Went with young Ken Mannion to an open house at the college he’s planning on attending this fall. Pretty little campus. The important thing is that Ken liked the look and feel of the place. He got to talk to several professors. One of them, a history professor, had a syllabus handy for a course he teaches on the exploration and settlement of the North Atlantic coast and Ken, whose favorite subject has always been history, was excited about that. And a communications professor he spoke with practically swooned at the sound of his voice. Ken has a beautiful voice, a deep, rich baritone. If he liked to sing, he’d be a second Robert Goulet. The professor oversees the campus radio station and she was ready to sign Ken up right there.
It was good to see him enjoying himself. Regular readers know that Ken hasn’t had an easy haul getting to this point. For the last four years, he’s been so focused on getting through high school one day at a time that he hadn’t been letting himself think much about college. By the way, he made the honor roll last quarter. Anyway, I was happy he was getting into it, but of course it’s all about me.
As I was trailing after Ken on the tour, chatting with the profs myself, listening to the student guides, peering into classrooms, reading the bulletin boards, picking up flyers and brochures that looked useful, a flood of memories came back, not just of my own college days, but of all my school days, from kindergarten through grad school. And they all led to one thought.
Did I do anything right?
I couldn’t think of a thing. It seemed to me that every move I made along the way was the wrong one, starting with hiding in the coat closet instead of joining in when we did square dancing in kindergarten. I was beating myself up for messing up kindergarten.
It got worse as the memories progressed. I don’t want to get into all the disastrous decisions I made in high school except to say they all didn’t involve girls, not even the most humiliating ones. As I remembered it, I applied to all the wrong colleges, wrote all the wrote things on my applications, asked all the wrong questions and took to heart all the wrong things when I visited campuses. In college, I took all the wrong courses, said nothing but the wrong thing to every professor, missed every opportunity I could have taken. You get the picture. By the time we were nearing the end of the tour, I was at the point where I had only one piece of advice to give Ken.
“Whatever I did, son,” I planned to say when I had the chance, “Do the opposite.”
But then one of the students leading the tour stopped us in our tracks. We were standing at the end of a path that led through a shady garden and opened on the campus green. The student gestured towards a stage out on the green.
“That’s where I’m going to be Saturday,” he told us proudly. “That’s where they’ll be handing me my diploma. I’m graduating.”
He paused while we clapped and cheered for him.
“Thank you. But what I want you to do is think about this. That’s where you’re going to be too. In a few years. You’ll be up there. And see this spot, where we’re standing. This is where you’ll be lining up in your cap and gown. And you know? You want to keep this in mind. Because there are going to be days. Like I had these days. When it won’t seem like it’s going to happen. When you don’t think you can do it. You have a hard test coming up. You’ve got all this work piling up. And when you have those days, I recommend you do what I did, and I had a lot of them. Find some spot on campus, like right here, and this is where I like to come, but some spot where you can be alone, and just think about the day when you’ll be up there, like I’m going to be. Finally!”
We clapped and cheered for him again, and then I heard a voice nearby, a deep, rich baritone---if Robert Goulet were alive, it could have been his voice---saying to the student, “That’s very good advice. You must have worked very hard. Congratulations.”
I looked around to see who was talking and it was this very tall, handsome, familiar-looking college kid.
Here’s the thing. For the last twelve years I’d been so focused on helping him get through school one day at a time that I’d never let myself think very much about college. When I did, it was mostly with terror and foreboding and a sense that time was going by way too fast and that it would run out before we could get done everything we needed to get done. I looked at Ken and I suddenly relaxed.
“I’m the father of a soon-to-be college student,” I said to myself, as if delivering the news. And for a second I was proud of myself. Then for a lot more than a second, for the rest of the night and continuing up through this moment, I was and am proud of him.
Young Ken Mannion having lunch in Union Square before going to see Double Falsehood at the Classic Stage Company. March 2011.