Growing up I never liked camp. The thought of it gave me anxiety. For me, I much preferred the comforts of home; the smells that emanated from my mom’s kitchen, the confines of my small but neat bedroom, the cynically pointed yet painfully honest comments that came from my dad after work, and just the general feeling of “home” I got breathing the air amongst the pines in my neighborhood. Camp seemed far too regimental for me. Forced camaraderie while canoeing down the Tippecanoe River, archery on the YMCA lawn, or “getting to know you” sessions with people that were way beyond my popularity league just felt awkward for me and beneath those that had to pretend they though Star Wars and Transformers were cool in my presence. I wasn’t an outgoing boy. I was shy, awkward, I was sick a lot, and I felt embarrassed even when I shouldn’t be. The camp life felt more like a lesson in humility than a life experience that helped me grow. Sitting and observing others swimming in the pool while you sat poolside because the doctors told my mom to never let me get water in my ears ears unless I wanted yet another surgery and weeks of antibiotics left me feeling like an outsider looking in.
Now hey, before you start thinking I was some freak I’d like you to know I wasn’t. I grew up and made friends. I was comfortable in my own skin(eventually.) I had friends that got me and the camp crowd was but a dusty old memory stored away for fun stories and anecdotes. But becoming an adult and a father I always saw my oldest being more like me than the kind that could adapt to new things. I should’ve known by the time she was 3 years old that she was nothing like me. That’s when we realized that our 3 year old daughter could read already. By 5 years old she was helping other kids in her kindergarten class with their work(and in turn helping out her teacher Mrs. Tinkle.) By second grade she’d been tested and accepted into the gifted and talented program with an 11th grade reading level and an IQ of 125. By the 6 grade she was being bussed to the middle school for math, then by the 8th grade she was being bussed to the high school for math. She was well above any academic levels she was supposed to have reached at any given age.
And yet, I thought she was just like me. Pfft.
It turns out, she’s nothing like her curmudgeonly father. The day of my back surgery my oldest daughter was accepted into the Indiana Academy of Math, Sciences, and Humanities. It’s a private high school for Juniors and Seniors that is located on the Ball State campus in Muncie, Indiana that only accepts 300 kids per year. My daughter was one of the first to be accepted. I woke up out of a drug-induced haze after surgery on March 31st to have the first thing said to me be “Claire got accepted into the academy!” It was a lot to compute in a druggy head space, and more so in pain, but it eventually sunk in and I was damn proud of my girl. She had started out not having any interest in the idea of the Academy. But after visiting in January her tune changed a bit. She eventually gave into the idea of heading south and living in a dorm with a stranger and getting ahead in life.
But still, in the back of my mind I always thought she’d change her mind and stay at home. Maybe it was more that I wished that she would change her mind. She did, actually. After I’d talked to her about everything she was leaving behind(friends, family, band, home), she’d told her mom that she didn’t think she wanted to go. Her mom was upset about that, as her mom was the one that had been planning on our oldest to go to the Academy since she was a toddler. So to have our daughter reject that dream after having it in her hands was a big blow. I was secretly happy about this, but I felt bad at how disappointed and heartbroken my wife was was about our daughter changing her mind about going so I talked to her about her decision. Had she told me she didn’t want to leave her friends and band and her life behind, that she was happy where she was I wouldn’t have batted an eye. Instead she told me she thought the work would be too hard. Whaaat?? Too hard??? I told her that was no reason to not give it a shot. Shockingly she listened to me and once again said she was in. Me, the guy that didn’t want her going in the first place just talked my oldest into going.
So on Wednesday we packed our van with my oldest’s clothes, books, computers, prized possessions and we made the trek two hours south to Muncie, Indiana and moved her into her dorm. I’m not going to say it was easy, but it went better than I expected. I didn’t think I’d get emotional, yet when my wife left with our younger daughter to go grab some lunch for us all it was just my oldest and I in her dorm putting things away. I set up her computer speakers and her microwave(things I could do that she couldn’t) and I felt that lump in my throat getting larger. I sat there in a chair running wires behind the desk and could feel the tears welling in my eyes. My little girl, my first born was no longer going to be in our basement sucking up Wi Fi watching Grey’s Anatomy, Rupaul’s Drag Race, and playing Sims on her laptop. There would be no 9:30pm trek upstairs asking if she could pop some popcorn, or requests for homemade mac and cheese. No more sleepovers or driving her to work or to a friend’s house. No more marching band competitions or Christmas concerts in the Performing Arts Center. All the things that may have seemed like annoyances are now these priceless moments that will no longer exist other than in my memory. “Keep it together you putz” I thought to myself as the vision became blurry and my voice became froggy. My wife and younger daughter arrived back with food and I headed to the bathroom. I kept it together. I pulled it back and I regained composure.
I’m so very proud of my oldest daughter. She is a lot like me. She’s shy and doesn’t like to be the center of attention. She’s not one to mingle with people she doesn’t know and likes the comfort of home and close friends. Yet despite this she’s removed herself out of her comfort zone for the betterment of her future. She’s looking at future gains instead of present losses. Fortunately she’s got plenty of her mom in her as well, otherwise who knows? She could’ve still been in that basement bedroom at 30 years old(probably not.)
Cautious Optimism…pensive forward motion.
It’s hard letting go. Damn. It’s hard to not be the overcautious parent in a situation like this. Hell, I was looking at her loft bed and was scared she would fall out of it. Christ, she’s 16 years old! Why would I be scared of that? I’ve always been the caretaker in the family. I’ve got the 6th sense. I tucked the sick kids in, put Mentholatum on their chests, dosed out the cold medicine, and bought the popscicles when needed. I would check their foreheads for fever in the middle of the night. This is what I did. I scoped out the situation, judged the parents of friends they were staying the night with, and I made sure they had a way to contact us in case of emergency. Letting her go at 16 is a painful process, but that fearless expression on her face and the playfulness she showed towards her younger sister that afternoon put me at ease before it was time to leave her with her future.
I’m good with where she’s at. I’m confident she’ll succeed like the beautiful young woman I know she is. Smart, funny, beautiful, and seemingly ready for the world.
And I’ve got everything we need to make some homemade mac and cheese when she’s ready for that first visit home.
Editor’s Note: So The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” meant something completely different to me at 18 when my then-girlfriend(now wife) left for college, than what it means to me now at 42 with my 16 year old daughter moving away to school. Christ, emotions.
I mean, maybe those parents did the best they could. Am I right?