Between the Lines / To thine own self be true
Published 5:20 pm, Thursday, September 2, 2010
Last year's high school seniors are starting to get ready to leave for college soon. It's a time for farewells to friends and family and nervous jitters about what is to come. Leaving is never easy, even in the best of times. Life is constant change, so we tend to cling to what is comfortable and familiar.
I don't remember the details of my own experience too clearly. I was the first in my family to go away to college and I was the least prepared to. The summer had passed too quickly and the very idea of college was overwhelming. I had an athletic scholarship from the only school that showed any interest in me, so that's where I went. I was shy and somewhat socially awkward and still considered myself more of an athlete than a scholar. I didn't know what to expect at all and began to dread the day I would have to leave the familiar environs of Old Town Road.
The Wallaces were an Irish working class family. We were simple people with no pretensions. My father's blue collar ethic was direct and to the point: show up on time and work hard.
People were still parochial and relatively innocent in those days. Most folks didn't travel too far from the little New England towns we lived in. The capitol city of Hartford seemed like a thousand miles away to me. I had no real college wardrobe or spending allowance to speak of. No radio, TV, stereo, hairdryer or matching comforter set, either. We packed a battered suitcase (the same one my mother and father used on their honeymoon) and my father's old Navy duffel bag with a few basics. I said goodbye to my brothers and sisters, and then we got into the station wagon my father borrowed from my Aunt Dolly. His own car wasn't reliable enough for such a long-distance trip.
I have taught high school for almost 40 years now, and one of the lessons I do every year with my seniors is Polonius's farewell speech to his son Laertes in the play Hamlet. It is a classic litany of advice from father to son as the boy embarks for school in Paris. Polonius's speech is filled with platitudes about how to behave yourself, how to dress and make an impression, how to choose friends and the like. The speech is so good that it is often quoted at commencements as the very soul of wisdom, especially the line, "And to thy own self be true." What people fail to mention is that the "wise" father is actually an utterly insincere and corrupt man who pays no attention to his own advice.
My father likewise imparted some last words of wisdom to me on the way up to Hartford. He could make a fancy speech at the drop of a hat, but he said some simple things about being my own man, staying tough, and honoring my family and my faith. I responded wordlessly, nodding my head and mumbling a few uh-huhs in reply. I suddenly felt like a stranger in the car, no longer a part of the family as I knew it. I hoped the ride would go on forever because I never wanted to get there. I guess I still was hoping for a reprieve before having to grow up.
When we pulled into the University of Hartford, the campus looked like a small city to me. There were students and their families milling about everywhere. I felt like I was caught in the middle of several lanes of rushing traffic. It was hard for me to introduce myself and make small talk in this swirling sea of young people. As long as I was with my parents, my garrulous father did all the talking. Finally, it was time say goodbye to Mom and Dad and head off to the auditorium with all the other freshmen. I'm sure my father noticed my reluctance to join them. He gently nudged me toward the line of kids filing into the big hall.
"Now we won't see you again until Thanksgiving. Don't be homesick. It's only the same old stuff around the house. Write to your mother and do your best..."
I hesitated before them as if they still might rescue me, but the curtain of separation had already fallen. Only a few times does the inevitable happen so definitively in life. We faced each other for a moment and then I turned away. It shocked me to feel hot tears stinging my eyes and I stifled a sob. How embarrassing it was to be crying at this moment! I wiped my eyes and took a deep breath. In that instant I knew I was changed forever. I was more truly alone than I had ever been.
I entered the auditorium and was handed a red beanie by a smiling, slightly smug upperclassman. I sat with a thousand other kids listening to the welcomes. So many seemed to know each other already and were brimming with high spirits and expectation.
I gradually could feel my feet touching ground again. I may have been easily rattled but I was my father's son after all, with a tough, resilient core. I might make life difficult for myself but I would always follow my own drummer.
As we left the hall a group of seniors were standing by the door making sure we still had our beanies on. Hatless, I walked past them and threw the silly thing into the nearest trash can.
Someone who noticed my little act of defiance shouted, "Hey! Who do you think you are?"
It was a good question, but I couldn't possibly have answered it. Not for a very long time.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.