The Kids Are All Right

Back to School

Touring colleges with my mother – so I could help her decide which one to choose

When I was dropped off at college, I distinctly remember my father's envious look around my campus. He looked young and was mistaken for a transfer several times by freshmen. "I wish," was his response.

Neither of my parents were given the opportunity to go to college. Whereas they pushed me from a young age to explore my options, neither of their parents' gave them such guidance. As they were both working and married young, there was never the money or the impetus.

That is, until a few years ago, when my mother was laid off from the job she'd worked at for over twenty years. A sophomore at university by then, I was outraged for her. But she took it better than I think anyone has taken an unjust firing in the history of the world.

She looked at me with this bright grin on her face and said, "Honey, I'm going back to school."

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She was so excited to study. She lit up every time she brought up her potential majors or career paths. "I've always wanted to study genetics. Ooo, look at this, I'll be able to take advanced biology!"

My father threw his weight behind her, hiding his anxiety with a mountain of support. I decided to do the same.

At nineteen, the same age as my mother when she was getting married, I accompanied her on university tours so I could help her decide which one to choose. The tour guide would approach us, where we stood with a handful of high school students, and immediately start speaking to me.

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"No, no," I'd have to say, "she's the student."

And my mom would smile just at the sound of that word.

I used to think I had it rough, having to figure out college without much experience in the outside world. I grew up at a boarding school in the hills of Oregon and college was really my first expedition "off the hill." But working with my mother as she applied to schools was a major perspective shift for me. Sure, it requires some bravery to face the unknown as a 17-year-old, but to face this as a 42-year-old mother of three — now, that, that is real bravery.

We are talking about a woman, who spent ages 16 to 42 on a single hill on the countryside working at the high school she graduated from, suddenly plunged into a world of college applications, essays and homework. I helped her with it, having just gone through it myself, and we'd sit in a college café in my hometown and sip mochas and work on our laptops. Just two college girls.

She was accepted to every school she applied to. But that was just the easy part.

I didn't tell her this, but I was in awe. I would look at her and think, I couldn't do that. She worked part time, took care of my 6-year-old and 17-year-old brothers, the home, a myriad of family and health issues, and worked on playing catch up with everything she'd forgotten from high school, all while dealing with the same course load that I was.

I would proudly tell people when they asked what my parents do. "My mom is in college."

"Oh yeah, what's she majoring in?"

"She's still figuring it out," I'd say, just as proudly, because there was more courage in this than anything.

Today, my mother is two years away from her degree in biology from Pacific University, where she attends on several scholarships and works as an assistant in the biology lab. I have never seen her more exhausted or more happy.

"So now after I get my degree," she said the last time I saw her, "we just have to get your father to go next."

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