much love in my child, could follow her travels; could taste a little of East Africa from afar.
I have something to say about pride and parenting and millennials.
Our children are the most celebrated generation in history. Social media has made it so. Or maybe it started with the bumper stickers in middle school, “My son/daughter is an honors student at…” Pretty quickly, though, Facebook turned up the volume. I chuckle every late August when the march of pictures of so many children appear, from pre-school to college, with the narrative. “So proud of …, first day of school.”
Wait, wut? We are proud that our kids hop on the bus, or drive a car, or get dropped off at the only job they actually have; being a student?
I know, I know… Our parents took our pictures, too, which found their way to photo albums or in frames set in built-in bookcases. They did not, however, make placards and march around the neighborhood announcing our every minor accomplishment. And I suppose, those posts we see today are as much for those grandparents, aunts, and uncles who live in other states.
I know that there is a reasonable, other side in all of this. But part of me just wants to scream, “Stop! What happens to them when the celebrations end; when they get a “c”, or don’t make the varsity, or curl into a ball with a broken heart, or meander down a dark path that breaks our hearts?”
Don’t get me wrong, I love to see those faces of innocence and wish I could suspend them in time. But, the world waits for them and if they disappoint, that same world will pounce and tsk and whisper not so sweet nothings in criticism. I know because I’ve lived it.
The students with whom I work through the college selection and application process are most often high achievers by any standard. The pendulum swings wide; they either believe they are indeed exceptional or, often, they think they are not quite good enough. After all, there is usually someone better. Anxiety rules the day in my business and it is most likely why I am still in business. I try to tamp down expectations in a viciously competitive college admission world for the over-confident and put a little wind in the sails of those who don’t quite believe. Anecdotally, the pendulum swing has widened in the last ten years. Bumper stickers and Facebook and parent’s watching not only every game but every practice?
I remember an old friend of mine shared this the first time we spoke about his daughter, “She lives in the rarified air of the top achievers. She amazes me.” She was a sophomore in high school. When she fell, the thud was deafening.
Pride in our children is essential, applying exceptionalism to them seems unfair.
Grace returns from East Africa tonight. From afar, it appears that the semester was everything she dreamed it would be
In my documentation of her experience, kind-hearted people have written, “You must be so proud of her.” It’s not really the right emotion for how I have felt these last three months. It hints that maybe I think she is exceptional.
She’s not. Grace has magnificent strengths and glaring weaknesses. She’s just a girl on the edge of becoming a woman. She’s a kid who thinks that maybe, just maybe, a three-month service program in Africa might help her figure out what her next step is. College this year felt like something through which she might meander. Last spring, as parents announced their children’s college decisions on Facebook, I asked Grace if I could post her decision for a Gap Year. She groaned and with a classic eye-roll said, “Fine, but I hate when people talk to me about it. They either think it’s heroic or I must not have gotten into college!”
And there it is in a nutshell: over the top praise or ‘gotcha’ cynicism.
Grace went to Africa because she has the privilege of financial comfort. She understands that the gains are more self-serving than world-changing. She knows that the benefits of privilege are often choice and options. Did my daughter change the world? Of course not, but if the world reached her and she gained perspectives which inform her toward genuine compassion and humility then the choice was right.
She wrote this in a piece about her experience:
“Regardless of what we think of as constraints in our life, hijab’s, poverty, misogyny, or even American excess, through education and the prompting to think deeply, we can navigate the world and find happiness in it. I have loved this opportunity to learn a global perspective on life. This year has taught me something that was elusive for me in high school; knowledge really is power, and whether in a classroom or through simple human interaction, being open to it is crucial to leading a fulfilled life.”
She comes home tonight. She will be exhausted, while I will be hungry for every detail. I suspect that, within hours, clothing will be strewn across her bedroom floor and her dirty dishes will once again sit in my sink.
Three months in Africa is a step toward exceptionalism and, yes, I am proud that Grace navigated the three months with apparent joy. True exceptionalism, however, takes a lifetime to achieve. My beautiful daughter is all wrapped up in human skin and her exceptionalism requires many more years to marinate.