I Don't Have To Live Vicariously Through My Daughter At College

by Amy McElroy
Originally Published: 

We listened to a lecture from an admissions officer about the variety of students at a particular institution, and how the diversity of backgrounds and interests creates an intense dynamic where students push one another to new heights. During the visit, I continually encouraged (read: nagged) my daughter to take advantage of all the amazing opportunities that college will afford her.

She’s looking primarily at small liberal arts colleges—the kind I attended too. So I’m constantly heralding their merits while she rolls her eyes. “Mom, you don’t have to sell me on liberal arts schools.”

I couldn’t wait for my daughter to experience all this and more—afternoons on the front quad, reading under trees, heady late-night debates on the bathroom floor or hollering over folk music.

As we walked across the campus and through the dorms, I couldn’t stop myself from pointing out flyers advertising glee clubs and dance competitions, things I know she’d love but doesn’t have time for in high school, as well as more liberal political clubs than her school offers back home.

“Yes, Mom. I see.” She gently swatted my hand away from the flyers for the hundredth time while the tour guide talked.

It’s really only the tiniest bit that I care what she does or doesn’t do in college. In the end, she’s a “doer” with values I admire, and I have no doubt she’ll choose amazing opportunities wherever she ends up.

Much more at hand are my own selfish pangs about how much I miss having all those choices at my fingertips, being part of the target audience for every flyer around me, saying, “Pick me! Pick me!”

After the tour, we rushed home quickly for my first rehearsal with a new choir. We stayed chatty in the car—fueled by Broadway tunes—about my daughter’s interest in the school’s prominent guest speakers, travel abroad programs and diverse student population. As I finally walked through the doors for choir practice, I whooshed into a culture shock of silver hair, sweater sets and polyester slacks. I couldn’t help but sigh inside. Old people, I thought. Where were the young fresh ideas, the idealism, the bantering and the…Oh wait! That was my daughter’s new life, not mine.

As we started singing, the natural pickup of quiet chatter began between phrases. I learned that the woman sitting next to me taught music at a nearby Christian school: enter the diversity of ideas and an impressive mastery of skills.

Quickly, I realized my hiatus from choral singing would require some relearning. I hadn’t sung in a choir consistently since high school. The thrill of voices encircled me, yet each phrase written in the music hit my brain slower than the last. The fact that, back in school, I hadn’t missed a day for eight years straight wasn’t helping me out much at first. The syncopated rhythms and changing time signatures made my head hurt like trigonometry. Counting to eight had kept me plenty busy in dance class.

After an hour, my eyes began to tire, struggling to see the music clearly through my contacts, squinting and holding the paper farther away until I thought my arms would fall off. I leaned closer to the singer on my right to hear her pitch.

My college days felt further away as the night wore on. Back then, each semester I pushed the limits of college credits, from philosophy, English, enough French to travel abroad, musical theater productions, dance classes and performances to history and just enough math and science to graduate. I wanted to major in “Life,” find the answers; I found myself a Jane-of-all-trades, who spent some years tutoring in the writing center and others as a resident assistant, helping students sort out their own struggles and plan events.

But when I take a good look at my life now, it doesn’t look so very different than it did back then. As a freelance writer and editor, I’m continually writing for a wide variety of publications and learning from new types of clients all the time. From time to time, I teach writing and have had the opportunity to direct, choreograph and act in community theater. I’m expanding my love of fitness instruction beyond yoga to senior aerobics and Zumba. I’ve worked as a political activist. I’m still majoring in Life, and I’ll always be a Jane-of-all-trades. I even managed a tiny solo in the choir performance by the end of the season. Maybe college is about learning what you love, and being an adult is remembering to look for the flyers, or making your own.

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