I spend a lot of time with undergraduates. I teach them, study with them, ride the university van with them, and even workout with them. So, I can’t help but overhear their conversations. I can tell you that being older and an authority figure means that I am invisible. Even with all the intermingling, students don’t recognize my presence. I feel like a prop with the university as a backdrop. You might call me a “prof prop.”
I used to find being a prop off-putting. I took it as an affront to my personal dignity and worth as a teacher. If students weren’t able to recognize another human being that close to them, how could they possibly gain the wisdom and insight needed to become future leaders?
I imagined yelling at them in the words of Oliver North’s petulant defense attorney, Brendan Sullivan, who, you may recall, fired back at Sen. Daniel Inouye on live television during the Iran-Contra hearings, “Well, sir, I’m not a potted plant!” But then I would have had to explain Iran-Contra. Sometimes, it’s better to cut your losses and move on. Or, as in this case, blend into the background.
If you are the parent of an undergraduate, you may be surprised to learn that you are wrong about your son or daughter. Even though they are out on their own, they haven’t forgotten you. They spend a great deal of time talking about you. I hardly hear a conversation without a reference to dad, mom, and/or grandparents. “My dad did this,” “My mom said that,” “My grandma sent me a check,” “My brother is an idiot.”
You are their anchor, grounding them in the unfamiliar and often unsettling world of the university, even if all they do is complain about you, which doesn’t happen very often.
This reminds me of a colleague’s experience with a group of students she took on a research trip to Paris to study Gothic architecture. On their first break, she was dismayed to find that they had gone to a local McDonald’s for lunch. She realized only afterward why they had done it. The golden arches reminded them of home and comforted them in the disorienting world of ribbed vaults and flying buttresses.
So, be content knowing that your kids see you more as Ronald McDonald than Quasimodo, which means that the lessons you teach them–both intentional and unintentional–stay with them. They carry them to the ends of the earth in ways that only invisible people like me witness. That’s why I am telling you to relax. Take it easy. Your parenting has not been for naught, but also be aware of the importance of everything you say and do. I’m sure you know that, but it’s good to remember that you are imprinting life’s lessons on their souls as if in beeswax.
I am pleased to bear good tidings to you about your kids on Mother’s Day, but it is strange that our world is structured like this. We are segmented in ways that separate us and pull families apart. Some of this is due to natural processes of maturation. Some of it is not. For instance, it is neither normal nor healthy for people to be grouped according to age and then kept apart from other age groups. That may make sense for actuaries working in an insurance company, but not for achieving sound psychological and spiritual growth, to say nothing of civic health.
We are guilty of this in academia with the formation of cohorts, learning communities, specialized residence halls, and programs for age groups. This comes from our obsession with specialization and bureaucratization. I have yet to see a university budget that devotes more resources for teaching than administration. And the trend is in the wrong direction, with administrative expenses increasing, not decreasing. But guess who prepares the budget? Self interest abounds in leaps and bounds.
The fact that your sons and daughters take you with them to the gym and dining hall ought to be a balm for you. You are not irrelevant, resented, or unloved. If I had to put it in one word, I would say that your kids are proud of you. They’ll never say that to you, of course. They might not even recognize that that’s how they feel, but it’s the truth.
So, it turns out you are what they talk about.
Feature photo by Poodar Chu on Unsplash. Single student by Isabell Winter on Unsplash. Students talking by Trung Thanh on Unsplash. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance. Dedicated to all mothers: yesterday, today, and tomorrow.