Of Zip-Strips, Xenophobia and College Move-In Day


A confession: I am dealing with my anxiety about my ever-loving, blue-eyed firstborn’s departure for college by making frequent visits to the parents’ Facebook page set up for his university class.

All my mixed feelings, all my joy at watching him spread his wings, my anguish over not being able to buffer the world’s harsh shoals for him and my sadness at not having him plop his fanny down on the couch to show me something side-splitting on his phone—I’m channeling all of it into a blizzard of judgyness directed at strangers.

These poor kids—they think they’re striking out on their own!

My favorite is the mother who wants us all to buy zip-strips because she (mistakenly) believes they are the same thing as surge protectors and somehow thus safer than extension cords. She almost got away with making it out to be college policy.

Then there’s the parent whose student got a flat while riding their bike on campus. From halfway across the country, she wanted to know if anyone knew whether the school provides pumps.

There’s the mother who wants assistance shipping her macaroni-based “special salad”—which contains TWO JARS OF MAYO–to her son. And the mother “with food-handling training” who had some thoughts about the gambit.

And the endless, endless stream of posts about outfitting and arranging dorm rooms punctuated by tips on where to hide sweet notes to be found later.

You know what there isn’t? A single word questioning whether the young adults moving into those overstuffed dorms are academically prepared to handle their new intellectual lives. Nor any discussion about how students with varying identities will go forth creating community.

It’s blindingly white, middle- and upper-middle-class and bereft of introspection. No one has said anything remotely bigoted but it’s clear we all fear “the other.”

I can’t imagine how a student who is the first in their family to attend college finds the resilience to flourish there. Or how a parent who came to this country as a refugee finds a kindred spirit among the mothers debating the utility of the Bed Bath and Beyond dorm-supply registry.

It reminds me so much of having an infant. Of wanting the kinship of other new parents yet realizing I maybe didn’t really want their opinions about my values. Of being fixated on the things I could control—all of them purchasable, probably not coincidentally—and not on the existential terror of loving someone more than myself in a world where tragedy and cruelty lurks.

Which is followed by preschool, and kindergarten and so on and so on to high school, fearing (secretly or openly) the whole time that other people’s children are going to mess it up for our own. That what happens in that other house will become the prevailing drama in our own living room.

Of course, all of this is happening against the backdrop of Charlottesville, which makes the zip-strip a metaphor for this precarious moment–with the other guy’s recklessness posing a danger to our own innocents. We no longer believe sending our children into the public square is in their best interest.

I mean, if we ever did. The wealthy white nature of the attempts to parent from afar are a powerful reminder that college not long ago was hella elite.

My paternal grandparents were physical laborers who at first resisted a high school teacher’s insistence that they let my dad go to college. Once they got over wondering what made him want better than them, they dug in and pulled second and third shifts to make it happen.

No such drama accompanied my own decision to go to college, which was hardly a given, but I had a Pell Grant and so did most of my classmates. We were almost all white. By contrast my son has already figured out that his hall-mates include a transgender person of color.

Surely you saw this spring’s headlines about the thoroughly un-democratizing nature of higher ed today, in which it was revealed that the nation’s elite institutions enroll more students from the 1 percent than from the bottom 60 percent of the population?

We are so terrified of the people our kids are going to encounter out there, beyond our cul-de-sacs. And so thinly committed to the notion that we all have a stake in ensuring all young people are prepared to participate in the marketplace of ideas that, theoretically anyhow, we believe is foundational to our democracy.

I had an argument about college with my son a couple of weeks ago that I won’t describe here, because Facebook hysteria notwithstanding, I’m determined to try to let this be his experience. Suffice to say, the error was all mine.

I freaked out over the notion that he was going to be immersed in a community where not everyone shares my values. As if that hasn’t been the case for the last 18 years, and as if my son’s values aren’t often more laudable than mine.

Me, with my house stuffed to the rafters with cheap extension cords. I was pretty sure it was going to be the children of other people, with their objectionable beliefs, who set the fire. Fortunately, my kid chuckled at me as he went about doing his thing.

We have yet to buy a single thing for his dorm room. He’s absurdly competent and could truly care less. What, he says, can’t be fixed in 2017 by the judicious use of Amazon Prime?

Call me Pollyanna, but as we lurch toward drop-off day I find myself hoping that when we fast-forward a year, we Facebook mothers have given up the macaroni salad and the shower scuffs and are on fire about the vantages on the world our students have opened up for us.


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