At 8:30 last Saturday morning, my husband, daughter, and I were headed south on Highway 7 with Oxford, Mississippi in the rearview mirror. Our SUV was much lighter, having emptied the cargo into my son’s freshman dorm room at the University of Mississippi.
There were new things we left behind in Oxford. A microwave, an academic planner for a kid whose plans seem to change by the minute, and a clothes steamer my husband assures me will never see the light of day. There were old things we left behind. Favorite T-shirts purchased at San Antonio thrift stores and a laptop covered in stickers carefully selected and added over the last four years. The stickers provide a snapshot of Cooper’s teenage interests: skateboarding, favorite sports teams, music, and pop culture icons.
As he placed the laptop on his desk, I didn’t recognize it. Stickers that defined his boyhood passions were covered by a professional-looking, dark grey laptop case. I choked back a tear and turned my attention to transferring an impossible number of T-shirts into one drawer.
And as we were leaving Cooper behind in the city where his dad was born and at a university where his family history runs deep, we were also leaving him behind in the middle of a pandemic. Sadly, there isn’t a handbook for sending your child to college during a pandemic.
Like most parents who moved college freshmen into their dorms over the last few weeks, it’s been a tricky balance to focus on safety, while at the same time, maintaining some degree of normalcy. College campuses are uniquely built for socialization with student unions, fraternities, sororities, and countless student organizations. We have talked until we are blue in the face about making safe choices, reiterating that actions my son and his classmates take at the beginning of their freshman year will have significant consequences in just a few weeks.
He listened, nodded, and occasionally gave us a verbal affirmation. But here’s the thing about college: the moment your parents drive away, you become an instant adult. Becoming an instant adult in a time of indefinite uncertainty wasn’t exactly what I had planned for Cooper’s freshman year.
A host of brand new worries and what-ifs are top of mind. What if he gets COVID-19 and has to be quarantined? What if his freshman year goes to all-virtual learning? What if things go to hell in a handbasket, and we have to move him back in a month?
Unlike private schools, most public institutions do not have the financial resources to test all students for the virus prior to moving on campus. I would have felt much better had this been the case, but coronavirus testing was not one of the evaluation criteria we used during the college selection process. I give the University of Mississippi high marks for communication, with numerous Zoom meetings throughout the summer for incoming freshman and parents and a daily COVID-19 dashboard. All but two of Cooper’s classes are 100 percent virtual for the time being, a blessing and a curse. I want him to be safe, but I grieve for all he is missing.
After we finished moving into the dorm, my husband gently reminded me that I have no control over a pandemic or the University of Mississippi student body. “You have to let go,” he told me.
Still, I could provide some guidance to my son to help him succeed – pandemic or not – in college and beyond. I came up with five rules for college, which I shared with Cooper in the days leading up to the move.
- Assume everything you do in public is being recorded.
- Treat college like a job and strive for good grades.
- Make connections and get involved.
- Be a gentleman like you’ve been raised to be.
- Make good choices and stand up for justice at Ole Miss.
I asked him to memorize these five rules and, perhaps sensing my maternal vulnerability, he didn’t object.
I know there’s not much I can control in this moment, but I hope these five simple rules will help my son navigate college and get the most out of his experience. The last rule, especially, is one I hope he takes to heart. Not only are we in the middle of a public health crisis, we are in the middle of a racial justice crisis.
My father-in-law, Wiley Hunter Mock Jr., attended Ole Miss during the civil rights movement. On October 1, 1962, as a sophomore at Ole Miss, he stood on the steps leading to the Lyceum doors to protect James Meredith from rioters so Meredith could safely register for classes. Decades later, my son and his classmates have the opportunity to make true strides against the racial inequities that plague our country.
Four hours out of Oxford, I sent a text, asking Cooper to remember the five rules and letting him know I would stop nagging him about them. He responded with an abbreviated but accurate version of the rules. I shot him back a heart emoji and finally let the tears flow.
My husband was right about needing to let go, but it was so much harder than I ever imagined.
Disclosure: Angie Mock is a member of the San Antonio Report Board of Directors.