Our oldest son goes off to college in less than two weeks. Like so many of his friends, he is eager to go. He's ready to escape the bonds and bounds of home.
He'll be transitioning from a small southern urban setting of fewer than 100,000 people to our nation's largest city. He has fervent dreams of excitement, glory, fame, and success.
I wish him all those and more. Mostly, I wish him an abiding sense of peace with who he is, healthy anticipation of who he will become, and an honest respect for who he has been.
I've seen him perform with some amazingly talented friends in musicals and dance recitals. I will miss those performances with an aching joy only the parent of a performer can appreciate.
I would offer him some great words of advice and wisdom as he sets off for New York, though I doubt he will take them seriously, provided I could come up with some. After all, like most dads it seems, I'm just the stuffy old guy who drives and cooks on occasion.
But if I could offer any hint of suggestion to my son's generation as they wade into their lives after high school, I would say this:
Remember that your friends and family are the greatest life supporters you will find. Stay in touch. If you ever want to look over your shoulder to check your bearings, we're here. That tiny point of light beaming from the shrinking horizon is the love we have for you. It will always be here, shining through the darkest night and most threatening weather.
...regardless of how badly you want to pack your things and leave TODAY. Whether you're having a bad day, have the flu, flunk a test, or have an argument with a friend, there will come a time when you catch yourself thinking you should never have made the trip to wherever you are. That's okay. When that moment comes, call home. Send a text, tweet, or email. It's just a sign that perhaps home means more to you than you ever imagined. You will have just learned something about yourself and that's what college is all about.
College is really designed so that you learn as much, or more, about yourself than whatever subject you're studying.
If you're an English major, take an accounting course. Majoring in Architecture? Audit a dance class. Spread your wings, your mind, your soul. You will NEVER again have the opportunities for growth, development, exploration, and introspection that you will experience in the next four years. Do the world, and yourself, a big favor: make the most of them.
You will meet some of the most amazing people on the planet this fall. They will be your classmates and roommates. You will meet some startlingly strange folks and people you would have to trip over to know they were in the room. ALL of them can, and will, teach you something. Roommates do not have to be friends. It helps. But it's not mandatory.
I was lucky enough to be active in theatre, the school newspaper, the radio station, and fulfilling work-study duties in the college public relations department within the first month of classes. I had a great childhood growing up as a country boy far from everything. I had an even greater college experience because I tried almost everything available to me.
There will be great opportunities you should seize with both hands so you can squeeze out every advantage you can. There will also be opportunities you should shun with every fiber of your being. Free your mind and your soul, but don't lose your head or your good sense just to fit in with what someone else says you should become.
When you were in high school, you were probably just about the best in school at what you're good at. In college, EVERYONE in your field will be good at what you're good at. Whether you're moving up to a major university or a small private school, you will have levels of competition you have never experienced. Be ready. Be strong. Learn from it. This is the time to learn how to handle rejection and defeat. Success doesn't come from never losing. It comes from never stopping. As our good friend Winston said, "Never, never, never, never give up."
Don't worry about making your mom and dad proud. We were proud enough to pop when you came home from preschool with your first smiley-face sticker. I'm sure we still have some of your gold stars from kindergarten, too. Every time you walked out on stage, or stepped on the playing field, or tuned your instrument, or aced a test, or helped a friend or stranger when they needed it, we were prouder of you than we believed possible.
We always will be.
Now is the time to begin the process of making yourself proud. Step out in faith and with courage and do things that 10, 25, even 50 years from now, you can look back and say, "I'm glad I did that." You don't have to invent the better mousetrap or a longer-lasting lightbulb or cure a disease no one can pronounce. Just put a smile in someone's heart, a warm feeling in their soul, and make their world, and yours, a calmer, safer, more wonderful place to live. Believe it or not, most days, you can do that with a kind word and a hug.
Attack life with all your heart, mind, soul, and spirit. The story is told by a former major league baseball player that his first at-bat was against Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, the all-time leader in strikeouts. The rookie stepped to his manager and asked, "You have any advice for me?" The manager replied, "Yeah. Swing hard in case you hit it."
Go hit a home run. Mom and I will be cheering from the stands.