The problem with 'never'

Posted: Friday, November 14, 2008

In general, I resist the temptation to give unsolicited advice to other parents. For one thing, I don't like getting advice, especially when I haven't asked for it. And I imagine other parents respond to unsolicited advice about as well as my kids. As in "not."

But, if I could give one blanket piece of advice to parents, including myself, it would be: Never say never.

It was one of those cozy evenings over Christmas vacation. My husband and I were snug in bed, reading our new Christmas books. All was calm and bright.

Our son, a freshman in high school, wandered into our bedroom and hovered over us.

"Did you come to tuck us in?" I asked, smiling at the role reversal.

"I've been looking up schools on the Internet," he started, "and I found one I want to go to. In California."

"Wow! That's great," I said, so impressed and pleased that he was thinking ahead. "What college?"

"Not college, Mom. It's a boarding school."

Whoa, Nellie. How did we get from our Norman Rockwell Christmas scene to our 13-year-old son leaving home for boarding school? My impulse was to put my hands over my ears and sing, "La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la" to drown out his words.

At first my husband and I thought it was just one of those ideas that kids get. Like, "Hey, there's this new game called 'Guitar Hero' Can I get one?" or "I'd like to get a tattoo." And one learns to give the correct parental responses: In the first case, save your allowance. In the second, not a chance. But it quickly became apparent that this idea was in a completely different league.

Boarding school was one of my "nevers." Never, never, never could I send my child to a boarding school. Previous conversations came back to haunt me. There was the family in our mother/daughter book club that opted for boarding school when their daughter reached high school. My first thought? "Oh, so Juneau schools are good enough for our kids but not yours?"

And then, the son of some friends who live in rural Montana opted to attend a boarding school on the east coast. I listened to my friend talk about her son's desire to get away, to be in different environment and I tried to be supportive. But, to be honest, part of me was thinking, "How could you let him go? And miss out on all those precious years of his life? I could never do that."

The conflicts for me were largely emotional. But I had philosophical issues with the idea of boarding school as well. I am a supporter of public education, especially neighborhood and community-based schools. I have always opposed school vouchers. I'm even a little uneasy with the concept of charter schools. I also thought boarding schools were for the rich or for kids "in trouble." And here I was with a son who wanted to attend a boarding school.

My husband and I set up a series of obstacles that we hoped would act like barriers. The application, the letters of recommendation, the essay, the transcripts. Check, check, check. To our surprise, he plowed through them all. When our daughter had completed these steps in the college application process, I glowed with pride. But now, watching my son, I felt a growing sense of dread that he might actually get in.

The final step was an on-campus interview. As we approached the campus, nestled in the mountains of Southern California, I realized I had never seen a boarding school before. I had never set foot on one. This was completely new terrain. It was very much like visits we had made with our daughter to college campuses. Except it wasn't the same. He's just a kid, I kept telling myself. He's my youngest, the one standing between me and an empty nest. Even if he was ready, I wasn't.

Driving away from the campus after his interview, he was bubbling over with enthusiasm, confident that he had done well. He looked over at me and said, "You don't seem very excited for me, Mom."

What could I say?

Sending my child to boarding school was one of my "nevers." But I wasn't sending him - he was sending himself. He glowed when he received his acceptance letter. He is thriving in this new environment.

I never thought I could let go of my child. Wasn't I entitled to those high school years?. I never thought we could manage the cost of boarding school. I never thought it could actually feel like the right thing to do. I never thought he could learn to do his laundry.

But that's the thing about saying "never." Because you just never know when you might be wrong.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of life, work and family in Juneau.

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