by Andrea Breemer Frantz
A semester isn’t a lifetime.
But it is enough time to change a life.
I put my only child on a plane this morning—the first of three flights that will take her to Kigali, Rwanda, where she plans to study community building and social justice issues for a semester.
Hannah is 20, an English major at a small, liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, and among the more mature, independent women of her age I’ve known. And yes, I readily admit I’m not objective on that issue.
Nonetheless, my equilibrium felt decidedly off when I watched her disappear into the crowd beyond airport security this morning. Because for me it’s really not only ‘beyond airport security’ I’m grappling with.
Moments before airport security we faced “Betty-by-the-book,” an airline official who clearly loved mornings.
Betty: Do you have a Visa?
Hannah: The program officials told us we don’t need one.
Betty: Well, you do.
Hannah: [Produces a letter from the program to this end] I was told to show this if there was a question.
Betty: It’s a copy. It needs to be an original. I’m going to have to make a call.
Hannah: Will this make me late for my flight?
Betty: Let’s hope it doesn’t take them 20 minutes to answer.
Hannah: [Looks at me with worried eyes].
Me: It’ll be fine, honey. [Wondering if I sound convincing]
Betty: [Returns from phone call] Well, your bag is overweight. That’s going to cost $200 extra for an international flight.
And so it began.
Despite what they tell us about the magic of Labor Day weekend, this last week in August marks the end of summer for anyone with a child in school. I’m a professor at a small university near Pittsburgh, and yesterday I offered smiles and reassurances to parents and freshmen students alike as they unloaded cars and wandered the halls of my building looking for the bookstore.
“Are you leaving a son or a daughter here?” I asked a set of parents who shared my elevator late in the day.
“Our son,” the mother responded.
I nodded. “Well, I hope he has a great experience here,” I said.
There really isn’t anything to say to parents jettisoning their children into a world away from them that doesn’t sound trite. This is what parenting is. It’s about raising a human to adulthood–instilling ethics, independence, a sense of purpose, an ability to play well in the sandbox with others.
And when you’ve done that, you watch them walk away. Not forever, of course. But as I stood with my husband on the other side of security, watching Hannah move out of sight, I wondered why it was me who felt so much less secure.
So I understood those parents in the elevator and the way they sort of blankly nodded at me, knowing there wasn’t really much more to say. You’ll see our son more than we will even if it’s just in the cafeteria. The ball’s in your court, and you damned well better not drop it.
As a teacher, I’m acutely aware of my responsibilities. Yes, I coach students to the next level of professionalism. My journalism students need to know how to track, verify, and communicate a story to a variety of audiences and most of them do when they’re finished with one of my classes.
But I commit to being part of a young person’s development—the whole package—during their four formative years between 18 and 22. That means pushing them out of the comfort zone, but holding their hands through the discomfort. It means listening when the roommate invites a stranger home to the dorm room and locks my student out for the night. It means helping to define boundaries, both personal and otherwise. It means being aware of a whole lot of things their parents may never know.
I’m secure in the notion that I have a responsibility to those men and women in my classes. They’re adults, but not yet independent. Smart, even sometimes savvy, but naïve and narrow in their experiences of the world and people.
To those parents I spoke with while they watched nervously as RAs unloaded their daughter’s happy purple laundry basket and plastic milk crates filled with CDs from the packed minivan, a semester may well feel like a lifetime, despite the fact that we both know it’s not. We will blink and the fatigue of December will be on us.
But I also know that a lifetime can happen in the ensuing months before then. And I’m part of that. The ball’s in my court.
As I write, my daughter is three hours into the second leg of her journey. She’ll land in Brussels before venturing on to a country that in 1994 saw unspeakable misery.
When she was three years old she looked up and paid attention for a few key moments during the nightly news on television that she had mostly tuned out in favor of the toy she’d been playing with. “Mommy, what are those people doing?” she asked about the images of bodies floating down a river at the height of the Rwandan genocide.
The teacher in me would have used the opportunity to educate about the atrocities and human cost of hate. The mother in me couldn’t. I told her the people were swimming, and even at three, I’m pretty sure she knew I was lying.
I wonder about the teachers Hannah will have in Rwanda this semester. I feel confident they know that the semester is not a lifetime.
But I hope they also know it’s enough time to change her life.
And I’ll just wait here, this side of security.