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Russell Frank: We Did It! We Graduated!

by on June 15, 2012 6:00 AM

Commentators made sport of Bill Clinton’s remarks at daughter Chelsea’s high school graduation in 1997.

“You are not the only graduates here today,” the president said. “Even though we're staying home, your parents are graduating, too.”

Typical narcissistic baby boomer, sneered his critics. Even when their kids should be the focal point, they turn the spotlight on themselves.

In defense of ol’ Bubba, who did devote at least some of his commencement speech to the usual “go-ye-forth” exhortations, graduation day is a big deal for us, the bearers and rearers of the kids in the caps and gowns.

Last Saturday’s State High rites felt particularly momentous to me and my family because this was the last of our three – the baby! -- who was processing across the platform at the Bryce Jordan Center.

I was especially glad that Ethan’s big sisters were on hand: In a sense, the whole family was graduating from the State College Area School District -- after 36 kid-years at Easterly Parkway, Mount Nittany and State High, including three years when we had one kid at each of the three schools.

That’s a lot of talent shows, concerts, plays, ballgames and back-to-school nights. Not to mention all the sack lunches, all the nagging about homework, and all the multiple wake-up attempts required to roust the sleepyheads from their beds.

The high school graduation of one’s youngest isn’t the end of parenting, of course. But it’s the end of what I think of as in-the-trenches parenting – the time when you’re directly involved in the daily care and feeding of children.

More accurately, it’s the beginning of the end. Earlier this week, for example, the new grad borrowed my car and was out past 11 the night before an early shift at work. I fretted and fumed just as much as I would have before they gave him his diploma.

And a couple of days ago in New York, I worried about my little Rosa going by herself from E. 118th Street to W. 20th Street via the No. 6, the Times Square shuttle and the No. 1 – until I reminded myself that little Rosa is 22 and perfectly capable of taking the subway by herself.

There’s no switch you can throw that will make you stop stressing out about your children’s health and safety when they turn 18 or 21 or 25 or 50. Even now, any time I give my dad a rundown of my comings, goings and doings, he’s sure to ask me if I’m getting enough rest. When my mother was alive, if I failed to stifle a cough during a recitation of my recent activities, she would become convinced that I was catching pneumonia.

Still, it’s different when your kids are no longer living under your roof. You hope they’re OK but you no longer have an active part to play in protecting them from harm.

At the beginning of every semester, when I give the students in my ethics class the assignment of keeping a log of all the lies they tell, a chunk of those lies is directed at their parents:

I told my mom that I went to all my classes this week when I actually didn’t.

My mom asked me what I did last night. I told her I spent the night relaxing and studying but in reality I had a few adult beverages.

I told my mom dad that I have been going to bed between 12 and 1 but it’s been more like 2 or 3.

My mom called and asked where my boyfriend slept and I told her he had slept on the floor, but he really slept in a bed, which also happened to be the one I was sleeping in.

At first, I was shocked by these entries – not by the party-animal behavior or by the lying to the students’ own dear, tuition-paying parents, but by their thinking their parents would actually believe such obvious nonsense.

But once I had my own kid in college, I got it. If we think about it for two seconds, we know our young scholars aren’t spending all their time in the library. But we prefer not to think about it. And as long as they’re not staggering into our houses at 4 a.m., we don’t have to.

Maybe this is what we’re celebrating on graduation day – the end of keeping tabs on our children’s whereabouts.

As they get into their teens they begin to think they’re old enough to do whatever they want. We can’t help noticing that they do not yet possess what we would call good judgment. So we set limits. They feel jailed. We feel like jailers. This is not the fun part of the parenting experience.

Thus, on graduation day, when our kid says, “I’m done!” we think, “You’re done? We’re done!”

Finally, parents and children are in perfect accord.

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Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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