At one time, I’d looked forward to this day, believing it marked a moment that would at once fill me with pride, relief and gratification. My wife and I were, after all, moving our third and final child — our only son — into his dorm room to begin his freshman year in college.
Boy, was I wrong about how this feels.
As a father, I can appreciate finding myself in the midst of an age-old ritual: a father sending his son off into the world. It’s been the subject of stories, movies and studies — and part of human culture since we could draw on the walls of our caves.
And I can also count my blessings. He’s going off to an Ohio university where he joins his sister. And we have friends and family nearby should trouble arise.
So I don’t face the prospect other fathers have of sending him somewhere unknown, or farther away — or truly dangerous, like Afghanistan, a place to which a colleague’s son was sent by the Army earlier this year.
When the time comes for fathers to send off their sons, as we stand in an airport, train station, even in the lobby of a noisy dormitory, we’re determined to conjure those final, wise words. We recognize it as a moment to share one more of the lessons we’ve spent our son’s life trying to impart.
And a fear overtakes us, a fear that somehow we’ve left something out of his life; that he doesn’t know everything he needs to. We wonder if we’ve done our job, and we worry that he’s going to make a big mistake that we could help him avoid with just the right advice.
And we hope we can leave him with some guidance that sticks.
Of course, to a son, this seems like a final lecture in a long line of them. He has the benefit of feeling completely prepared, knowing little about what could come, the very worst of which we fathers can easily imagine. For a son, this moment is no time to show uncertainty or doubt, especially in front of these new faces.
And I remind myself, it’s no time for a father to make him feel like he’s still a little boy. He’s done every important thing right since I uprooted him and moved to Atlanta halfway through high school. (Well, except for that mailbox he hit with the car.)
So, I have these final pieces of advice, offered with confidence and pride:
• Successful people come in many forms, and their accomplishments are often portrayed as a result of pure talent or luck or even serendipity. But if you take time to examine their stories, you will almost always find tales of persistence. Persistence is one of life’s most valuable qualities. Figure out what’d you’d like to accomplish, work at it — and persist. You will be greeted with barriers, disruptions and doubters. But persistence usually wins out.
• You will find that the world demands that you evaluate people, deciding whether you want them as friends, partners and business associates. (The right word here is “judge” people, but somehow that’s not as acceptable a word as it used to be.) It’s among the most difficult things to do, especially in a changing world with technologies that encourage limited face-to-face interaction. It’s best to look for the good in all people, because that’s the only way to find it. And look beyond a person’s words. Their actions — the choices they make, the things they actually do — always show what’s most important about them.
• That Golden Rule, treating others as you’d like to be treated, really works. It’s never a mistake, and if you pay attention, you’ll be surprised by how many people can’t seem to remember it. The words “please” and “thank you” fall into the same category. Work to say them every day, and you’ll be amazed by the results.
• We hear a lot about integrity these days, but we see less and less of it and people seem unsure about what it is. It’s this: the little voice in your head that’s telling you the right thing to do under difficult circumstances. Good people listen to that little voice. Be that guy; it’s never a mistake.
Decades ago, when my parents left me at college, I’m sure my father must have had some concerns about me — he certainly deserved to have many.
But he never communicated anything but his confidence in me. His parting words: “Do your best.”
To my son, I say the same thing. And I know he will.