A Household Word

College Bound and Gagged

We are at a university Open House, in an auditorium with dozens of other parents and their high school seniors. The college is hundreds of miles away from our home. It’s a beautiful campus in a quintessential college town with hip coffee shops, Thai restaurants and lots of kids who look like they stepped out of an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog.

A video flashes images of the football team, of wholesome looking co-eds playing Frisbee on the quad, doing community service with adorable orphans and scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef during a semester abroad.

Inspirational music plays as students talk about the caring faculty and members of the faculty rave about the quality of the students. The students are enthusiastic, sincere and properly diverse. The professors all seem intelligent, approachable and photogenic. I find myself digging through my purse looking for a tissue. Maybe the movie is doing its job, or perhaps I’m beginning to realize that my youngest is preparing to leave the nest.

The administrators running the orientation are young, funny and frank as they explain the services available to students: health care, birth control, help for students with eating disorders, psychological counseling, emergency pick up within a 15-mile radius of campus, mental health services, groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, a sexual assault office, 24-hour hot lines, substance abuse intervention and stress reduction classes. It’s enough to make a mother feel anxious. I glance around the room; some of the other parents also look stricken, but all the teenagers are slumped in their seats, completely untroubled by the pitfalls they might encounter during their college careers. Maybe they just aren’t listening. Maybe they’re all plugged into their iPods or maybe, like my son, they’re just masters of disguising their excitement and apprehension.

The dean of students talks about dorm life. Parents ask questions about security, laundry facilities and study hours. The kids are so quiet you can hear their eyes roll.

Packets are distributed with campus maps, windshield stickers and a housing form. There’s also a roommate compatibility questionnaire. “Pay attention to this sheet of paper,” the dean of students says as he waves the questionnaire. “This is the key to your happiness. Fill it out yourself  – unless you want to spend next year living with your mother.”

This gets my son’s attention and he hunches over the form with a college-issued pencil. I crane to read the form and can see that the first question asks students to rate their neat quotient from 1 (a neat freak) to 5 (a total slob). Okay, I imagine that Lewis will check somewhere in between – but closer to 5. (He checks 4). Other questions have to do with smoking, drinking, binge drinking, drug use, parties and sex. Yikes! I want to grab the form away from him.

1. I don’t smoke and won’t tolerate a roommate who does. Check! 2. Alcohol has never touched my lips and I want a roommate who feels the same. Check! 3. I need lots of sleep in a quiet room, far away from the distraction of girls, video games and beer pong. Check!

I worry that without supervision (OK, without me) Lewis will sleep through all his classes, never wash his underwear and fall in with the kids who checked “Yes! I’m here to party!” on the roommate compatibility form. I try to see what Lewis is checking off – but he covers the paper with his arm.

I have a feeling he won’t be rooming with his mom.

Carol is checking under her couch cushions for tuition money. Write to her at [email protected].