On Handing Off The Keys

September22/ 2010

This column has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with “that you-know-what” over at “you-know-where”.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow !!!

It was 7-8 years ago, maybe longer.  I received an e-mail from a BLS reader saying how much he had enjoyed a particular column and that he had become a regular reader.  He signed his name.  I recognized the name as a local businessman who had been in the news recently over a controversial real estate venture.  I replied “Are you THE ____ ____?”  “Yep, that’s me“.

There is an immediate kinship among those of us thrust onto the public stage who become targets for the “slings and arrows“.  I imagine it like a fraternity of those who circumnavigate the globe in bathtubs.

Yep, that’s me” has gone on to become Primary Archivest of The BobLeeSays Top Five Columns List …. and a dear friend.  We share many traits and opinions.  Not the least of which is that at our cores, when we can lay down our bloody broadswords and remove our chainmail …. at our core …. we are “pudding pops”.

Today, I’m pleased to share his recent thoughts upon his oldest son “going off to college”.  Many of you are Pudding Pops (and Pudding Moms, too).  You’ll get this.


On Handing off the Keys ….. This is the time of year when mothers cry at the kitchen sink. Fathers find they are no longer scheduling their days around attending high school sporting events.    If the nest isn’t empty yet, it’s emptier.  Kids are off to college, and for parents everywhere, their single most important function (at least in a healthy society) has reached an important milestone.

My wife and I took our oldest son  to college three weeks ago.  He is the happiest I have ever seen him.  His Mom and I feel like there is a void, but faith, text messaging and the occasional phone call are closing the void, and we approach our version of the new normal every day. I told my favorite sister in law about the process.   She thought writing it down was a good idea.  She’s usually right about those things, so here I am.

It started to hit me on Sunday morning. We would be taking him off to school on Wednesday.  It started like most of the 19 years’ worth of Sunday mornings prior to this one.  I woke up first, drank a pot of coffee on the back porch and read the ever shrinking Sunday paper.  My dogs like Sunday mornings.  My wife joined me for a while, but soon hustled away for the church choir’s warm up and review before services.  Before heading to the shower, I issued the first of many wake up calls to my three boys.

My oldest son is always the last to get up, and this Sunday was not an exception.  This day, he yelled down that he would have to catch up in a few minutes and to save him a place on the pew.  Minor irritation alighted- the constant companion to the parent of teenagers.

After the opening announcements and during the opening hymn (one of those insipid ones written in the 70’s as I recall), my son joined me and his two brothers on the pew.  He sang along with the congregation. He listened to our pastor’s sermon (not insipid, I might add).  Then it hit me.  Next Sunday he wouldn’t be on the pew next to me.  I am introduced to my new companions- lumpy throat and watery eyes.

That afternoon I was back on the porch.  The magnitude of the impending life change had taken a hold on me-about the same spot as that throat lump.  My best parenting always seems to come when I take some quiet time and pray for guidance and wisdom.  Isn’t it funny how that works? I think men are built to talk to their Father before offering advice to their sons.  After I was done, I called up to my son and asked him to join me.

Boys love cartoons. Being a former boy myself, I made sure my sons were introduced to the best of the genre.  Peanuts and Bugs Bunny were staples, though I grudgingly came to chuckle at The Simpsons and Sponge Bob Squarepants.  Today however was a day

Today was a day for the classics.

for the classics.  I began my talk by reminding him of the scenes in The Great Pumpkin when the adults spoke.  No words, just a constant wah-wah-wah sound from a horn of some kind.  I told him I was sure that was what I usually sounded like to him.  Droning on about advice, and nagging about homework and organization and grades and opportunity and responsibility and… You get the picture.

That day’s conversation was different.  I reserved the right to nag and advise.  I am a father after all, and that’s part of the job description.  That day I told him how proud I was of the man he had become.  As I had reflected in the church that morning, God let me see the big picture clearer than I had seen it before.  I saw the core of the man who had been shaped in the previous 19 years.  I also saw  so many of the things that irritated or worried me as more my problem and maybe the function of a world that increasingly saw boys doing what boys do as something to be corrected rather than nurtured.

Anyway, I told him that for all the things in his life that really mattered, I was proud of the man he had become. A true love for God, family and country.  A 250 pound mountain of a man who could be stopped dead in his tracks by a puppy or a little baby.  A friend who could be counted on.  A man whose word could be trusted.  The kind of man Tom Wolfe should have been pointing to when he coined the phrase “A Man in Full”.

I told him how proud I was of the choices he had made to this point in his life.  His choice in friends had been wise. His ACT scores belied his Grade Point Average (the modern educational establishment’s equivalent to the divining rod or the “witching stick”.)

Spiritually, his walk with the Lord was miles beyond where I had been at his age.  Admittedly, many of his choices had been shaped by circumstances his mother and I controlled.  His choices were limited by those circumstances.  Those limits were, to a large extent, about to be removed.  In a very real sense, his mother and I were handing over the keys to his life, and I wanted him to know he had everything he needed to take the wheel, drive, and thrive.

I told him that in any setting of 16,000 people aged 18 to mid 20’s, he was going to see and meet one of everything.  Every fetching trait and dysfunction known to the human species would be there on display. He has a front row seat.  I assured him that whatever the appearances- from the geekiest kid, to the most arrogant “gift” to humanity-his fellow travelers all shared the same sense of trepidation he was surely going through.

I told him he would see stunning achievement and gut wrenching failure. Some would stumble while others soared.  I told him he wanted to soar.  He is soaring.  When asked, my son told his roommate that he chose not to drink until it was legal.  I am not sure I had that courage at his age.

The daunting thing about college is the sense of the unknown.  The exhilarating part is not being known.  By that, I mean everyone starts with a mostly clean slate.  You may have some high school classmates at college with you, but for the most part, you have the power to change how people perceive you. I told my son no one would ever ask him again about high school grades.  They will ask about college grades-at least for a while.

Woody Allen said “80% of success in life is showing up.”  Personally, Woody Allen doesn’t strike me as someone I want my son taking life advice from, but he has a point.  I told my son that if he simply went to all his classes, took notes, and kept up with his assignments, he would be ahead of 75% of his classmates.  I also told him that the world worked on calendars and contact managers and that if he would get used to using them while he was in college, he’d find himself advancing further still.  I bought him the latest version of Microsoft Office and wondered whether he would use it.

Contrary to perception, there is nothing universally difficult or even enlightening about the bulk of higher education.  It can be.  It should be. It’s all a matter of a student choosing what kind of educational consumer he or she will be.  Most universities have professors that can truly inspire and shape minds.  Most also have professors who couldn’t function in any other setting where they truly had to communicate or defend positions.

Sometimes perception and reality don’t jibe. That’s where education begins.  Literature and colloquial common sense are filled with examples of wisdom beginning when you start to look beyond the stampeding crowd.  From peeking behind the curtain at the little man pulling the levers that make the Wizard of Oz roar, to the little boy with the courage to tell the crowd the emperor had no clothes, we know Truth is sometimes different than polling data.

There’s an old southern (if slightly vulgar) saying that speaks to distinguishing between perception and reality.  “Don’t pee on my leg and try and tell me it’s raining.”   My children have been taught that when they can discern Truth from the static of the modern world, I will have considered my job as a parent well done.  So far, so good.

There is something about a young man leaving the nest that frees him to take advice he may have chafed at in the past.  I called my son one afternoon a few weeks ago.  It was Friday afternoon, about 5 o’clock.  I asked him what he was doing.  He said, “Working on my calendar.”

I am blessed.


“Yep, that’s my friend” …. Neal Coker.

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