The Perils Of Living In A College Town

by Ann Cinzar
Originally Published: 
A semi-aerial view of Madison, Wisconsin buildings, a college town

It was moving day in the university town where I live. Parents from across the country filed into the city to pick up their kids and accompany them back home for the summer. Cube vans lined the streets. Restaurants were filled with parents buying their children a decent sit-down meal.

I went into a bakery downtown to buy some cookies. The cookies were not for me, of course. I suppose it was my attempt to assure the cashier of this fact that got me into trouble. “I’m such a good mom for buying my kids cookies,” I said.

She looked at me and smiled. “Oh, that’s so nice. Are you moving your child off of campus?”

I stared back at her. What? Did she really think I was old enough to have college-aged kids? Short of never returning to said bakery again, there was nothing I could do. Except, of course, rush to the car and examine myself in the rearview mirror. It was hard to tell, what with the limited view offered by the tiny mirror and my head squashed up close to it. I considered: I was dressed OK, my hair was decent, I applied moisturizer that morning. I didn’t look that old, did I? Wait. Was that a new wrinkle?

Up until a few years ago, I worked at the university. Walking through campus, I never felt that different from the students I passed. It hadn’t been that long since I was a student walking amongst the ivy myself. I blended in with all the other co-eds. I told my husband, “I’m hip. I’m cool. I totally pass for a student.” (Don’t worry; I know what you’re thinking. Saying I am hip and cool renders me not so.)

My husband was less gentle. “You’re deluded,” he answered.

Living in a college town poses a number of paradoxes. On the one hand, being near young kids lets you take the occasional sip from their fountain of youth. College kids are the ultimate arbiter of cool, so it’s easy to stay abreast of the latest trends in music, clothes, smart phone apps. You feel you are on the cutting edge. On the other hand, each autumn bears witness to fresh faces—faces which seem to get younger and younger. These students no longer look like young adults: They look like children. I swear half of them still have braces on.

Yet, while the students keep getting younger and younger, I haven’t aged at all. On some intellectual level, I know this can’t be true—I have a degree, after all. But physical proximity perpetuates the illusion that you aren’t that far removed, metaphysically. You still know what’s current, you look current, you feel current. You haven’t changed a bit.

Until a cashier asks you if you’re their mom.

The first of our friends’ children is off to college next fall. How did our friends’ kids get that old? It’s true they had kids before most of were in serious relationships, let alone married. It still doesn’t seem possible, though. Didn’t we just graduate ourselves?

My kids are still young. Yet, we are at the stage where our children are closer to going away to school than we are from having completed it. We are old enough to have friends who are professors. Our friends—the ones who skipped class or threw back drinks in the campus pub with us—are now the people who give the lectures and set the class syllabus.

A huge cognitive dissonance (a term I learned in school) is inherent in these realizations. How to manage this disconnect between how old I am and how old I feel is one thing that isn’t taught. Ironically, the only thing that helps you learn that lesson is time—and the occasional look at yourself under the harsh and unforgiving glow of fluorescent lights.

I’ve often thought about pursuing another degree. In what might be mistaken for the ultimate in helicopter parenting masked as self-improvement, I think about going back to college when my children enter. Maybe we could be in some of the same classes, walk across campus together, share the occasional lunch. I’m sure they’d love that. After all, I’m hip and cool, right? Or at least I bring the cookies.

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